'New' accounting for water: lessons learnt in accountability, user engagement and innovation from the Australian experience
Global challenges associated with managing and reporting for natural resources have initiated the need for 'new accountings' for natural resources (Gray and Gray, 2011 p. 786). The System of Environmental-Economic Accounting (SEEA), the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) and International Integrated Reporting (IIR) are some such new accountings, representing recent developments in accounting for natural resources. These novel reporting methods reflect the conceptual innovation needed to solve the 'wicked problems' linked with natural resources (Bebbington, 2009 p. 190), via peer interaction needed to validate and advance knowledge (Funtowicz and Ravetz, 1993p. 763; Carolan, 2006). General Purpose Water Accounting (GPWA) is another novel reporting method, developed in Australia to account for water. It involves producing water reports in the financial accounting format, and considered as the 'marrying of the two disciplines; hydrology and water' (Slattery et al., 2012 p. 28).
Sustainable management of water has been a key issue discussed in Social and Environmental Accounting (SEA) research and has been recognised as one of the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (United Nations, 2015a). Previous literature on water reporting establishes that despite of the increasing number of disclosures, the quality of disclosures falls short of user expectations (Chauvey et al., 2015; Christ and Burritt, 2017a; McDonald-Kerr, 2017). In relation to reporting via GPWA, specific research calls have been made to identify users and their needs to further inform the GPWA process (Potter, 2007; Sofocleous, 2010; Tello et al., 2016). Australia has developed a Water Accounting Conceptual Framework (WACF) and the Australian Water Accounting Standards (AWAS) to guide the adoption of GPWA and it is critical to understand the user engagement in this process. The focus of this thesis is GPWA and the GRI, specifically the themes of user needs, innovation and transdisciplinary collaboration. The thesis, overall, is motivated by the need to examine whether the new forms of accounting such as GPWA and the GRI enhance the accounting and reporting for natural resources, and takes an integrated view on public and corporate water reporting on the basis of argument for 'shared action [on water] in the face of shared risks' (Newborne and Mason, 2012 p. 604).
The thesis collectively addresses a number of themes that contribute to policy and broader SEA research. A major implication is the need for engaging the broad range of users in developing and further informing new accountings. This is to enable the users the power to 'create change' (Tello et al., 2016 p. 17) and the preparers to 'learn and improve performance' (Bovens, 2010 p. 956). This is critical for GPWA, as it is an emerging science and there is a substantial investment of public money on producing the reports (Bureau of Meteorology, 2012). Preparers currently interact with a consistent network of users - i.e. government departments - but there is scope for a broader set of users to be heard and involved in decision making (Elkington, 1998a; Tilt, 2007; Hazelton, 2013; Rinaldi et al., 2014). Expanded external user participation would likely assist with developing a shared understanding and vocabulary, which in turn will help optimise the usage of critical resources due to clarity of terms, consistent with Pereira et al. (2012).
In terms of innovation, the thesis suggests that any innovation (in natural resource accounting) must not only complete the idea journey, but also repeat the journey, so that a learning spiral is created. The learning spiral enables the innovation to translate to practice, and subsequently reviewed and accepted by the wider society (Kolb and Kolb, 2009: Blindenbacher, 2010). In the case of GPWA, there was a relatively heavy involvement of financial accounting academics in the early development phase (see e.g. Lowe et al., 2006; Potter, 2007; Godfrey, 2011; Chalmers et al., 2012b;) but, going forward, a more balanced approach would be ideal, in which parties from science, policy and practice act as 'co-learners' (Roux et al., 2017 p. 712). The balanced approach aligns with the ideas of 'extended peer community' and 'interactive dialogue' (Funtowicz and Ravetz, 1993 p. 739 and 740) that are needed to manage uncertainty on complex issues involving water and human interaction. Such collaborative and iterative development would not only address the current limitations of GPWA (particularly its terminology) but also enable the adoption of further innovation by providing information relevant to GRI compliance.