This paper explores the circumstances and implications of an episode of accounting change arising from the extended use of accrual accounting within the Australian public sector. The matter under scrutiny is the financial reporting of the library collections of Australia’s public universities. Accounting standards applying within the Australian public sector may be interpreted as requiring such collections to be accounted for as assets in the statements of financial position of the entities that manage them. A survey reveals considerable diversity and subjectivity in the accounting practices adopted in seeking to satisfy this requirement. Consideration is given to possible explanations for the disorderly state of practice observed, and questions raised regarding the reliability and usefulness of the information reported. The financial reporting of library collections is depicted as a “chaotic margin” of accounting, and the technical propriety of attempting to express and account for these non-financial resources in financial terms is rendered problematic.
In this 'controversy' we challenge the unqualified application of full accrual accounting within the Australian public sector. In particular attention is directed to the recognition and valuation for financial reporting purposes of public sector resources that are of a non-financial nature, such as library and museum collections. Our main contention is that attempting to recognise such resources at monetary values within the financial reports of public sector organisations is a contrived, imprecise and inappropriate practice that threatens to occlude rather than enable the accountability of public sector institutions and their managers. Building from this accountability theme, we present perspectives on promoting accountability for the technical accounting practices which have been imposed within the public sector.