Government Accounting Overview

Updated November 10, 2022

Accountants work in all levels of government, from local to federal. Explore this page to learn what to expect from a career in this essential industry.

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Federal, state, and local governments are some of the United States' top employers for accountants. Government accountants oversee public funds and investigate white-collar crime. These professionals may assess financial efficiency and perform audits within government offices and departments. They also ensure compliance with funding policies and laws.

Government accountants usually need at least a bachelor's degree, plus significant experience in the field. Careers in government accounting typically provide comfortable salaries, with the potential for growth as workers gain experience.

In some cases, professionals in government accounting jobs may earn more than their colleagues in other sectors. Glassdoor reports a median annual salary of over $80,000 for federal government accountants — almost $6,000 more than the median for accountants in all industries.

This page explores government accountants' typical job duties. Learn more about skills and specializations in government accounting, and discover how to start a career in the field.

Governmental Accountant Duties

Government finance jobs demand a strong working knowledge of applicable tax codes and policies. Accountants work within those tax codes to ensure both internal and external compliance.

Depending on which type of agency they work for, government accountants may perform different job duties. The list below highlights five key job tasks for this career.

  • Prepare Budgets and Reports: Government accountants prepare budgets for various government branches, departments, and agencies. They also prepare reports on taxes, spending, and general finances. These tasks require careful analysis and documentation.
  • Communicate with Government Officials: Accountants in this field often work alongside government officials to prepare budgets, track finances, and ensure tax compliance. These professionals may also brief officials on financial trends and issues that affect their branches of government.
  • Perform Internal Audits: To comply with tax codes and laws, government accountants often perform financial audits of government agencies and departments. During an audit, accountants analyze financial records, assess spending and income, and document assets.
  • Maintain Accurate Documentation: Using tax software and other programs to keep accurate records is a key task for most government accountants. This documentation then provides necessary information for audits and financial reports.
  • Advise Government Agencies on Spending: Using their knowledge of tax codes and financial policies, accountants advise government officials on best practices for investing, spending, and managing assets.

Key Hard Skills for Government Accountants

  • Computers and Technology

    Accountants in any field need proficiency in industry software like QuickBooks. Government accountants use this common software to maintain accurate records.
  • Mathematics

    Accounting requires strong mathematical skills and knowledge. Government accountants use math, including statistics, to make predictions and develop financial insights.
  • Communication and Writing

    Government accountants rely on their communication skills to prepare and present financial reports. Typically, government jobs require strong skills in effective communication, both written and spoken.
  • Management

    Government accountants may supervise other employees within financial departments. They must also manage projects and regulatory processes within their agencies.

Key Soft Skills for Government Accountants

  • Critical Thinking

    Government accountants use critical thinking across all their job duties. These professionals must think critically to create reports, pull financial insights from documents and records, and analyze data.
  • Time Management

    Good time management skills help government accountants manage multiple projects, oversee audits, and prepare reports. Government accountants must manage their time efficiently to fulfill their job duties effectively.
  • Collaboration

    Government accountants often work in departments and agencies that require interdepartmental collaboration. They also collaborate with other department members to produce reports and manage fiscal business.
  • Active Learning

    As accounting trends, issues, and technology develop, government accountants must stay up to date. This requires active learning and a willingness to adapt to change and take on new skills.

Government Accounting Areas of Expertise

Government accountants may specialize in accounting subfields that suit their job roles and interests. Professionals with the specializations below often serve in government agencies.

Forensic Accounting

Forensic accountants work with law enforcement agencies at the local, state, and federal levels to investigate financial crimes. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) uses forensic accountants to analyze financial crime in sectors like healthcare, mortgage and banking, and securities.

Some forensic government accountants gain experience in local or state jurisdictions before pursuing careers in the FBI. They may work with legal professionals, law enforcement, and government officials to prepare findings for criminal and legal proceedings.

Common Job Titles

  • Financial Investigator
  • Financial Risk Manager
  • Financial Consultant

Tax Law

Working as a government tax attorney requires education beyond accounting. To become a tax attorney, candidates must graduate from law school and pass their state bar exam. Tax attorneys need a strong understanding of tax codes and laws, general law, and legal processes.

People with a four-year degree and legal and tax experience may pursue entry-level work with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) as a tax law specialist. These specialists provide guidance to IRS auditors, taxpayers, and actuaries. Earning a law degree provides a pathway from this career to more advanced roles.

Common Job Titles

  • In-House Financial Counsel
  • Compliance Attorney
  • Tax Law Specialist
  • Tax Attorney

Internal Auditing

Internal auditors work within government agencies. These professionals audit financials from various departments and programs to ensure compliance with budgets and tax codes. They may also assess financial efficiency, program effectiveness, and computer security.

With experience and education, internal auditors can move from entry-level positions to more advanced roles. Positions like intermediate, senior, and chief internal auditor often come with increased earning potential.

Internal auditors also analyze current documentation to advise government departments and agencies on best fiscal practices.

Common Job Titles

  • Internal Auditor
  • Intermediate Internal Auditor
  • Compliance Specialist
  • Chief Internal Auditor

Compliance

Compliance officers at all levels of government ensure that agencies and departments comply with financial laws and codes. The majority of compliance officers in the U.S. work for federal, state, and local governments. Many also work in the corporate sector, making this specialty transferable to other industries.

Also referred to as tax, accounting, or budget specialists, these compliance officers hold a strong knowledge of fiscal policy, laws, and regulations. They apply that knowledge as they analyze documents and data to ensure regulatory adherence.

These officers may also work as grant accountants or managers. In this role, they oversee the distribution of government grants to ensure that their use meets grant requirements.

Common Job Titles

  • Compliance Officer
  • Tax Specialist
  • Accounting and Budget Specialist
  • Grant Accountant

How to Become a Governmental Accountant

The path to a government accounting career depends on which job area you want to pursue. Typically, accountants must hold certain certifications and/or licenses, depending on the state where they work. Qualifying for these credentials usually starts with a four-year degree.

Some roles may demand specialty certifications such as certified public accountant, certified fraud examiner, or certified internal auditor. Government jobs may also set minimum work experience requirements. Senior positions may require a master's degree in accounting and further experience.

What Is Government Accounting Salary?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that accountants and auditors across all industries earned a median annual salary of $77,250 as of 2021. This figure includes accountants working in local, state, and federal government.

The BLS projects accounting jobs across all industries to grow 6% from 2021-2031, on par with the national average for all occupations.

Specializations, location, experience, and education can affect an accountant's earning potential. Some levels and branches of government pay more than others. Experienced accountants often see salary increases as they climb the ladder.

Questions About What Government Accounting Is

What do governmental accountants do?

Government accountants hold a variety of responsibilities across all government sectors and levels. Their job duties include analyzing financial documents, preparing budgets and reports, performing audits, and assuring compliance.

What is an example of government accounting?

Government accounting encompasses many job titles and roles. Professionals in the field include tax specialists, compliance officers, internal auditors, and forensic accountants. Accountants serve in departments and agencies at all levels of government.

Where does a government accountant work?

Government accountants work at the local, state, and federal government levels. They serve in various roles within each branch. Accountants can work as consultants in their own space, but more often work within government offices.

What skills do you need to be a government accountant?

Government accountants need robust computing and accounting software skills, plus a strong working knowledge of math and statistics. They should be active learners and strong collaborators who can manage their time and projects effectively.

Why is government accounting important?

All branches and levels of government need qualified accountants. These professionals manage government finances and ensure compliance with financial laws, codes, and regulations. Government accountants help government agencies run smoothly and work within budgets.

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