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AA1000 Assurance Standard
The AA1000 Assurance Standard (AA1000 AS) is a standard for assessing and strengthening the credibility and quality of an organisation’s social, economic and environmental reporting. It is primarily intended for use by external auditing bodies that assure an organisation’s reports or social accounts (Assurance Providers) but can also be used to guide any organisation when building its accountability processes, systems and abilities .1
Stakeholder engagement is central to the AA1000 AS.2 Within organisations it is used as a means of driving overall performance through innovation and learning. ‘Quality’ in terms of the AA1000 AS is the degree to which a reporting organisation is open, engaging and responsive to stakeholder perceptions and expectations.
AA1000 AS is built on two beliefs. First, that accountability processes need to be tailored to identify, understand and respond to issues that are specific to diverse organisations, sectors, stakeholders and strategies.3 Secondly, that robust, good quality stakeholder engagement processes can powerfully inform internal decision making and enable learning and innovation and thus improved performance.
AA1000 AS was created by the not-for-profit professional institute, AccountAbility (also known as the Institute of Social and Ethical AccountAbility), which offers assurance-related services to its members through working in partnership.
AA1000 AS is a non-prescriptive, free, open-source standard that originated as part of the ‘social accounting and auditing’ movement (see Social Accounting). Key features of AA1000 AS are::
Since its inception in 1995, AccountAbility has taken an approach to quality focused on the interests of the stakeholder, or those impacted by the organisation. For business, this would include employees and owners, as well as those stakeholders who historically have had little influence over decision-making and yet are impacted, often profoundly, by business activities.
The AA1000 series defined this in terms of the principle of ‘inclusivity’ understood as the right of stakeholders’ interests to be heard, and that organisations account for themselves in relation to these interests. AA1000 AS distilled this into an ‘accountability commitment’ and three, related, core over-arching principles: materiality, completeness and responsiveness. Of these, the most significant is ‘materiality’, defined in terms of stakeholder interests.
The Materiality Principle requires the organisation to include in its report information about its social, environmental and economic performance required by its stakeholders for them to be able to make informed judgements, decisions and actions. It focuses on what is important to stakeholders, as well as what is important to the organisation. Information is ‘material’ if its omission or misrepresentation in the report could influence the judgments, decisions and actions of an organisation’s stakeholders.
In addition, the Completeness Principle requires an organisation to be able thoroughly to identify and understand the material aspects of its sustainability performance. Its main message can be summarised as measuring the right things in the right way.
The Responsiveness Principle requires an organisation to provide evidence that it has coherently responded to stakeholder concerns, policies and relevant standards – this includes public response but also management of identified material issues i.e., improving performance.
All AA1000 principles must be applied by any organisation wishing to use the Standard. The manner in which they are applied depends on the level of assurance pursued and the context and resources of the organisation using them. Assurance levels may depend on the extent and quality of a number of issues:5
The level of assurance is expected, although not required, to increase over time as information and underlying systems and processes for accounting for performance mature.
For an organisation using the Standard to guide its work and reporting, an individual or team can lead on the work, but the inclusion and commitment of the organisation’s management levels are needed. Stakeholder engagement guided by the Standard will benefit from having all staff involved.
Proficiencies or skills
It is helpful if someone has had experience in social/economic research methods, particularly concerning stakeholder engagement.
Significant time will be required to compile, analyse and write up information and implement action, although some flexibility exists depending on how much assurance an organisation wishes to give and how it is interpreted.
Courses, support, and information
The AA1000 series consists of the AA1000 Framework plus an evolving programme of specialised modules, including the AA1000 AS.A range of materials and forums supports the AA1000 series:
The website www.accountability21.net contains an extensive range of free reports, briefings, case studies and other information on AA1000 AS, including the AS1000 principles (APS), Stakeholder Engagement Standards (SES) and further accountability research. The AS1000 AS is also included in the SIGMA Guidelines toolkit and is designed to complement the Global Reporting Initiative Guidelines.
The AA1000 Framework also supports and complements AA1000 AS and was developed to improve organisational accountability and sustainability performance by learning through stakeholder engagement. It outlines how to design and manage an organisation’s social and ethical accounting, auditing and reporting processes (see Social Accounting). It can be downloaded free of charge from the website: www.accountability21.net
AA1000 AS is available on a non-proprietary basis for members and non-members. AccountAbility requests only that the knowledge gained through its use be freely shared to maintain an ongoing, open-source process of learning from experience, revisions and upgrades to AA1000 AS.
The AA1000 series is part of a larger system, resting on a multistakeholder governance structure, including AccountAbility members, a technical committee, and council and operating board. Developing the AA1000 series is an ongoing task, continuously subject to refinement and additions reflecting latest developments and feedback from stakeholders.
Examples from other sectors
The AA1000 AS (2003: 5) defines assurance as, ‘an evaluation method that uses a specified set of principles and standards to assess the quality of a Reporting Organisation’s subject matter, such as Reports, an the organisation’s related systems, processes and competencies that underpin its performance. Assurance includes the communication of the results of this evaluation to provide credibility to the subject matter for its users.’