A Comparison of Government Accounting and Business Accounting

Source: James Chan, International Journal On Government Financial Management, Volume IX, Number 1, 2009

Business accounting has always been considered by some people to be the model for government accounting. In 1802, Thomas Jefferson, the author of the American Declaration of Independence, wished to “see the finances of the Union as clear and intelligible as a merchant’s book,…” In the 1970s, Arthur Andersen & Co., an innovative accounting firm, tried to realize Jefferson’s dream by challenging the U.S. Government itself to render its accounts according to Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP), since it required business firms to follow GAAP, apparently believing that business GAAP was applicable to the U.S. Government. In the 1980s, the late Professor Robert Anthony of Harvard University was similarly convinced that American state and local governments should use business accounting principles, so that it would not be necessary to have a separate Governmental Accounting Standards Board. (It fell on the author as a young academic in 1980 to inform the Financial Accounting Standards Board how government differed from business.) In the 1990s, opinion leaders from several countries adhering to the “business accounting for government” approach successfully elevated this viewpoint to the international level. International Public Sector Accounting Standards (IPSAS) patterned after international (business) accounting standards were developed, with exceptions only when government differed from business. The purpose of this brief essay is to answer three questions: What is so appealing about business accounting that it is urged upon government? How is government viewed differently by public budgeting specialists? When these two groups hold conflicting views on government financial presentation, how should those conflicts be resolved?

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