Government accountant career guide

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Government accounting overview

Accounting can give you access to a wide range of employment opportunities in various industries. When they consider pursuing an accounting career, people tend to think about roles in the private sector, primarily working for an accounting firm or an international corporation.  

Private accounting roles do make up a significant part of all accounting career paths available. Nevertheless, it’s important to know that, with accounting, you can also join and work for government organizations or federal agencies at local, state, and national levels. 

This market niche is called government accounting, and professionals who choose to work in this field are hired at all levels and in various public positions within the government. Government accountants typically perform tasks and activities which include – without being limited to – auditing, bookkeeping, risk management, or forensic accounting

What is government accounting?

Government accounting is a set of activities that includes collecting, compiling, documenting, and verifying every financial operation performed by government institutions and agencies at all levels.  

In the United States, because they work for the state and based on the level of the institution where they perform their activity, accountants and auditors must closely follow a set of strict guidelines and standards established by two independent organizations.  

Thus, at the federal level, these conventions are established by the Federal Accounting Standards Advisory Board (FASAB). In contrast, it is the Government Accounting Standards Board (GASB) setting them at state and city level. 

What are FASAB and GASB, and what do they do?  

According to a statement made on the Federal Accounting Standards Advisory Board’s official website: “FASAB serves the public interest by improving federal financial reporting through issuing federal financial accounting standards and providing guidance after considering the needs of external and internal users of federal financial information.”  

To avoid confusion, it is worth mentioning that in the U.S. a separate organization with a similar title does the same work as FASAB, although in a different sector. The Financial Accounting Standards Board – or FASB – “is the independent, private- sector, not-for-profit organization that establishes financial accounting and reporting standards for public and private companies and not-for-profit organizations that follow Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP).” 

On the other hand, as stated on the official website of the Government Accounting Standards Board: “GASB is the independent, private-sector organization based in Norwalk, Connecticut, that establishes accounting and financial reporting standards for U.S. state and local governments that follow Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP).” 

What are generally accepted accounting principles? 

Also known as GAAP, these are the standards accountants – government or non-government – use as a guide when compiling financial statements. These principles offer guidance on how to track, analyze, and communicate different types of transactions. They provide accounting professionals with clear guidelines regarding collecting data and what kind of information they can or cannot use in a financial report. 

These generally accepted accounting principles, developed and established by the Financial Accounting Foundation’s (FAF) standard-setting boards – FASB and GASB, “provide information that enables taxpayers and others who use government financial statements to hold governments accountable.” 

Is government accounting right for you? 

When you work in accounting for government institutions or federal agencies, you are a public servant. Not only does that title imply you have to follow a set of rules and conventions when performing your day-to-day job, as discussed above, but it also brings along a standardized hiring process. That can mean stricter employment criteria and requirements at the application stage. 

However, as complex as that can turn out to be, it’s worth trying. Compared to other professionals in the accounting field who deal with the financial activity of one or more commercial organizations, government accounting workers can provide this service for schools, the military, or administrations at state level. You can even end up working for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), or the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).  

Government accounting prerequisites 

The set of skills you need to work in government accounting does not differ significantly from what you would be expected to have in other industry sectors. Accounting knowledge is top of the list, closely followed by the ability to work with numbers, communication skills, and high ethical standards. 

Math skills

In accounting, understanding the type of information you work with is essential to do a good job. Also, being good with numbers usually accompanies a strategic mind and critical thinking, which are highly important in this field. 

Communication skills

In accounting, your work does not stop at putting together financial reports. You also have to communicate their results further to your manager or other people in the organization who may not have the accounting knowledge or know the specific terminology to understand the information you have to share. That is why it’s essential to communicate efficiently, both verbally and in writing.  

Technical skills

Technology enables you to work with financial information quicker than ever. That is why it’s essential to be knowledgeable in working with spreadsheets or other types of accounting-related software, tools, and resources.  

Risk management skills

Decision-making is considered a valuable skill in business and economic environments. The ability to accurately understand, evaluate, and mitigate risks associated with decisions you have to make on a daily basis is a crucial factor in having a successful career in accounting. 

Integrity

Integrity is crucial in any business environment, and even more so in government accounting. Working with financial information related to taxpayers’ funds is a sensitive matter, and a flawless code of business conduct will take you a long way.

Government accounting education requirements  

A bachelor’s degree in accounting (BA) is the lowest level of higher education needed to qualify for government accounting roles. Earning a BA usually takes 4 years or 120 credit hours, and you can join full-time programs, hybrid formats, or even ones that are entirely online. 

Entry requirements for a BA in accounting vary from one university to another, but a high-school diploma or a GED are general prerequisites. Other admission criteria can be high-school General Public Assessment (GPA) test results of at least 2.5 and above average college admission scores. 

Advance your career with a master’s in accounting 

A master’s degree in accounting opens paths to better employment opportunities, ranging from taxation specialist and auditor to forensics expert in federal departments. Earning a master’s generally takes 2 years or 35-40 credits, and you’ll also get to choose a specialization – such as forensic accounting – and become an expert in that specific field.  

Management accounting – also known as managerial accounting – is a branch of accounting that enables decision-makers to establish goals for their business activity and assess their results. In this strategic process, people collect, compile, and use various information essential to plan, control, and analyze their company’s future financial decisions.  

Next on the list – become certified

After earning a BA or an MA in accounting, the next logical step is to become certified. Certifications help you grow your expertise in a specific field and stand out in the eyes of employers. In government accounting, some credentials will help you more than others. 

Become a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) 

The educational criteria you need to meet to qualify to sit for the CPA exam varies from one state to another, but almost all states require you to have earned degrees totaling 150 semester credit hours. Read this to find out an exhaustive list of education requirements by state to become certified.  

The easiest way to become a CPA is by earning 2 graduate degrees, one after the other. Graduating with a BA in accounting will give you 120 credit hours and earning a master’s program will provide the remaining 30.  

The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) is the body that organizes the CPA exam. You can read all about the ins and outs of the CPA examination in our dedicated article.  

The CPA credential is highly regarded in government accounting, leading to opportunities that range from auditing, financial reporting to management accounting. You can find out everything about the employment opportunities you can have as a CPA in the field of government accounting by going to this page on the AICPA website. 

Become a Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE) 

Obtaining the CFE credential is an excellent addition to your resume when you apply for positions at government agencies or law-enforcing institutions. As a CFE, your earnings can increase substantially compared to forensic accountants who don’t have this credential.  

To become a certified fraud examiner, first you must be a member of the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE). Established in Texas, ACFE is an anti-fraud organization that offers anti-fraud training, certification, and education.  

Certified Government Auditing Professional Credential 

The CGAP certification used to be an important credential to obtained by professionals wanting to work in government accounting. Awarded by The Institute of Internal Auditors of North America (IIA)and geared to internal auditors working in the public sector, the CGAP program transitioned to an assessment-based certificate in 2019.  

As mentioned in an official document published by IIA ”CGAP remains a valid designation, and current CGAP certification holders retain ‘certified’ status and continue using the designation as long as they meet continuous professional education (CPE) requirements.” 

Careers in government accounting

As already mentioned, to work for the government means you first have to go through a standardized hiring process, which can take longer and be more complex than in the private sector. Being a public servant has its pluses, such as job security and a transparent promotion process. Below are some of the roles you can find in government accounting.  

According to ACFE ”Government accountants are employed at all levels of government – federal, state and local. They manage public funds, perform financial statement audits for government agencies, conduct research on emerging accounting issues, or manage the use of local revenues.”  

As a government accountant, you are a public servant who compiles, updates, and analyzes government financial records, prepares financial statements, and takes care of the entire payroll process. 

2020 median annual salary: $53,500 

In this role, you collect proof of fraud attempts through interviews and financial information analysis. Also, you investigate white-collar crime and embezzlement undertakings making use of specialist techniques and processes. 

2020 median annual salary: $62,080 

In this role, you will most likely work for a state or government institution determining the amount of tax companies and individuals should pay. Daily tasks for tax examiners include auditing, data analysis, and calculating tax returns. 

2020 median annual salary: $49,574 

An MA in forensic accounting can offer you access to roles in official government agencies or structures as a forensic expert. Here you work closely with prosecutors to document financial crimes or perform other related activities where the expertise of a forensic specialist is crucial. Note that you don’t have to be an agent to work for federal agencies like the IRS, CIA, or FBI.  

2020 median annual salary: $57,134 

American Accounting Association (AAA) 

Established more than a century ago, the AAA gathers under one roof an extensive community of accountants from all walks of life, including the academic field.  

National Society of Accountants (NSA) 

With a core mission of helping tax and accounting professionals further their knowledge, NSA is a society that has been active for 75 years. 

American Association of Finance and Accounting (AAFA) 

Founded in 1978, the AAFA connects accounting organizations, firms, and professionals throughout the United States. 

National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA)  

Established in 1908, NASBA acts like a forum for the 55 State Boards of Accountancy in the US, which administer the Uniform CPA Examination. In partnership with AICPA, NASBA facilitates CPA examination for professionals overseas.