Imagine the myriad of financial and accounting positions and within each function a steward of funds exists supporting operations in the background. Regardless of title or job function, stewards of funds create an internal foundation by which all departments interact to form a story in numbers. They contribute to the customer experience through direct interaction or intercompany/interagency exchanges. The government sector is no different. The breadth of the governmental fabric is in part held together by a team of financial experts, a group of individuals whose purpose extends beyond their expected financial responsibilities. Whether embedded in conventional jobs in accountancy or nontraditional roles in shaping fiscal policy, government accountants bring vast expertise and experience to their positions. Many government accountants possess skills beyond accounting and finance which include information technology, social services, public administration, human resources, and policy among a few.
A survey of both past and present AICPA Government and Performance Accountability Committee members was conducted in 3Q 2022. The focus was upon the unique benefits and experiences and functions of those working in government at the federal, state and local levels. Following are the anonymous insights from governments executives that details why a career in government should be considered and embraced.
An exciting role with vast opportunities
"From the outside, it's hard to gauge the breadth of the work. The position title "accountant" is not really descriptive to the level, complexity, and nature of the work." Compliance and Risk Officer, Federal Government.
The fundamental role of the government accountant is based on finance; however, compliance sits at the forefront of governmental accountancy. Governmental accountants utilize interdisciplinary knowledge daily to assist the community in navigating complex financial policy, be it the individual seeking tax compliance, a school district adhering to statutory requirements, or a nonprofit conforming to programmatic restrictions. Depending on the programmatic function of the department or program, additional expertise may be needed to ensure compliance with laws and regulations beyond fiscal mandates. In government accountancy, a cost may not in and of itself be prohibited. Still, it may become unallowable if the activity associated with the money spent does not comply with the contractual intention of the funds.
"It's more than just adding and subtracting and managing invoices or creating financials. The work is exciting and is not limited to traditional accounting... the increased focus on ESG, analysis of operations, risk focus, management experience, making a difference, working with partners. This is an exciting place to work!" Associate Director, Nonprofit
"As a government auditor (financial, IT, and performance), I get to interpret and apply standards not only from AICPA, but also Federal Accounting Standards Advisory Board as well as specific requirements in Congressional Appropriation language." Director, Federal Goverment
But, the role does not end with compliance and fiscal oversight; it extends to contributing to the good of humanity. Government accountants play roles in servicing the citizenry that may expand beyond what most see. These sector accountants interact with every stakeholder of the community. The field is vast and branches every level of government, whether federal, state, regional, or local, but also included are nonprofit organizations, educational institutions, and healthcare agencies. "Government jobs can be so varied; there are so many levels of government. Even a finance director position can be very different depending on the size of the municipality." Senior Manager, Other Governmental Agency.
Mission oriented – find your passion
Just as each branch of government serves a different purpose, and every department holds a different function, the financial leaders in the department require special knowledge to lead.
"You are able to work in so many different, unique service areas/departments and this makes the job incredibly interesting. You also are able to work with so many partners (state, cities, special districts, nonprofits, community members, etc.) and try to come up with solutions that benefit every entity/everyone." CFO, County/Parish Government
Government and society are everchanging, responding to community needs and current events. As those needs evolve the role of the government accountant shifts to answer the call to service. What would government accountants in the field tell you is the best part of the role?
"The best thing about being a government accountant is the ability to reinvent your career over time without the need to leave your current employer. Throughout my 20-year career at the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, I have been an external financial statement auditor, an internal auditor focused on performance and compliance audits, a tax administrator, and a chief operating officer." Executive Deputy Secretary, State Government
"The opportunities for performance audits in governments is limitless. You learn something new on each audit, and the time working generally goes very fast." Assistant Comptroller, State Government
Making a difference
Government accountants add value to the world, providing oversight of funds collected from the constituents and returned to the community. Embedded in top roles at nonprofit organizations, those individuals with governmental experience help shape programs and direct resources used to benefit humanity. As nonprofit organizations partner with the government for social and economic betterment, government accountants provide the expertise necessary to administer oversight and compliance of these funds to ensure they are used for the public good.
"As a government accountant, every day I was presented with opportunities to help leave my community better than how I found it. The work is incredibly rewarding and fulfilling. I love getting to work with city planners, developers, and visionaries that are always striving to elevate the bar on the quality of life in our community." VP of Downtown Development, Nonprofit Organization
The collective body of the government represents all people, bridging socioeconomic status, race, gender, geographic location, and place of origin. Being a governmental accountant provides the possibility to witness society's diverisification and understand how the allocation of funds at all levels of government contributes to equity, equality, and the standard of living for all.
A controller within the federal government stated that the best part is "Diversity in the workplace, while accounting is based on debits and credits, the missions and objectives are extremely varied across the federal government."
"There are many people that are dedicated, work hard and long hours, and choose to work at agencies where they are passionate about the mission to meet the American needs." CFO, Federal Government
Most of the governmental accountants surveyed overwhelmingly discussed the fulfillment of service to their communities as either the best part of the role or the thing they wanted others to know about working in government.
"For me, I enjoy the ability to have a seat at the table to represent many disinvested subsets of the community. I get to be a voice in how to allocate resources that benefit those groups." Executive VP & CFO, Nonprofit Organization
" The best thing about being a government accountant is creating positive change and also the diversity of work that I have the chance to undertake. Creating positive change allows me to feel that no matter what I am doing on a particular day, I always go home feeling like my work is important: important to the legislature, important to the citizens, important to state agencies, and important to my staff. The diversity of work has allowed me to find my passion in the work that I do. I have been able to keep my equation balanced and go home feeling fulfilled." Director of Data Analysis, State Government
Specialized experiences and knowledge
Yet despite the value added by government accountancy, the sector still fights to attract new talent, creating gaps in the talent pipeline. In comparison to the rest of the accounting sector, the exposure of government and nonprofit accounting in the standard accounting curriculum is limited.
"I am part of a specialized field that I enjoy." Associate Professor of Accounting, Other Government
Many programs require one course which covers both government and nonprofit accounting. The traditional accountancy curriculum does not offer many opportunities to see the array of options available in government and nonprofits. Only Rutgers University offers advanced study for specialization in governmental accounting. The program includes public finance, governmental budgeting, government auditing, information technology and nonprofit management coursework.
"Rutgers’ Masters of Governmental Accountancy gave me the place to advance my studies in concepts not addressed in my undergraduate program. Educating me in concepts of the various types revenue collection, budgeting, management and auditing of public funds.”
Unique Tangible Benefits – a well kept secret
Indeed, exposure, education, and experience play a part in attraction into the sector, but as with other sectors, other retention factors must be present. Governmental accountants say that they are. Reassuring those looking at the field that autonomy, pay, growth, and modern work environments are available. Beyond the service to the common good, other governmental accountants provided these additional perspectives for newcomers considering the sector.
An accountant for the federal government stated that as a governmental accountant, you may be rewarded with "Great pay, job security, opportunity to work most anywhere in the world."
"There are a lot of different types of job opportunities." Staff Auditor, State Government
“I also appreciate the flexible work schedules and generous work-life balance.” Director, Federal Government
"Your job is different every day. You work with citizens, elected officials, bond agencies, etc. It is not boring!" Associate Professor of Accounting, Educational Institution
Governmental accounting typically brings a higher level of job security than the private sector. The opportunity to serve will exist simultaneously with societal needs. It is incumbent upon those in the field to offer insight and invite onlookers to participate in the sector as a career option. Those in the sector feel rewarded for their work while making a difference for the rest of the community. There are many places to get additional information on the field, obtain advanced educational opportunities and view available positions. Governmental accountants are stewards of public funds whether in the role of accountant or auditor. The need to properly account for and audit those funds are a high matter of public interest. With new regulations being passed all the time this increases the need for competent & licensed accountants to interpret these laws and verify that they are being followed.
There are many benefits to being a governmental accountant from having a good work life balance to being compensated at a competitive level. A common response in this survey of government accountants is that there is a sense of working for the greater good and making a positive impact of communities whether at the federal, state, or local levels. That sense of purpose and public servanthood is what makes being a government accountant a great career.