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Accountability: building trust and ethics in the digital age

Author: Gavin Aspden, PwC Partner and Professional Development Head

Published: 05 Mar 2024

New technologies are a force for good – they fuel innovation, improve efficiencies, enhance communication, and increase productivity – but they also raise new challenges that can be harmful. We’ve witnessed in recent years how technology has had undesirable consequences, with data breaches and online surveillance resulting in widespread concerns over privacy, security, and the spread of disinformation. This has eroded trust in businesses and institutions, while simultaneously knocking the confidence of businesses to fully embrace technological change.

With the digital age raising new challenges that businesses must constantly wrestle with, how do they know if they are doing it right? Good regulation is difficult when we do not have clear norms, or when innovation is happening so quickly. A misjudged error could destroy a company’s reputation, or even put them at financial risk. To instil confidence, the decision-making process needs to be wrapped in a code of ethics to avoid potential harm - and companies will turn to chartered accountants to fulfil the role.

Ethical behaviour is vital to ensure compliance with the accountancy profession’s commitment to the public interest. The nature and complexity of what accountants do means their work has to be trusted to be of value. This skillset will be hugely valuable when navigating the digital age. As trusted advisors, chartered accountants can play a key role in helping businesses to adopt ethical practices with robust accountability frameworks, improving the reputation of the organisation and its bottom line.

This is increasingly relevant with the looming threat of data breaches. As technology becomes integrated into business operations, the risk of cyber attacks also increases. High-profile incidents such as the SolarWinds hack in 2020, have highlighted the vulnerability of organisations to these threats. This can have serious consequences for both the organisation and its customers – but IT departments are not the only ones that need to mitigate the risks. Chartered accountants’ training in risk management can provide valuable expertise in identifying and mitigating cyber threats to help businesses protect their assets and reputation.

As trusted analysts, they can further support businesses by developing policies and procedures for the collection, storage, and use of data, ensuring compliance with relevant laws and regulations such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). With clear ethical frameworks and accountability in place, businesses can have the confidence that they are acting morally and ensure trust is maintained by protecting their data.  

In addition to data management, chartered accountants can also help businesses to address other ethical challenges posed by new technologies. They can assist in identifying and mitigating bias in algorithms and AI systems, promoting transparency and accountability in decision-making processes. They can also help businesses to develop effective strategies for addressing mental health and well-being concerns arising from the increasing use of digital technologies. Working closely with decision-makers and HR management, chartered accountants can influence policies that promote mental health and well-being such as training, education, and support programmes. They can also be advisors on budget allocation for well-being initiatives and be pivotal in measuring their effectiveness or making recommendations for their improvement.

By leveraging the experience and skills of chartered accountants, businesses can progress through the digital age with confidence, ensuring ethical standards and accountability are upheld and that trust is maintained with stakeholders, partners, and customers.