| Accounting.com Staff Modified on March 23, 2022
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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.
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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:
- U.S. Government Accountability Office
- Securities and Exchange Commission
- Federal Bureau of Investigation
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.
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.
- 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.
- Employment Numbers: In 2018, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that 87,690 accountants and auditors worked in local and state government positions.
- Salary: The BLS reported that the median annual salary for accountants and auditors working for the government was $68,420 in 2018.
- Projected Growth: The demand for accountants is projected to increase by 10% across all industries between 2016 and 2026, according to the BLS.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Employment Numbers: The BLS reported that there were more than 100,000 detectives and criminal investigators working in local, state, and federal government agencies in 2018.
- Salary: Government pay tables determine salaries for treasury enforcement agents. Salaries vary by education and experience, as well as the type and location of a position. The BLS reports a mean salary of $72,340 for detectives and investigators at local government offices, $66,700 at state government offices, and $108,770 at federal offices.
- Projected Growth: Due primarily to budget constraints at all levels of government, hiring for tax examiners, collectors, and revenue agents is projected to decline by 1% between 2016 and 2026.
- 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.
- CPA: The Certified Public Accountant credential demonstrates candidates' expertise in the field, making them more competitive in the job market.
Government Accounting Career Questions
Is government accounting a good career?Government jobs, including accounting, can provide firm job security and benefits. Public sector jobs typically follow a predetermined ladder when it comes to raises and promotions, allowing employees to plan for the future.
How do I get a government accounting job?Aspiring government accountants can find positions across specialties, including auditing, financial management, and budget analysis. Government employers often accept accountants with a bachelor's degree, though some may prefer a master's.
Where can I work as a government accountant?The government hires auditors at local, state, and federal levels. Top hiring agencies include the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Internal Revenue Service.
What's the difference between government accounting and public accounting?On a day-to-day basis, government accounting tasks align closely with public accounting tasks. Government accountants manage financial data relative to schools, military, and other government agencies, while public accountants work for individuals and businesses.
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