Public sector accounting is a specialised field focused on keeping track of how public sector or government-linked entities handle money. This is because public sector entities are nominally not profit-making businesses, but are meant to focus on delivering services to benefit the public and/or the redistribution of income or wealth.
The primary objective of public sector accounting is to provide transparent and accurate information about government income and spending to stakeholders, including taxpaying voters, elected officials, and government agencies. In Malaysia, this means that all public sector entities must comply with the Malaysia Public Sector Accounting Standards (MPSAS), which provides a framework for local financial reporting in the public sector.
Public sector accountants play a crucial role in managing government resources and ensuring accountability. They are responsible for ensuring that government financial records comply with relevant accounting standards, regulations, and laws. At higher levels of experience, they also provide advice on federal- or state-level financial matters and assist in the development of government policies and programmes.
Most government and public sector entities in Malaysia typically require a degree as a minimum qualification for entry-level accounting positions. As with most other accounting career pathways, you will also eventually need to be professionally qualified if you hope to ascend the ranks later on. Qualification by the Malaysian Institute of Accountants (MIA) is particularly favourable in this case.
Career pathways for public sector accounting vary depending on the type of organisation you are placed in. Most public sector entities in Malaysia hire directly for entry-level roles, so you will have to keep an eye out for such direct opportunities. Graduates typically start off as junior accountants or financial analysts, assisting in the preparation of financial statements, budgets, and financial reports.
As you gain more experience (and get professionally-qualified), you can advance to roles such as government accountant, public sector auditor, or financial manager. These roles involve more complex financial analysis, budget planning, and financial management responsibilities. You may also eventually move upstream to the Accountant General’s Department (AGD), which oversees accounting standards and reporting for all public sector entities in Malaysia.
An alternative career pathway is to work for the public sector accounting desk at a private sector accounting and professional services firm. Large accounting firms like the Big Four do have specialised divisions providing audit and assurance services for public sector entities or advisory services for businesses looking to work with the government. This could be a viable option if you have an interest in public sector accounting, but still want to remain in the private sector!
A big difference between accounting in the public sector vs. the private sector is that you will need to keep public sector accounting standards as dictated by the MPSAS in mind at all times. Public sector accountants must have a thorough understanding of such standards to ensure that all financial reporting complies with the guidelines set by the government.
Adaptability is a key skill for this line of work as well. Public sector accountants must be able to adapt to constant changes in the public sector landscape, such as changes in regulations, government direction, or government policies, and adjust their work accordingly.
Communication skills are also important as public sector accountants must be able to communicate financial information to stakeholders in a clear and concise manner. In addition, because the public sector is a giant bureaucracy, you will need to communicate and follow-up across departments, entities, or even ministries at times to get the data you require. Knowing who to engage with will be just as important as how to engage them.
Lateral thinking is another key skill, as you must be able to discern how data and financial transactions from various departments or divisions all link together to form a bigger picture about an entity’s financial spending or usage of their government-assigned budget. And of course, as with all other accounting jobs, you must still be highly numerate and have great attention to detail.