Ethical Performance
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Bloc resignation exposes row over AA1000’s future

February 2011

A major conflict over future stewardship of the widely-used AA1000 corporate responsibility standards has erupted with the resignation of the entire standards board that oversees them.

The nine members of the independent board resigned en masse last month in protest at what they see as threats to the independence of the standards posed by AccountAbility, the UK-based body that established them.  

Over the past year AccountAbility has transformed itself from a think tank, policy and research body into a more commercial outfit offering a greater depth of CSR consultancy services as well as continuing to carry out research and looking after the standards.

While the standards board members say they have no problem with AccountAbility’s new business outlook, they are concerned that it could have detrimental side effects for the standards, especially if AccountAbility attempts to make greater use of the standards as part of its business offering.

AccountAbility denies it has any designs on using the standards for its direct commercial benefit, and intends to keep them at arms length from its consultancy operations.

Its assurances have failed to convince board members over the past few months, however, and relations between the two camps have fallen apart. Jermyn Brooks, chair of the standards board, told EP: ‘The board was created to be the guardian and promoter of the AA1000 standards. As such we recognized both the public good nature of the standards and their dependence on wide stakeholder support. While the new management of AccountAbility gave verbal support to this position… their reluctance to commit to a clear separation of standards and services activities within AccountAbility, as requested by the board, meant that the board became increasingly concerned about conflicts of interest and so unable to fulfil its main role.

He added: ‘As unfortunately happens in such situations, personal issues also emerged which resulted in a lack of the necessary trust between the board and AccountAbility’s management, so that the collective resignation was the result.’

Some members of the standards board – including CSR consultants Helena Barton and Richard Boele – have now taken it upon themselves to set up an unofficial standards ‘user group’ that will keep an eye on proceedings and encourage debate about how the standards should develop.

A statement from the management team at AccountAbility said: ‘While we shared the mutual goal of strengthening [the] standards, there were fundamental disagreements between us and the standards board over the future governance of the standards function, the propriety of certain board members and others in leadership positions maintaining competing business interests, as well as ongoing concerns about breaches of independence.

‘We believe the board’s position was heavily influenced by false, misleading and inaccurate information provided by certain disgruntled former employees of AccountAbility.  Assertions that AccountAbility’s business model has changed are simply wrong. AccountAbility remains a not-for-profit company limited by guarantee as it has since 2005. Its core lines include standards, research, and services. We do not offer assurance services nor have any plans to develop an assurance business.’

AccountAbility added: ‘the notion that standards are financially subsidizing the rest of AccountAbility and that the directors of AccountAbility are profiting from [the standards] is patently false. In fact, the exact opposite is the case – the standards function is subsidized by other areas of accountAbility.’

The three standards in the AA1000 series are in common use, including by multinationals such as Vodafone, BP, and O2. They are: the AccountAbility Principles Standard, which provides a framework for an organization to identify, prioritize and respond to its sustainability challenges; the AA1000 Assurance Standard, which puts forward a methodology for assurance practitioners to evaluate the nature and extent to which an organization adheres to CSR principles; and the AA1000 Stakeholder Engagement Standard, which offers a framework to help organizations manage their engagement with stakeholders.

analysis: see page nine

AccountAbility | Global | Standards


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