Government accountants and auditors work in the public sector to maintain and examine the records of government agencies and also to audit private businesses and individuals who pay taxes. Government accountants also audit entities subject to other government regulations, such as businesses providing contract services to the government or organizations receiving government grant money.
The goals of federal, state or municipal government agencies when applying the principals of accounting are different from the private sector’s main business objective of earning profit. Budgets are among the most important considerations in government accounting since government agencies and other recipients of government money are fiscally accountable to tax payers and must demonstrate compliance with the intended uses of budgeted resources.
Federal Accounting Standards Advisory Board (FASB) | Government Accounting Standards Board (GASB)
Two independent, private sector boards set the generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) for government accounting:
The Federal Accounting Standards Advisory Board (FASAB) sets federal accounting standards. Way back in October 1990, the Secretary of the Treasury, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, and the Comptroller General of the United States created the FASAB to develop accounting standards and principles for the United States Government. These standards were designed to allow the Federal Government and its agencies to provide users of financial reports with understandable, relevant, and reliable information about each agency’s financial position, activities, and the results of their operations.
In October 1999, the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) recognized FASAB as the board that sets generally accepted accounting principles for federal entities. The Board has nine members: one from each of the three above mentioned agencies that established the Board, plus six public or non-federal members. In developing accounting standards, the Board considers the financial and budgetary information needs of congressional oversight groups, executive agencies, and other users of federal financial information.
The Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB) sets accounting standards for state and local governments. In 1984, the Financial Accounting Foundation in partnership with associations representing state and local governments, established the GASB to set state and local accounting standards. The Board consists of seven experienced members knowledgeable of governmental accounting and finance whose responsibility it is to look out for the public’s interest with regard to accounting and financial reporting. The Board follows a due process published in its Rules of Procedures and encourages public participation.
Since 1999, the GASB has required that state and local governments produce a government-wide statement of net assets and a statement of activities:
- A statement of net assets is similar to a balance sheet and lists assets and debts of an organization.
- A statement of activities is similar to an income statement except it uses the terms excess or deficit instead of profit or loss.
These statements use the accrual basis of accounting, meaning that revenues are recorded in the accounting period they are earned and become measurable, even if they aren’t available for use, and measurable expenses are recorded in the period incurred.
Government Accountability Office
Although accountants work in all levels of government, one of the more high profile federal entities is the Government Accountability Office (GAO), an independent, nonpartisan agency that works as the investigative arm of Congress. The GAO’s activities include auditing government agency operations to determine if federal funds are being spent efficiently and effectively and investigating allegations of illegal and improper activities. Every two years, the GAO publishes a list (The Watchdog Report) of government programs that are at high risk for waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement.
Internal Revenue Service
According to the IRS, accounting professionals within the agency:
- Design, develop, operate, or inspect accounting systems
- Set accounting standards, policies, and requirements
- Examine, analyze, and interpret accounting data, records, or reports
- Provide accounting or financial management advice and assistance
The IRS employs accountants working in a number of different capacities, including:
- Internal Revenue Agents that audit returns for accuracy and usually handle complicated income, sales, and excise tax returns of businesses and large corporations. Entry-level positions require at least 30 hours of accounting courses.
- Tax Specialists that help taxpayers who have questions about filing returns and who conduct surveys, studies and focus groups to find out how effective IRS products, services, and communications are. Tax specialists also produce communication materials to help people voluntarily comply with tax code. The minimum requirement is six semester hours of accounting or passing an accounting proficiency test.
- Tax Compliance Officers examine and investigate individual and business taxpayers. According to the IRS, successful candidates are usually business majors and others who have six semester hours of accounting or who can pass an accounting proficiency test.
Areas of specialty within government accountancy
Government accounting is defined largely by the practice of fund accounting, which categorizes resources into funds to identify their source and allocation. Government accounting records are essentially a collection of funds. Each fund has a specific purpose, ranging from operating expenses to funding for a specific program. Each fund is an independently accountable entity where the basic accounting equation of Assets = Liabilities + Equity still applies.
In fund accounting the focus is on accountability rather than profitability. Segregating resources into funds helps with the control and monitoring of these resources while ensuring and demonstrating that an agency is meeting legal and administrative requirements. Many non-profit organizations also use fund accounting.
The three basic groups of funds in governmental accounting are:
- Governmental, or source and use funds, such as general, special revenue, debt service, capital projects, and permanent funds.
- Proprietary, or income-determining funds report on activities paid for primarily by revenues from the activities themselves, such as a municipal utility.
- Fiduciary funds are used to account for assets that a governmental unit holds in a trustee capacity, such as a trust fund for a public employee pension plan.
Fund accounting uses modified accrual accounting in which four things happen:
- Rather than recording revenue when earned, revenue is recorded when measurable and available for use.
- Acquisitions of long-term assets are treated like expenses. Long-term debt is treated like income. Therefore, fund-based governmental balance sheets show no long-term assets or liabilities, just working capital.
- The budget is entered into the accounts in reverse. That is, debits are used for budgeted revenue and credits are used for budgeted expenditures.
- When goods are ordered, an entry (called an encumbrance) is made. When the goods arrive, the encumbrance is reversed and an expense is entered in the same way as it would be in for-profit accounting.
Grant Accountants perform governmental audits to help ensure that the billions of dollars in grants, loans and loan guarantees, property, cooperative agreements, interest subsidies, insurance, food commodities, direct appropriations, and federal cost reimbursements awarded by the government every year are properly used by the recipients.
There are 26 federal grant-making agencies providing grants that support everything from education to agriculture, and from health and human services to arts and culture. Grants are made to state and local governments, education organizations, public housing organizations, non-profit organizations, businesses, and even individuals who are conducting research or developing and running programs that fall within the scope of a grant’s purpose. Ultimately, these entities all must be able to show that they spent the grant money for intended purposes.
Education for Government Accountants
Government accountants generally have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in accounting or a related field with accounting classes. Some accountants may get started with an associate’s degree. Some accountants may have a business or finance-related bachelor’s degree with a master’s degree in accounting or an MBA with an accounting concentration.
Someone interested in government accounting is well advised to take fund accounting or government accounting courses while getting a degree. Some schools offer a government accounting concentration as part of a bachelor’s degree in accounting or business. Continuing education and certificate programs in fund accounting and government accounting procedures are also available.
Government Accounting Certification
Becoming a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) is considered something of a gateway to government accounting work and is, in fact, required for some roles. Additional specialty credentials for government accounting are available through a number of certifying agencies.
The Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA) offers a specialty certification called Certified Government Auditing Professional (CGAP). The exam for this certification covers the unique aspects of public sector internal auditing: fund accounting, grants, legislative oversight, confidentiality rights, and more. The educational requirements for this certification are a bachelor’s or equivalent degree or an associate’s degree plus five years of work experience in a government environment. In addition, applicants need two years of auditing experience in a government environment.
Another option is Certified Government Financial Manager (CGFM) from the Association of Government Accountants, an educational organization dedicated to enhancing public financial management. Certification requires a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university and two years of professional experience in the government financial management field.
The following three exams for the CGFM cover the entire field of federal, state, and local government financial management:
- Governmental environment, including the levels and branches of government, legal aspects of the governmental environment, and the budgeting process
- Governmental accounting, financial reporting and budgeting
- Governmental financial management and control
Prior to June 2002, the National Association of Certified Valuation Analysts (NACVA) offered a certification called Government Valuation Analyst (GVA). That certification then became part of the Accredited Valuation Analyst (AVA) designation. However, the AVA requirements for government-employed valuators are different from the requirements for other AVA applicants and include:
- A four-year college degree
- Combined equivalent of two years of full-time experience in business valuation, which is approved by the applicant’s immediate supervisor or the business valuation committee for the applicable government funded institution
- Being currently employed by a federal or state government agency with a minimum GS-12 or comparable rating (rating exceptions are considered on a case-by-case basis)
- Being a NACVA Government employee member in good standing
- Successfully completing a sample case study or submitting an actual and sanitized Fair Market Value (FMV) report
- Passing a comprehensive five-hour multiple-choice exam
Government Accountancy Employment and Salary Facts
Federal, state, and local governments employ accountants to make sure that government money is allocated and spent in a way that aligns with policy guidelines.
At the Federal level, agencies that accountants work for include:
- Departments of Defense, Transportation, Treasury, and Agriculture
- Foreign Service
- Government Accountability Office (GAO)
- Internal Revenue Service (IRS)
At the state level, agencies that retain accountants include:
- Auditor’s office
- Comptroller’s office
- Finance departments
- State-run hospitals
- State universities
On a city or county level, accountants work for:
- Finance departments
- Local-government owned hospitals
- Public Works
- School districts or Boards of Education
Not all government accounting actually involves working for the government. In fact, private accounting firms that provide contract services to the government, and even those firms that work for government contractors, also hire CPAs and others knowledgeable in government accounting.
Salaries for accountants in government vary by location, education, certification, and other factors. In May 2020, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported the average salaries for accountants and auditors working for local, state and federal government agencies to be:
- Federal Executive Branch, $105,980
- State Government, $68,460
- Local Government, $71,420
May 2020 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and labor market information for Accountants and Auditors is based on national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed April 2021.
Annual Rates by Grade and Step
The broad range of federal administrative staff that this table covers includes accountants and auditors employed with the federal government, including with the IRS and other agencies. Differences in salary account for different roles, levels of experience and education.
General Schedule Salary Table for 2021 as published by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM). The information shown here includes the 1 percent increase that took effect at the beginning of the year. Locality pay is not reflected in the figures shown here.