An Overview of Government Accounting

An Overview of Government Accounting

Just as accountants in the private sector track, analyze, and report financial information for individuals, businesses, and nonprofits, accountants in the public sector perform similar duties for public service agencies. As public servants, government accountants manage budgets, expenses, and revenues at the federal, state, and local levels for organizations such as the military, law enforcement, and public schools.

Government accounting careers tend to follow uniform hiring processes with standardized position requirements and pay scales -- especially at the federal level. These standards can result in a rigid, multi-step application and promotion process but usually provide clearly defined expectations and job descriptions. Job security is a commonly cited benefit of public employment; however, government agencies also undergo pay and hiring freezes, as well as downsizing.

Government Accounting Degrees

There are several major offices that employ government accountants to provide financial oversight, study and analyze fiscal data, monitor transactions and procedures, and prepare detailed reports for internal and public consumption. These offices include:

Additionally, the U.S. Department of the Treasury is the primary federal employer of accountants. Career opportunities are available for accountants, economists, and financial analysts at the department's headquarters in Washington, D.C., as well as at bureaus located throughout the country. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is one such bureau and employs accountants, auditors, and agents.

The U.S. Department of Defense and each branch of the armed forces also rely on accounting and finance professionals for functions such as budgeting, auditing, payroll, and cost analysis.

Government accountants can also work in local and state agencies where they manage budgets, track revenues, audit financial processes, establish financial policies, and ensure compliance with tax and reporting requirements. This work is a critical function of the departments of revenue services for states, as well as for local county and city government offices.

Specializations

Accountants, Analysts, and Auditors

Accountants, budget analysts, and auditors provide valuable services in government offices at the federal, state, and local levels. These workers may manage financial documents, oversee budgets, and review accounting records for accuracy and compliance.

  • Responsibilities
  • Job Stats
  • Education and Experience Requirements
  • Additional Qualifications Recommended

Responsibilities

  • Organize and maintain financial documents, reports, and data.
  • Contribute to the budget development process.
  • Monitor costs and expenses and make recommendations for resource allocation.
  • Conduct data analysis to help identify trends and inform financial decisions.
  • Review accounting records to evaluate accuracy and compliance with regulations.
  • Create and distribute financial reports.

Job Stats

Education and Experience Requirements

  • A bachelor's or master's degree in accounting or a related field is preferred by most employers, although some government positions may accept a bachelor's degree in any field.
  • Entry-level government positions usually require 1-3 years of related experience. Students can work toward this requirement by completing internships and other practical experiences.

Additional Qualifications Recommended

  • CPA: Earning a Certified Public Accountant credential requires passing an exam and providing documentation of education and prior experience. Most government agencies require or prefer to hire candidates with a CPA credential.
  • CGAP: While not usually required, the Certified Government Auditing Professional credential may make candidates more competitive in the job market.

Government Financial Manager

In general, financial managers work in administrative positions at various companies and organizations, overseeing financial affairs. Government financial managers perform many of the same tasks but work with public funds instead of private money. These professionals may work at the local, state, or federal level.

  • Responsibilities
  • Job Stats
  • Education and Experience Requirements
  • Additional Qualifications Recommended

Responsibilities

  • Prepare financial records and reports for a government organization or a department within an organization.
  • Oversee employees in the finance department.
  • Analyze financial reports to determine where government organizations can cut costs and dedicate more funds.
  • Review financial reporting systems and develop solutions for problems leading to inaccuracies and errors.
  • Respond to questions and concerns from elected officials, citizens, and other government personnel concerning financial matters.
  • Monitor employee payroll.

Job Stats

  • Employment Numbers: In 2016, about 580,000 financial managers worked in the United States. The BLS projects that number to grow to 689,000 by 2026.
  • Salary: In May 2018, financial managers made a median annual wage of $127,990, according to BLS data. Data also demonstrate that financial managers with the highest wages live on the East Coast, in places like Washington, D.C. and New York.
  • Projected Growth: The number of financial managers is projected to increase by 19% between 2016 and 2026, according to the BLS.

Education and Experience Requirements

  • Financial managers need at least a bachelor's degree. Relevant majors include finance, economics, and accounting. Prospective financial managers who aim to work in government positions should also take civics, political science, or government courses. Some employers prefer job candidates with master's degrees.
  • Typically, financial managers need at least five years of professional experience in roles such as accountant, financial analyst, or loan officer before becoming a financial manager. Working in a government role as an auditor or accountant can streamline the process of finding a role as a government financial manager.

Additional Qualifications Recommended

  • CFA: Financial managers do not need to obtain Chartered Financial Analyst certification to find a job; however, this certification increases competitiveness in the job market. Candidates interested in this credential need a bachelor's degree and four years of professional experience. They must also pass three exams.
  • CGFM: The Certified Government Financial Manager credential expands job opportunities. Candidates need two years of work experience and a bachelor's degree. They must also pass three exams that cover skills related to government positions, such as financial reporting, internal controls, and budgeting.

Treasury Enforcement Agent

The U.S. Department of Treasury relies on enforcement agents to investigate crimes such as credit card fraud and identity theft. These professionals conduct investigations, collect evidence, and analyze complex financial records. In some cases, enforcement agents may need to present evidence in court. Similar job titles include criminal investigator and IRS special agent. Some positions require passing the Treasury Enforcement Agent Examination.

  • Responsibilities
  • Job Stats
  • Education and Experience Requirements
  • Additional Qualifications Recommended

Responsibilities

  • Conduct investigations through data analysis, interviews, and other intelligence-gathering techniques.
  • Apply laws and regulations to individual cases and make recommendations.
  • Prepare detailed written reports.
  • Present evidence in court.

Job Stats

Education and Experience Requirements

  • Candidates need a bachelor's or master's degree in any field. IRS special agents need at least 15 credits in accounting and nine in a related subject, such as economics, business law, or finance.
  • Candidates typically need three years of relevant experience to secure an enforcement agent position at the GS-5 level.

Additional Qualifications Recommended

  • CPA: The Certified Public Accountant credential demonstrates candidates' expertise in the field, making them more competitive in the job market.