Public Finance as a Profession

Article excerpt

Amid this unique compendium of articles addressing the career development challenges, opportunities, and resources for governmental finance officers, I will attempt to provide a broader perspective on the profession and the vocation of public finance as I believe it should be understood by practitioners and the academy. This will require adjustments in the thinking of some in the field, because "public finance" has come to mean many different things in different contexts. It is not unlike the proverbial Twelve Blind Men and the Elephant (see What IS Public Finance?).

Many GFOA members would likely find themselves hard-pressed to define the term "public finance" In the accounting field, the term "public accounting" means something, and "governmental accounting" means something. Thanks to the GFONs name change (1) and its big-tent spirit of professional association, "governmental finance" means something.

So "public finance" must be something bigger. And indeed it is.

Public finance is a combination of the many official, professional, and economic activities that collectively provide the funding and financial management for public goods, services and facilities. (3) As a vocation and as a profession, the field has unique characteristics. I hope my observations will ring familiar to those who are practicing the art and the science of this field. Equally important, one hopes that students searching for a meaningful career of skilled service to our society will find in this article a way to anticipate and appreciate the choices they must make.

SERVING THROUGH SKILL IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST

One of the defining features of public finance as a profession is that it requires a commitment to public service. Some souls stumble their way into our field by default, taking an accounting or financial job in the public or non-profit sector because it is the only skilled position they can find within driving distance of their home at a given time in life. For most practitioners in the field, however, a career in public finance is a conscious choice to serve through skill. Those who make public finance a lifelong commitment generally must forgo the opportunities to accumulate wealth that abound in the world of private finance.

In government and in the not-for-profit sector, ownership of the entity and its resources belongs to the amorphous "public," however that may be defined. Officials and administrators are expressly prohibited from profiting personally from their contributions. A democracy cannot tolerate the corruption that could result from financial officials lining their pockets at the expense of taxpayers or charitable donors. In government, this is accomplished through conflict of interest laws and rules; in the not-for-profit world, the tax law deals severely and punitively with "personal inurement." Unlike a private-sector CFO or an investment banker who may enjoy immense wealth gained from stock options or other equity compensation that links prosperity directly to his or her personal accomplishments or corporate status, a public servant must accept a pat on the back and if fortunate, a modest salary increase, or on rare occasions a token performance bonus.

Service to the public need not require a vow of poverty, however. As skilled professionals, many public finance officers possess scarce talents that command a value in the marketplace, and public employers must offer a combination of monetary and "psychic" income that satisfies the needs of the skilled professional. However, the payroll compensation on this side of the economy, even for the most talented, will seldom exceed the professional middle class in the private sector. Some practitioners may subsequently leverage their skills in the private economy and achieve prosperity there, but those paths are extraordinary rather than commonplace, despite the widespread press attention often given to "revolving door" careers in Washington, D. …