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Reaping the rewards of public service: There are abundant opportunities for accountants in the government

Although they have different objectives and ways of operating, accountants working for either the government or the corporate sector need to have the same high levels of knowledge, dedication and professional skills that go far beyond simply studying figures.

Ada Chung, the Hong Kong government’s registrar of companies, says while accountants in the corporate sector focus on financial well-being and profits for business owners and investors, government accountants help create budgets, track costs and analyse publicly funded programmes – making sure money is both collected and spent as required by law.

“The orientation between the two accounting sectors is quite different because government accountants need to focus on delivering quality public services in the most effective way,” Chung explains. An accounting career in the civil service, she says, is rewarding, challenging and offers a wide range of career-development opportunities and promotion prospects. 

In addition, Chung says colleagues and members of the public look to government accountants for solid advice, which creates respect and job satisfaction. “It is important to be a team player and always uphold the highest levels of integrity,” she says.

Civil service accountants are also subject to the scrutiny of the public and the Legislative Council and, more so than their corporate peers, need to be aware of the current political landscape. Unlike accountants who work in the corporate sector, where they are answerable to senior management, a civil service accountant is subject to the scrutiny of the public and lawmakers. “Government accountants need to work within constraints and guidelines determined by the government,” says Chung, who adds that another unique difference between corporate and civil service positions, is the need for government accountants to be aware of the current political landscape.  

Using herself as an example of career opportunities within the civil service, Chung says some of the more interesting experiences during the early part of Chung’s career included providing tax advice to Hong Kong seafarers, who came under a special tax regime. She was also a member of the Financial Institution section of the Inland Revenue Department (IRD) that liaises with banks on complex tax issues. 

During her career, she also spent about 20 years with the Department of Justice, where she represented the government and IRD in court. She was also once the counsel to the Insider Dealing Tribunal which investigated suspected insider trading in the stock market.

“I believe my accounting knowledge was helpful in understanding the complex figures,” she says. 

More recently, as head of the Companies Registry, she played a leading role in rewriting the Companies Ordinance to produce a more modern piece of company law and introduce a new corporate regulatory regime. 

Depending on interests and specialisations, accountants and graduate accountants usually join one of three government departments: the Treasury, IRD and the Audit Commission. Chung says roles and responsibilities within each department vary greatly. 

For example, accountants working in the Treasury Department are responsible for providing financial services to the government, such as helping prepare the annual budget. They can also be seconded to various other government departments and bureaus where they are involved in budgeting, internal audits, fund management and investigations. 

Meanwhile, accountants working in the IRD assess the salary and profit tax liabilities of, among other things, individuals and companies and investigate suspected cases of tax evasion. “The work is varied and carries a high level of responsibility because you are dealing with issues that involve members of the public,” says Chung, who is also a qualified lawyer who spent her first seven years in the Civil Service as an accountant in the IRD. She says the experience taught her the importance of providing accurate, clear and concise information that helps the public make decisions. “Accountants interact with people on a daily basis, so it is important to always be patient and professional when providing advice.”

According to Chung, accountants working in the Audit Commission carry out independent audits on the accounts of the government, assess internal control environments, compliance, governance processes and conduct value for money audits for bureaus/departments and other public bodies.

Across all government departments, CPAs are designated professional grade officers and, depending on their experience and abilities, may rise to senior management or even directorate level. Because of the variety of work, there are plenty of opportunities for professional skills training and accountants who do pursue these courses or part-time studies can apply for study leave.

This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Reaping the rewards of public service.