May 2003

What does ‘public responsibility’ mean?

Many readers have written guest editorials during the past two years about why they would become a CPA again and about their perceptions of the issues that our profession and others have experienced in the past few years. Please continue to send us your submissions on these topics! Your perspectives and opinions on matters of public policy are important.

Here’s another guest editorial challenge for you: What does it mean in 2003 to say that CPAs have a responsibility to the public? How do you understand your responsibilities to the public in performing your job? What would be different about what you do if you did it without being a CPA? What would it be like if the client were “the public”?

A.A. Sommer, Jr., placed the responsibility of a professional in perspective for me one evening in 1972 just after he became an SEC commissioner. He gave a speech on the SEC and accounting issues, and I stayed afterwards to ask his advice about whether to pursue a career in law or in accounting. His response was: “The law is a noble profession. It’s my profession. The essence of law as a profession is to place the private interests of your clients above your own. There’s only one more noble profession. That’s accounting, because the essence of being a CPA is to place the public interest above any private interest.”

Sommer’s logic appealed to the youthful idealist in me, and I chose accounting as my profession. At the time, I felt little ambiguity about what he meant by the public interest. He seemed to know. I had a pretty good idea. We both thought it was valuable.

Times change, and the demands of the public interest change to reflect current conditions and events. It’s possible to act “professionally” and to render services with “professional” competence and “professional” skills without being organized as a profession, which historically requires a primary public-welfare goal rather than a private, wealth-generation goal. Does modern society need accountancy to be organized as a profession? Why? What is the compelling reason? What uniquely characterizes our duty to the public interest today? Or, would society be better served if accountancy functions were performed “professionally” by competent business people with no public responsibility?

Send me your perspectives and opinions at We like to have approximately 800 words for the back page. You don’t have to solve every problem or raise every question in those 800 words!

Robert H. Colson

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The CPA Journal is broadly recognized as an outstanding, technical-refereed publication aimed at public practitioners, management, educators, and other accounting professionals. It is edited by CPAs for CPAs. Our goal is to provide CPAs and other accounting professionals with the information and news to enable them to be successful accountants, managers, and executives in today's practice environments.

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