Good Practice Accounting and Reporting

Financial reporting can be seen simply as an "add-on" to an organisation's activities and management -- something rather dull to leave to the bookkeepers. It is easy for central bankers, preoccupied with technical challenges, to neglect the contribution financial reporting can make to operational and strategic management.

The tide of history is turning strongly against such neglect. "The general view in most countries is that the type of information published in the past (on government business enterprises) will not be adequate for users’ current requirements. External reports have generally concentrated on financial results rather than overall performance. More information is being demanded on how funds are spent, how better use can be made of resources, what is being achieved and how accountability mechanisms can be improved." (IFAC)


(This text was published in 2003 by Central Banking Publications as Chapter 2 of “Accounting Standards for Central Banks”. If you use or quote from this material please attribute it to the author and publisher.)

It is becoming essential for central bankers to embrace financial reporting as a key strategic and operational tool, and maximise its value. The development of financial reporting should be an integral part of a broader path for organisational evolution.

To meet accountability demands in ways that other parties understand but avoid imposition of inappropriate and unhelpful frameworks, central banks need to tailor traditional and modern techniques to their unique situation. This chapter aims to give central bank managers and finance staff practical guidance on developing and reporting management information. It first outlines context and key concepts, and then presents a good practice approach that is appropriate for central banks. The change process and future development directions are also considered.

The Reporting Requirement

“Money makes the world go round...”

In the commercial sector, the power of a single measure of success -- profit -- fuelled the development of financial accounting. Initially, financial accounting was a counting exercise that most people could readily understand -- goods and services were converted into money during and at the end of a business venture.

As business activity became more complex and sustained, financial accountants developed new techniques such as inventory valuation and asset depreciation. Today, the increasing technical complexity of financial accounting has made financial reporting a specialist process, with the resulting reports all too likely to overwhelm non-specialist audiences. The classic "agency problem" -- how to ensure managers act in the interests of owners? -- is more challenging than ever.

Management accounting developed much later. Larger organisations needed to measure their internal production processes and understand how profits were made. They developed systems and measures to coordinate decentralised activities and evaluate the performance of organisational units and managers. At first, management accounting systems relied heavily on financial accounting techniques such as inventory valuation.

More recently, competitive pressures and growth in service industries has sparked development of management accounting information quite different in nature to traditional financial accounting information. Those changes encompass both new methods of tracking income and expenditure (for example "activity based costing") and a wider reporting scope that includes non-financial information (for example the "balanced score card").

Public sector financial reporting followed a different path. The traditional focus was close control of activities and resources in a non-competitive environment. Financial reporting accordingly concentrated on the cash cost of inputs, distorting decision information and discouraging management flexibility.

As the scope and scale of government grew, those reporting limitations became more apparent. A new public sector management philosophy has emerged in which managers are given more freedom to choose how they attain their objectives. Commercial reporting practices such as accrual accounting have been adopted. But public sector reporting standards go well beyond commercial requirements. They require organisations to report extensive financial and non-financial information on activities undertaken, outputs generated and outcomes achieved.

Central banks are by nature a hybrid of the commercial and public sectors. Historically, their financial reporting has followed a commercial model whereby a financial "profit" is reported and a balance sheet is maintained. But in reality central banks have primarily public sector functions and generate revenue mainly from non-competitive monopoly activities.

Central banks have typically faced neither the pressures of a strong profit driver nor the close control demands of legislators. Managerially, it has been all too easy to see external disclosure as unhelpful and to take only limited interest in internal reporting. The development of financial reporting has not been a priority.

Technical issues played a limiting role also. Like all service companies, central banks lacked useful costing systems. "Managers knew neither the costs of the services they produced and delivered, nor the cost of serving their different types of customers." (Kaplan and Cooper) In an earlier age, that did not matter. But the pressures of competition and public sector accountability have forced service companies and government organisations to develop "...information to improve the quality, timeliness, and efficiency of the activities they perform, and to understand accurately the costs and profitability of their individual products, services, and customers." (Kaplan and Cooper)

Accountability and governance pressures have made "public relations" more important for all organisations. External stakeholders want more, and more timely, information about organisational performance. The directors and managers accountable for performance and risk management need correspondingly better internal information.

Central banks also face more specific spurs to improve their financial reporting:

  • Globalisation -- Business is now global in nature, particularly in financial services. External and internal audiences need reports and measures that they can compare across institutions and between countries.
  • Financial market development -- markets are continually devising new forms of activity that create new risks. This rapid evolution makes demands on central bank operations and supervision of the financial sector.
  • A changing resource base -- the clerical work that once characterised central bank operations has largely gone. Central banks need increasingly skilled people, operating sophisticated technology. How those resources are acquired, developed and managed is of growing importance.
  • Evolving roles -- central bank functions are changing. As a central bank develops, priorities for its delivery to stakeholders need to extend beyond effectiveness to efficiency and then to "exploration". Comprehensive management information and reporting is essential to manage change and maintain future relevance. (See other sources on this website)

In this context of past financial reporting underdevelopment and a host of new pressures, most central banks will have some "catching up" to do. The necessary changes are both technical and managerial in nature. Technically, the challenge is in fact not that great. Managerially, sponsorship is required.

“Literature was formerly an art and finance a trade: today it is the reverse.”

To be effective, any report must meet the information needs and wants of its target audience. Financial reporting has twin audiences with somewhat different needs.

External audiences -- "owners" and other stakeholders -- care most about what results have been achieved. Financial reporting should help external parties measure the performance of the organisation and its managers. Some external users will want simplicity and summarisation; others may want technical detail.

Internal audiences -- "managers" -- share the interests of external users in results achieved, but they also have additional perspectives. Managers must determine how to achieve results. To control and improve operations, they want timely information at various levels of detail. Managers at all levels have an incentive to define, measure and report performance in ways that demonstrate success, so care is needed to ensure that the management information system is a "fair game".

Central bank reporting should aim to meet the information needs and wants of both audiences. And as outlined earlier it must also apply the twin perspectives of the commercial and public sectors.

From a commercial perspective, central banks are financial institutions that undertake a narrow range of specialised operations. Central bank reporting already follows a commercial model, so individual central banks can draw on an extensive body of practices and standards readily adaptable to any specialist requirements. Apart from timing and the level of detail, much the same information is required for external accountability and for internal management. Any reporting uncertainties or controversies that do emerge, for example in accounting policies, are more likely to reflect internal concerns than any genuine technical problem.

From a public sector perspective, the challenges are likely to be far greater. Until recently few central banks did much to develop the output-based planning, budgeting and reporting systems needed to meet current and future reporting expectations. The step to producing comprehensive and detailed management information, usefully reported to external and internal audiences, is not small.

But here too the technical obstacles turn out to be relatively minor. Compared with most public sector organisations, central banks have abundant accounting skills and resources. They are already familiar with accrual accounting. And a central bank that actively anticipates accountability requirements can avoid the unhelpful complexity and prescription that other public sector organisations often face.

Conceptually and practically, commercial and public sector perspectives can be combined by treating the central bank as a business that performs a number of non-commercial tasks and (in most circumstances) does not pursue profitability. The financial reporting requirement for a central bank is then threefold:

  1. commercial accountability -- to report on overall results and commercial operations in ways that meet international standards and apply best professional practice>
  2. public sector accountability -- to identify functions, set objectives, and measure performance in ways that are meaningful and useful to others
  3. management reporting -- to monitor and create accountability for financial management and for the effectiveness and efficiency of services delivered

Commercial Accountability

“Profit is an opinion, cash is a fact”

The first limb of this threefold reporting requirement is discussed in other chapters. This author will only add a brief personal overview.

Most fundamental is the "outside in" principle. Rather than start from a standpoint of central bank uniqueness, it is more useful to plan reporting from an entirely commercial approach. The fact that a central bank does not usually pursue profit should make little difference to the numbers reported or their presentation.

The few circumstances where disclosure might be influenced by the unusual nature of central banking should be seen as exceptions to minimise, not reasons for departing from commercial or professional standards. For example:

  • Market operations can be accounted for commercially even though the purpose and results of those operations might not be commercial
  • Concerns about unrealised gains should be managed through dividend payment arrangements, not by departure from good reporting practice
  • Any limitation of disclosure for confidentiality reasons should be direct and explicit, not achieved indirectly through unorthodox accounting policies

An analogous principle applies to the evolution of accounting policy over time. Rather than start from "how we've always done it", decisions on accounting policies should consider where commercial reporting practices and international accounting standards are heading and what future requirements might be. A "cutting-edge" position will not always be appropriate but central banks should aim to be early adopters and not laggards. It is simply inadequate to account for currency purchases on a cash basis, fail to revalue properties, reject marking-to-market or misuse provisioning.

Meeting the varied information needs of specialist and non-specialist audiences poses no serious problem. Commercial reports are routinely designed for a range of users. A mix of narrative reports, high-level financial statements and extensive notes allows readers to absorb and use the report to suit their skills and interests.

Central banks can thus achieve a high standard of commercial reporting by applying an established body of reporting standards and practices. That process may however require more commercial skills, tools and experience the in the "back office". Any obsolescence in accounting skills and systems poses huge dangers not only to reporting quality but also to a central bank's operational, policy and regulatory effectiveness. Conversely maintaining skills and systems that match commercial norms should improve that broader effectiveness.

Public Sector Accountability

“Not everything that counts can be counted. And not everything that can be counted, counts.”

Public sector accountability poses more theoretical choices and also more practical difficulties. Inherently, achieving consistent and comparable reporting across many types of entity is far from easy. The drive for improved public sector reporting has thrown up a bewildering array of concepts, procedures and acronyms. There is much variation between countries, and a tendency to introduce new developments before old ones have been properly tested and bedded down. Reporting frameworks are sometimes skewed by political objectives.

This author believes that there is little to gain -- and much to lose -- by subsuming central bank reporting within generic frameworks or prescriptive requirements designed to serve other purposes. Central banks operate with considerable autonomy within distinctive statutory and institutional frameworks. It is simpler and more appropriate for them to individually define their reporting audiences and respond to the corresponding information requirements.

The direct audience for a central bank's external report is likely to be a government minister or national legislature. This direct audience represents a broader audience of citizens and taxpayers that (indirectly at least) fund the central bank's operations. The primary target audience can therefore be defined as the “interested layperson". That audience requires a non-specialist presentation, not reliant on prior knowledge of central banking.

In some central bank functions -- for example the management of a portfolio of foreign reserves -- financial results will play a major role in measuring performance. However even in that case non-financial measures of performance such as portfolio diversification and liquidity will be important. And for many central bank functions, service quality and other non-financial measures of performance will be far more important than cost or any income generated. Financial reporting should therefore be seen as part of a broader information process to measure, report and compare both benefit attained and cost incurred.

An international body outlines this reporting requirement for general-purpose financial reports:

"... 'coherence' should be the watchword... the constituent parts are well integrated in such a way that the links between them are explained clearly and cogently. This implies the need to relate the nature of the enterprise, its objectives and the context within which it operates to its financial statements and in turn to the performance indicators to be provided, for example:

  • this is who we are and what we are expected to do;
  • these are the constraints we face and the objectives we have set;
  • this is what happened, the problems that arose and what was achieved;
  • this is how performance compared with:
    • previous periods;
    • planned performance;
    • other similar organisations; and
  • these are the implications for the future." (IFAC )

Central banks may protest that their external reporting has always aimed to do that. In principle, that may be true. But in practice many central bank reports target specialist audiences (central banking peers or the financial services industry) or presume prior knowledge. Reporting is usually incomplete in scope -- for example few central banks disclose much about their future operating plans and budgets. Typically a lack of rigour in service definition and costing limits comparability with other central banks or other organisations. And some traditional content may now have little relevance -- for example in today's world a general and outdated commentary on the international economy is unlikely to add much value.

The international requirement quoted above demands that all public sector institutions -- not least relatively autonomous central banks -- apply a high degree of transparency to their planning and management processes. Traditions that reinforce exclusivity or limit communication are counter-productive. They are also unnecessary -- it is entirely feasible to develop a more open reporting style without compromising longer-term organisational or national interests.

Once again an "outside in" principle should be the starting point. For example, the annual report should consciously aim to answer simple questions that a hypothetical taxpayer knowing little about central banking might reasonably ask. Conversely information of marginal value or relevance should be omitted. Input from professional and lay readers should be used to evaluate current practices and identify information gaps. (Leadership in Central Banking on this Website has a simple checklist to evaluate and develop disclosure )

Management Reporting

Dictionary definitions of the word "manage" include:
“To bring about; succeed in accomplishing"
"To take charge or care of"
"To handle, direct, govern or control in action or use"

The above definitions illustrate that "management" has many facets. A management reporting system should be designed to help managers fulfill the roles they, and their organisation, aspire to.

From a commercial accountability perspective, the information needs of central bank managers will not differ greatly from those of external parties. Whatever its specific performance goals are, a commercial operation needs commercial management information. Managers will however require more detailed and timelier information, together with appropriate benchmarks or targets. They should also receive accurate signals about the costs of the resources they employ in operations.

From a public sector accountability perspective, financial information is likely to play a relatively minor role in performance reporting. For example the timeliness and accuracy of a central bank's economic forecasting are of far greater concern than its cost. Nevertheless, cost remains important. Yes, there is inherent difficulty in measuring the benefit attained from such services -- but optimising the benefit-cost ratio is easier once we know the answers to questions like:

  • "How much does our economic forecasting cost?"
  • "How does that cost compare with the costs of other things we do?"
  • "How is the size and composition of that cost changing over time?"
  • "How would changes to the way we prepare forecasts affect costs?"

The scope of this text does not extend to non-financial reporting and the broader performance management process, but a few general observations may be helpful:

  • Financial reporting should be an integral part of the broader task of measuring and reporting performance information. For the management information system to be a "fair game", independent and objective scorekeeping is needed. Financial management professionals can and should play an important (though not dominant) part in that broader process.
  • The "outside in" principle becomes even more important in non-financial performance information. For example measures of economic forecasting should include external relevance, ease-of-use and customer satisfaction as well as technical measures. A single set of measures can and should serve both external and internal perspectives.
  • What gets measured and rewarded gets managed. And conversely, what is not measured and rewarded is unlikely to receive much managerial attention. How effectively the management information system interacts with performance evaluation processes will largely determine its value.
  • Some services such as currency operations will be relatively easy to measure and report on; others such as monetary policy decisions will present greater challenges. But mysticism is misplaced -- any service is a sequence of business processes that can be better understood, measured and improved. The management information system should be comprehensive.
  • Some services -- for example aspects of banking supervision -- may display characteristics of the "peacetime army". But even when a capacity is not immediately needed, it remains important to monitor and report on its cost and potential performance.
  • Financial reporting can be independently audited; so can non-financial reporting. The techniques known as "performance audit" or "effectiveness audit" can play a key role in defining, measuring and improving performance. (In some countries such audits are being externally imposed.)
  • Benchmarking -- “the process of identifying, understanding, and adapting outstanding practices from within the same organisation or from other businesses to help improve performance” (Cook) -- need not be restricted to central banks. The operational, policy and regulatory services that central banks deliver can be usefully compared with similar business processes elsewhere.

A Good Practice Model

“An accountant is someone who knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing.”

The model presented here is however a simple and generic commercial model, applicable to any central bank and indeed to any service organisation. (Annual reports of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand provide a practical example of good practice in external reporting. Also see IMF and ICANZ)

As outlined earlier, central bank reporting should aim to explain to external stakeholders and to its managers (typical terminology added in brackets):

  • what the institution is there for and what it aims to achieve (“functions”, "strategic objectives" and “outcomes”)
  • the goods and services it delivered in the reporting period and will deliver in future periods ("plans", "goals", "key results" and “outputs”)
  • what resources were and will be consumed in delivering those goods and services, and how those resources are managed and maintained (“inputs”, "activities", "economy", "management accountabilities" and "throughput")
  • Information that helps readers evaluate strategic and operational performance and facilitates comparisons with other organisations ("effectiveness", "efficiency", "variances", "performance indicators", "performance measures" and "benchmarks")

All central banks classify their assets, liabilities, income and expenditure along two traditional dimensions:

  • Type: an account code such as interest, rent, salary or depreciation
  • location: a responsibility centre such as a department or unit

Externally, this traditional classification allows an organisation to report its overall financial result. Internally, it can support cost control on a responsibility centre basis. However this traditional classification cannot readily provide information on service cost. Its limitations are greatest where service delivery spans internal boundaries or includes a high proportion of indirect costs.

A new approach driven by activity based costing concepts is required to "... address an entirely different set of questions:

  1. What activities are being performed by the organisational resources?
  2. How much does it cost to perform organisational activities and business processes?
  3. Why does the organisation need to perform activities and business processes?
  4. How much of each activity is required for the organisation's products, services, and customers?" (Kaplan and Cooper)

To answer those questions, a central bank needs an additional dimension of classification. The first step is to define the functions of the central bank -- what it exists to do for its stakeholders. These functions should be easy to derive from statutory responsibilities and current activity. A list of between five and 15 functions is likely to emerge, such as the following:

  • issuance of currency
  • formulation of monetary policy
  • implementation of monetary policy
  • foreign exchange management
  • management of foreign reserves
  • supervision of financial institutions
  • etc

The list will vary from country to country. In developed economies, some former core functions may no longer reside with the central bank. In developing economies, the central bank may have additional non-core functions that reflect its critical mass of capable resources.

For costing and internal management purposes, indirect or support functions such as property management and computing services also need to be defined. However they should not be part of the list of functions that is externally reported.

Each function will have natural subdivisions. These are components of the overall function that are separately managed or might in principle be "contracted out" -- for example manufacture of currency, economic forecasting or management of a particular asset portfolio.

Five to ten components per function might typically be identified. Components for support and management activities should then be added to the list, creating a component list. Adding definitions, the list becomes a "dictionary" available to managers and staff. The dictionary of components will evolve over time in response to changing circumstances and information needs. The terminology for components -- "outputs", "products" or "activities" -- can be debated from various perspectives but in practice what label is applied matters little. (To avoid that debate, the treatment here deliberately uses the term components.)

What matters a lot is how components are defined. An extensive literature exists on criteria for defining components but the process and final result can and should be kept simple. (See IMF case study for early RBNZ examples) In effect the function-component framework is a simple "activity based costing" system, driven by service lines and individual services. It provides the information necessary for the "three broad classes of managerial decisions (in service companies):

  • managing products and customers
  • configuring the customer service delivery chain
  • budgeting the organisation’s supply of resources" (Kaplan and Cooper)

Externally, functions become the main reporting and accountability framework. Component-level information is available when required, for example to review functional scope or as a basis for cost recovery from external parties.

Some functions such as management of foreign reserves will be primarily commercial in nature. Others such as formulation of monetary policy will be conceptually similar to functions performed by government departments. Those distinctions will influence how performance is measured and reported within each function, but a common presentation can readily take the form of a "statement of cost of services" that gives the total income and cost of each function. To meet public sector requirements, actual income and cost should be compared with budgeted income and costs. Budgets for future periods should be added also, probably in a different location that outlines future objectives and intentions. (See RBNZ for examples)

Internally, functions and components provide the basis for a strategic, multi-year planning and budgeting process that can transcend "departmental" thinking. Plans and budgets can more easily work backwards from future expectations and goals, not incrementally from current activities and resources.

Components should not simply parallel managerial responsibility centres. In a modern service organisation, it is business processes that define how value is added. The activities within any single responsibility centre are likely to directly or indirectly serve numerous components; conversely the business processes required to deliver one component are likely to be distributed among several responsibility centres. The definition of functions and components should reflect that fundamental shift in thinking. The existence of some relatively compartmentalised services -- for example in currency processing -- should not be allowed to undermine the principles or process of defining functions and components. (In system terms, the functions/component dimension might in practice be achieved by extending the table of cost centres. Such system issues should however be regarded as a technical mechanism and not be allowed to cloud managerial understanding.)

Responsibility centres -- "departments" and other organisational units -- remain important to facilitate efficiency and control. They also provide a useful framework and source of expertise for cost-benefit decisions. However responsibility centres are only a subsidiary or intermediate step in the service costing process. (In a typical central bank, most responsibility centres will be cost centres and only a few will be profit centres.)

All income coded to an account type and a responsibility centre needs to be coded to functions and components. For income directly generated by particular services, this should be straightforward. However where income is generated from financial assets it will be necessary to ensure that income is attributed to the function that "owns" the assets. For example seigniorage income -- the income generated from assets that correspond to the central bank's interest-free liability for currency in circulation -- should be attributed to the currency function. This construction of "functional balance sheets" may pose some initial challenges but it will quickly become a routine behind-the-scenes accounting function. (Technically speaking the process is one of cross charging for capital and management services.) And since central bank income usually comes from just a few sources, reporting income at functional level will often suffice.

 Coding all costs to components is harder. Some costs can be directly assigned to particular components, especially in the more commercial operations. But more often a responsibility centre and the people working there are contributing to a number of components. And only a small portion of the cost incurred in service or management responsibility centres is likely to be directly assignable to components. So most responsibility centre costs -- "inputs" to business processes such as salaries, purchases or internal services -- will need to be allocated in some way, either directly across a number of components or indirectly via cost transfers to other responsibility centres. The diagram outlines the steps in this cost allocation process:


It is feasible to make cost allocation a technical accounting process, largely invisible to managers and staff. But that would be a missed opportunity.

Knowing how input costs are applied to components is essential to measuring and managing service performance. A manager who knows how much and what type of cost is incurred in his unit’s contribution to services can knowledgeably manage quality and productivity. Conversely someone with a component perspective can look across units and make informed judgments on how effectively and efficiently resources are being applied in overall delivery of that service. (At the Reserve Bank of New Zealand, particular functional responsibilities were assigned to each Governor while departments had primary, review or contributory roles in relation to functions. Component monitoring responsibilities were assigned to individual staff who were encouraged to review and question costs.)

A range of techniques will probably be needed to allocate production costs to components. In most cases personnel costs will be the largest input, making it essential to determine, and then allocate to components, the total remuneration of each employee. To achieve accurate allocations, some system of "time sheets" is likely to be required for senior staff at least. Time and cost reporting will also raise managerial and staff awareness of how much staff cost, how they are spending their time and what services they are contributing to. (As anyone who has undertaken a time management exercise will know, any individual’s subjective view of how his time is spent usually differs considerably from reality.) Occupancy, computer, telecommunication, management and other local overheads will also need to be allocated to components in appropriate ways.

Many overheads are however incurred outside production responsibility centres. In all organisations, the proportion of cost represented by direct labour on a product or service has fallen sharply. Conversely, indirect inputs and activities -- "overheads" such as computer services and human resources management -- comprise a large and growing proportion of costs. Some system of assigning service department costs to production centres and ultimately to services is thus a necessary first step in the overall cost allocation process. Furthermore, processes for charging the costs of internal services to "production" responsibility centres can be potent tools to make internal services more customer-focused and responsive.

The best method of charging for internal services should be determined pragmatically, applying criteria such as desired management behaviour, the controllability of usage and the practicality of charging. For example:

  • The reciprocal method allows for inter-charging between internal service units and generates the true economic cost of internal services. The true cost benchmark made be particularly helpful in buying or outsourcing decisions. Or a method that transfers and reports costs more simply might be preferred. (The reciprocal method eliminates inter-charging between service responsibility centres. It has replaced less accurate practices such as "step allocations". See Kaplan & Atkinson)
  • Activity-based costing concepts could be used to treat differently the service costs of directly supporting current operations and the service costs required to sustain support capacity over time. Alternatively that level of detail may not be relevant or, particularly at the outset.

However charges are calculated, cost awareness encourages the organisation and its managers to balance service costs against benefits and apply resources prudently. The underlying business concept of a supplier-customer relationship creates information and incentives to modify inappropriate behaviour. (In small organisations, the extra cost involved in calculating charges may not be justified. But even there increasing awareness of the cost of service and management activities is helpful.)

Ideally, the financial information generated from the three dimensions of type, location and component would be reported in combination with non-financial information. Indeed to some extent, particularly for quantitatively oriented services, the systems used for financial information can also record and report non-financial information. In other cases managers may need to develop their own monitoring systems for non-financial information. Whatever methods are used, external and internal audiences alike should be able to consider and manage performance in an informed manner, with an emphasis on the effectiveness and efficiency of service delivery to customers and stakeholders rather than organisational structure.

The external audience should in theory be concerned only with final service effectiveness and efficiency, and indifferent about input mix such as more technology spending versus more staff. This would eliminate the need to externally report traditional classifications such as "personnel" and "depreciation". However in practice traditional classifications by type add to the familiarity and comfort of readers and assist comparability with other organisations. A low-key presentation of traditional financial statements should therefore probably continue, accompanied by narrative that moves the reporting and accountability focus to outcomes achieved and the total cost of service performance.

The external audience should also in theory be indifferent about service and management functions and structures. Once again a general explanation will add interest and enhance accountability. However it would be entirely inappropriate to externally report financial information by responsibility centre -- "departments" are merely a mechanism managers create to maximise effectiveness and efficiency.

Data and information are not the same as knowledge. At all levels and for all audiences, the financial information that is produced should be presented in a way that emphasises relevance and understandability to the user. Fortunately, technology and system restrictions that once constrained reporting contend and format have largely disappeared. Continuous improvement that applies user feedback should help determine the combination of narrative, tabular and graphical reporting that maximises usefulness to the various reporting audiences

Achieving Good Practice

“If you don’t know where you’re going, any route will get you there”

I noted earlier that the development of financial reporting should be an integral part of broader organisational evolution and that change requires managerial sponsorship. Why are those statements important?

Before a central bank sets out to improve its financial reporting and management information, its leaders should be clear about why they are doing that. Their motivation need not -- indeed probably should not -- be purely altruistic. Vigorously adopting new values and welcoming scrutiny is in fact likely to pay high dividends in central bank independence, relevance and credibility. And self-managed change is always more palatable than imposed change.

"A central bank should be run like a business. The Governor's job as CEO is to bring together resources to fulfill an objective.... the services that (central banks) provide to the community have to be broken down into their different components, so that targets can be set, accountability achieved and cost effectiveness promoted. Only in this way can performance be objectively measured. There is a lot of resistance in central banks to the concept and practice of 'performance measurement'. This resistance is understandable but wrong." (Robert Pringle in the November 2002 issue of "Central Banking “)

This quotation summarises the leadership commitment that should inspire and inform efforts to improve management information. It also recognises that improved performance measurement is likely to involve cultural change.

All organisations are susceptible to varying degrees of vested interest and staff capture. Organisations facing little competition are particularly notorious for developing low-value structures and processes. No management information system, however good, will automatically improve service effectiveness and efficiency. To add value, information must lead to decisions. Many of those decisions will be challenging and some will probably be painful. Even those committed in principle to change are likely to falter at times. Strong leadership -- and leadership by example -- is an essential ingredient in successful cultural change.

Sponsors should also understand that an effective management information system relies upon priorities that reflect the order of those three words -- better management, served by better information that is generated by better systems. An approach driven mainly from the other end -- by systems and technical thinking -- will achieve comparatively little. So internal delegations should align management information and managerial responsibility. And technical features of the system should be designed around the signals and incentives that it seeks to generate.

Those sponsor issues define key management concepts for a program to improve financial reporting and information systems:

  • Treat the program as a journey and not a destination. View development as an evolutionary process that will with time and experience lead to an optimum system. Do not try to design the ultimate system at the outset.
  • Plan the program as a portfolio of projects, extending over several years and interacting with ongoing activity. Ensure individual projects and the program as a whole are visibly sponsored and effectively resourced.
  • Invest in management and staff participation and ownership. Send clear signals about intentions and requirements using the management processes of planning, budgeting and appraisal. For example a year of "zero-base" budgeting may be needed to change thinking.
  • In resourcing the program, balance institutional knowledge and refreshment of internal thinking. This may require "contracting in" or a move away from policies that presume lifetime career paths for generalist "central bankers".
  • Apply the materiality principle. A relatively simple system will deliver component costs that are materially accurate. More complex systems may not deliver much more accuracy, and at higher cost. Avoid unhelpful theory.
  • Accept the inherent imperfections of accounting and reporting systems. Use real-world information to improve real-world service performance and management. Remain practical and pragmatic.
  • Tackle "big rocks" first. For example, in most central banks personnel, occupancy, computing and telecommunication -- all relatively easy to track -- are likely to be the dominant cost elements. Reporting only at the function level may be an appropriate interim step on the way to full service reporting.
  • Use external disclosure, feedback and accountability to spur and showcase the development process. Develop one system that can be used for external and internal purposes. Avoid creating multiple systems or "add-ons".
  • Do not reinvent the wheel. All organisations have some unique features -- none are entirely unique. Central banks can learn not only from each other but also from a wide range of commercial and public sector organisations.
  • Resist pressure to "over-report". As any professional communicator knows, beyond a certain point more information becomes less knowledge. "Advanced" approaches to external public sector reporting may lead to counter-productive and over-detailed prescription. Internally, it may be better to creatively report by exception and focus attention on key issues.

These management concepts will in turn assist with technical decisions:

  • Central banks perform a limited number of functions and they are not usually manufacturers. A standard accounting package, perhaps supplemented by spreadsheet systems, should be all that is required. An elaborate or expensive new "enterprise resource planning" system should not be needed.
  • Definition of functions and components is not only the first step, but also the most vital. Comparability over time and credibility with managers will be hindered by major revisions later. All components, including internal service and management components, should be defined from a user perspective.
  • In principle the traditional classification process -- by type and location -- will continue unchanged. However in practice changes are likely to occur in the "chart of accounts" as more comprehensive financial reporting is developed and earlier ad hoc efforts to obtain better reporting becomes superfluous.
  • Funding cost is often a key cost to measure and report, particularly in relation to functional balance sheets. Opportunity costs may need to be calculated in some areas such as loans made at below-market interest rates or non-market rental rates. Pragmatic proxies for market prices should be applied.
  • Do not use technical practices to expediently circumvent management issues. For example avoid diverting costs into "overhead pools" for which no one feels accountable. Instead, disclose and explain the cost of any "corporate costs" unused capacity or special expenditure in budgets and reports.
  • Make business investment decisions through the budgeting process. Apply disciplines to identify expected service performance benefits and full costs for all ongoing expenditure and new projects, including both "hard" investments such as new equipment and "soft" investments such as staff training.
  • Look for ways to use the component dimension of the accounting system creatively to add extra value. For example the costs arising from supervision of individual financial institutions could be automatically captured through the use of "sub-components". Or management of an important project might benefit from having the project defined as a new component with a limited life.


Future Directions

“Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing”

Looking beyond current good practice, what might lie ahead? Commercial reporting emphasises short-term results, leaving capacity maintenance to managers. Public sector accountability frameworks by contrast often pay more explicit attention to stewardship and capacity maintenance. "We may distinguish four rather different managerial roles for performance measurement:

  • giving strategic direction
  • resource allocation
  • exercising control
  • encouraging learning" (Halachmi and Bouckaert)

Current management reporting emphasises the middle two roles, focusing on operational management and taking a diagnostic approach. Financial data and objective measures provide most of the information that is needed. The associated tools and techniques, while not necessarily familiar to central banks, are well developed.

By contrast, current management reporting does much less to support the first and last of those four managerial roles. The future challenge, for commercial and public sector organisations alike, will be to integrate information for operational management with information for strategic management.

Many business organisations are now developing more comprehensive reporting systems based on the concept of a more “balanced scorecard”. Conceptually they are seeking to generate and report information that is strategic, not diagnostic, in nature. The balanced scorecard usually includes four dimensions of information: financial, customer, business process and innovation/learning. Another more holistic approach focuses on "triple bottom-line" reports that detail how organisations measure and manage their social and environmental impacts.

The common thrust of such new approaches is to further broaden the scope of performance measurement and reporting. That could be said to diminish the importance of financial reporting. However it is more constructive to see these development directions as ways to extend the disciplines of financial reporting into new and more complex areas.

The good practice model is useful at all stages of central bank development. For a central bank in a developing country, concerned mainly with effectiveness, it can help create a focus on long-term outcomes and resourcing. For a central bank in a developed country, concerned with both effectiveness and efficiency, the main benefits may come from achieving a more businesslike culture. And in either case, it can help create new leadership opportunities.

Central banks have by nature always thought more strategically than most organisations, but they have tended to rely on centralised management to achieve their strategic intent. And while central banks recognise the need to build and maintain capacity, their traditional organisational structures and reporting systems are not well matched to measuring and managing the type of organisational learning that needs to occur in a dynamic, global and technological economy and society. The good practice model outlined in this chapter offers a platform from which central banks can not only usefully develop themselves, but also show leadership to others.

The good practice model also provides a starting point for efforts to fill a yawning void -- the lack of benchmarks for the central banking industry. These could be developed at component level, function level and even for the operation of entire central banks. Such benchmarks could bring central banking -- an esoteric and specialised service industry not based on competition -- the economic and managerial benefits that competition brings to other industries.



(ICANZ) Articles in "Accountants Journal" by John Mendzela, September-December 1991

(RBNZ) Reserve Bank of New Zealand Annual Reports 1990-2002

(IMF) "Improving the Management of a Central Bank -- A Case Study": John Mendzela, IMF Working Paper WP/94/37

Articles in "Central Banking" by John Mendzela, November 2002 and February 2003

(Cook) “Practical Benchmarking - A Manager’s guide to Creating Competitive Advantage" by Sarah Cook

(Halachmi and Bouckaert) "Organisational Performance and Measurement in the Public Sector -- Towards Service, Effort and Accomplishment Reporting": Edited by Arie Halachmi and Geert Bouckaert, Quorum Books 1996 (ISBN 0-89930-958-5)

(Kaplan and Cooper) "Cost & Effect -- Using Integrated Cost Systems to Drive Profitability and Performance": Robert S. Kaplan and Robin Cooper, Harvard Business School Press 1997 (ISBN 0-87584-788-9)

(Kaplan & Atkinson) "Advanced Management Accounting": Robert S. Kaplan and Anthony A. Atkinson, Prentice Hall 1998 (ISBN 0-13-262288-2)

"Public Sector Performance Measurement": papers from conference organised by Institute for International Research, Wellington New Zealand 1997

(IFAC) "Performance Reporting by Government Business Enterprises -- The Provision of Financial and Non-financial Performance Information in General Purpose Financial Reports": International Federation of Accountants Public Sector Committee 1996 (ISBN 1-887464-09-3)