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Read between the lines

By Elaine Cohen (BeyondBusiness) on February 03, 2009 at 2:32pm.

One-line summary: Read between the lines

Content: 

One can't help but be impressed with this Australian Bank's approach to sustainability and to reporting. Westpac has produced some of the best banking sector reports I have seen over the past few years, and this one is equally impressive.  Content is organized logically and methodically. This year's report broadens the reporting scope to provide detail of non-Australian operations, though much data for some indicators is not available.  There is evidence of progress in the approach to managing sustainability, with the formation of a new Westpac Sustainability Council and improved internal reporting. Clear detail of progress against the Performance Scorecard is reported, including not-so-good performance such as increase in paper consumption, and there are measurable targets for coming years. Each core performance section commentary follows a flow of Approach – Issues – Actions, with a statement on the core issues from external experts. In general, data is well presented. So what's going on between the lines? There are some gaps or inconsistencies – for instance 80% of employees are reported as having been involved in community activities over the past 12 months. But how involved? Once-off or regular? 5 minutes or 5 hours?  Also, GHG reporting is somewhat confusing. I took a look at the 2007 report for reference and despite lingering on the relative data presented, I still couldn’t work out if CO2 emissions increased or decreased over the last year. Something strange happened with these numbers.

But here is the big gap between the lines:  no GRI index. Something I find essential to help me locate specific information. Self-declaring A+ does not remove the requirement to provide an index. After a search (because this is not referenced in the report), I located an on-line index where indicators are reported fully, partially or not. Thirty-eight of the 79  (48%) performance indicators are shown as fully reported. An A+ report with less than half the G3 fully reported? Confirmed by the assurers as meeting A+ standards? I expect more. And page numbers in the index would help.

Communication:

This report is a model in clarity and no-beating-about-the-bush presentation of management approach, core issues and data. The material issues jump right out at you on page 4 of the report, though there is little disclosure of how material issues were assessed and prioritized, or their relative importance to different stakeholder groups. Key data is collated systematically in 21 pages of charts and graphs at the end of the report. Generally, I prefer to see data integrated in the body of the report so that appropriate context is close at hand, but data is provided over a 5 year span (2004-2008) which gives plenty of scope for reviewing this bank's performance over time. Work Life balance and remuneration issues, both sources of employee dissatisfaction, have not improved much over 5 years, for instance. Whilst measures to address these issues are noted in the employee section of the report, there is some dissonance with the data which remains unexplained.  Page 29 of the report provides all the relevant Westpac contacts any stakeholder could possibly want, with direct email addresses. Seems like they might just be genuinely interested in feedback. One point that disturbs me: all financial data is presented in $. It took me about half an hour to find something on the Westpac website that confirmed to me that this refers to A$, or AUD or Australian, and not US, dollars. Maybe this should be obvious, but I couldn’t find anything in the CSR report that makes this explicit.
NB:  In addition to their annual report, Westpac also publishes interim stakeholder updates, available on the Westpac website. An example of best practice.

Credibility:

This report does a good job on credibility, on the whole, if you don’t delve too deeply between the lines. For example, responsible lending, which is the heart of the financial business, is well philosophized.  The report describes such issues as new non-profit banking services, the new system for assessing customer satisfaction i.e. the amount of customers who recommend Westpac (this is indirect impact – evidence of advanced thinking about impacts), actions to improve financial literacy , embedding of ESG risk assessment. All good stuff.  I miss a little more in the way of financial products and services with a social or environmental benefit, something a little more core to the financial revenue generation process. There is nothing much between the lines about that.  The assurance statement by Banarra is comprehensive, clear and explicit and addresses shortcomings and recommendations for future reporting. But I do wonder how deeply they delved when reviewing an A+ level report.  This is Banarra's eighth reporting cycle with Westpac as an assurance provider. There are some who say that a fresh pair of eyes brings greater objectivity to the assurance process.  More focus between the lines.

Recommendations:

1. Present GHG data more clearly
2. Link performance data to the commentary
3. Get the GRI Index into shape
4. Get out of the comfort zone and use a different assurance provider for the next report

Elaine Cohen is the Joint CEO of BeyondBusiness Ltd, http://www.b-yond.biz/en, a leading CSR reporting and consulting firm in Israel,  specializing in a wide range of consulting services for the development of social and environmental responsibility of businesses.

Tags: Westpac, Banks