The duties of a government accountant are similar to the duties of a public accountant. The difference between the two fields is your client base. Government accountants are employed by the government and deal either with the government’s finances or with finances of organizations overseen by the government. Government accounting careers exist at all three levels of government, so you could work at the local, state, or federal level.
As a government accountant, you could either prepare and verify the accuracy of the government’s financial documents or offer advice as a consultant on cost-cutting measures. Similar to a public accountant, a government accountant could advise a government agency on how to offer benefits to its employees in a cost-efficient manner or how to invest wisely. Government accountants provide analyses of potential investment risks and returns. Sometimes, government accountants are responsible for creating budgets for the agencies that employ them. They also prepare financial statements to demonstrate to taxpayers that an agency is functioning efficiently.
Being a government employee means having at least some engagement in politics. An accountant whose clients are private businesses will certainly be affected by some issues that change based on the political climate, such as tax law. However, a government accountant is more heavily affected by political changes. If a government accountant is hired under a particular politician’s administration and that administration is voted out of office, the government accountant’s job duties may be affected.
One upside of government accounting careers is that they have more potential for altruism than accounting careers in the private sector. Government accountants help balance government budgets and cut costs. This savings can then be passed down to taxpayers. Government accountants may work for specific government agencies with altruistic aspirations, such as educational and antipoverty programs. Helping these types of agencies save money means that more funds can be used toward these causes. Balancing the budget and preparing accurate financial documents for agencies like these also gives the agencies legitimacy in the public’s eye and encourages public support for programs that provide helpful services to those who need them.
At the federal level, government accountants are frequently employed by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), Department of Defense (DOD), and the General Accounting Office (GAO).
Salaries for government accounting careers are not necessarily better or worse than accounting salaries in the private sector, depending on the specific employer and your level of experience. The general trend is that federal government accounting salaries are higher than those of accountants working in the private sector, and salaries for government accountants working at the state or local level tend to be a bit lower than the salaries of those in the private sector. Many entry-level accounting careers begin working for an accounting firm rather than for the government. The possibility for promotion within government accounting is similar to the possibility for promotion in an accounting firm. After working as a government accountant for several years, you may have the opportunity for a managerial position, which is accompanied by a higher salary.
Whether or not a government accounting career is a good match for you depends on your priorities. Being a government accountant may require a higher tolerance for bureaucracy than being self-employed or working for an accounting firm. Your career will also have more sensitivity to political shifts than it would in the private sector. However, if you want to put your accounting skills to use for an organization whose mission you feel helps the greater good, you may want to look into working for a government agency that you feel is contributing positively to society.