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Over the past few months, “coronavirus” has become the most frequently used word as the COVID pandemic spread to the post-Soviet space of Eastern Europe and Central Asia albeit slightly later than in other parts of the world. The preventive measures undertaken to stop the pandemic—such as complete border closures and restrictive lockdowns, including curfews and special passes to leave homes—affect the business environment, and therefore, the work of accountants and auditors. The problems facing the economies in the region are similar to those faced globally; however, the economic consequences of this crisis in some countries are exacerbated due to an already lower level of economic development and higher dependence on natural resources.
How has the pandemic affected the work of professional accountancy organizations (PAOs) in the region? What solutions have been successful and what experiences will help in the future? Moreover, what is next is the question that is on the mind of leaders of all PAOs. These questions were raised by the leaders of 21 PAOs from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Russia, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan during a virtual discussion organized by IFAC in May.
At the time of the discussion, many countries continued to be in a lockdown, although restrictions are slowly being lifted and some businesses start to reopen. Nonetheless, it seems that social distancing, restrictions on public gatherings, and travel will linger for the foreseeable future. The crisis has demonstrated the need to be agile and responsive not only to this healthcare crisis but to the fast-changing business environment in general. This is requiring new skills and competencies from professional accountants and therefore different approaches from the PAOs that serve them.
Operations: Immediate actions in response to the pandemic have already been taken. Most PAOs relatively quickly and with minimum disruptions switched to remote operations for staff and have established ongoing communication channels with their members and volunteers through Zoom, Skype, YouTube, and other means. Many PAOs are strengthening their online presence on Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin and using social media to communicate. As suggested by the Chamber of Auditors of Republic of Kazakhstan (CARK), the current crisis has accelerated the digitalization of PAOs’ external and internal processes and more work is needed to embrace new means of communication.
Enhanced stakeholder engagement: As the profession in the region is regulated primarily by external agencies (i.e. Ministries of Finance), PAOs actively reached out to the regulators to offer their expertise and resources in formulating responses to crisis. In most of the countries, PAOs participated in defining the response of the government and lobbied for the interests of members to mitigate the economic consequences of lockdowns. The Self-regulatory Organization of Auditors Association “Sodruzhestvo” of the Russian Federation (SRO AAS), for example, joined efforts with the business community in drafting a joint letter to the Government of the Russian Federation regarding measures that would support companies to accelerate their recovery from the crisis and ensure successful post-crisis development. CARK also indicated that the crisis provided an opportunity to strengthen their relationship with the Government of the Republic of Kazakhstan and joining efforts with other professional unions allowed for a focused, united intervention among the professional community.
Member services: Although it took time to adjust, member services also continued by most PAOs, although their content and scope have been reconsidered. PAOs are timely and comprehensively disseminating information to their members and many have introduced regular webinars. The Audit Chamber of Ukraine (ACU), for instance, holds weekly webinars and offers accountancy professionals focused trainings on the consequences of COVID on reporting and auditing as well as the impact of COVID in applying ISAs and IFRSs.
As in other countries, provision of CPD and examinations have been most affected by the crisis. In many countries these activities are on hold while some PAOs have been able to resume these services. The SRO AAS resumed its CPD programming, started online testing, and launched a learning platform. The importance of ethics, especially in crisis, was stressed by the Ukrainian Federation of Accounts and Auditors (UFPAA). Its new CPD module on ethics is very popular among Ukrainian professionals. UFPAA has been able to diversify its CPD offering by partnering with another PAO— it provides access to the online CPD platform of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. The Academy of professional accountants “Uchet” of Kazakhstan offered its extensive experience with conducting online conferences, webinars, and called for enhanced collaboration in holding joint events.
The importance of introducing new approaches to lifelong learning of the accountancy professionals was obvious even before the crisis; however, the crisis has accelerated the need for reconsidering learning approaches and learning models and has spurred increased calls for partnership and collaboration. To conduct exams remotely, several solutions were proposed, including use of online testing with audio and video recording, and use of various paid platforms.
Audit quality: Another area where further collaboration is required is assisting members with conducting remote audits. PAOs are working to develop additional guidance to help their members provide quality services, which often involve additional, unforeseen costs. Since many clients are also on a lockdown and experiencing financial difficulties, some companies refuse to undergo a mandatory audit or are unbale to pay for it. Recognizing the financial difficulties of their members, some PAOs—such as the ACU—decided to reduce membership fees and worked with regulators to reduce mandatory fees imposed on firms and auditors.
PAOs that are involved in QA reviews of statutory audits noted that the reviews have been on hold during the lockdown. In the case of the ACU, their quality control inspectors have taken advantage of the downtime to interact more with auditors through webinars to raise their awareness about the main problems they encounter during the inspections. The inspectors have also developed practical guidance and implementation support materials for practitioners on establishing quality control standards and applying relevant ISAs. In addition, a decision has been made to decrease fees for QA reviews to help auditors overcome financial difficulties.
So, what’s next? The full impact of the pandemic is still difficult to assess; however, a positive outcome has been the rapid reconsideration of existing mechanisms and the need to collaborate regionally to achieve efficiencies in light of limited resources. Ideas included uniting efforts to translate resources offered by IFAC and its network into Russian, jointly developing implementation support and practical guidance for practitioners to ensure implementation of IFRSs, ISAs, and quality assurance practices; sharing experiences on conducting examinations and CPD; holding joint events; and maintaining an ongoing dialogue with each other, with IFAC, and other partners.
For additional resources, guidance, and advice from the IFAC community on adjusting and managing during this rapidly evolving situation, visit the IFAC, IAASB, IESBA, and IPSASB COVID-19 web pages, which are continually updated. For PAOs that may need support in offering CPD online, please see IFAC’s Online CPD Services for Professional Accountancy Organizations webpage, which lists several IFAC member organizations that are ready to assist PAOs with online CPD for members.
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