The UK Civil Service: an explainer

The United Kingdom’s Home Civil Service is the politically impartial collection of government departments, agencies, and non-departmental government bodies – also known as NDPBs – that advise governments, support the development and implementation of government policy, and provide public services.

Employed by the Crown, the Civil Service has an impact on the lives of everyone within the United Kingdom. For example, the website lists a diverse range of public services that are managed by the Civil Service, including:

  • Benefits and pensions.
  • Employment services.
  • Issuing driving licences.

The Civil Service includes the majority of England’s governmental organisations, as well as the Welsh Assembly Government and the Scottish Government.

Structure of the Civil Service

The Civil Service operates under a clear governance model.

At the top of the hierarchy is the Crown and the Prime Minister, who oversees the government. 

Beneath the Crown is the Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service. This individual is the Prime Minister’s senior policy advisor and supports all ministers in the running of government while providing professional leadership within the Civil Service.

Next in the hierarchy is the Chief Operating Officer for the Civil Service. This individual is the Permanent Secretary for the Cabinet Office, chairs the Civil Service Board, and supports the Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Civil Service.

There are other permanent secretaries, as well. These are the most senior civil servants within each department of the Civil Service, responsible for the day-to-day running of their departments as well as supporting the government minister who officially heads those departments. The government ministers, meanwhile, are accountable to Parliament for the department’s performance. 

It’s also worth noting that there are Scottish and Welsh Permanent Secretaries, too. According to the UK Government website: “The Permanent Secretary of the Scottish Government is accountable to Scottish Ministers and is the Principal Accountable Officer for the Scottish Government. The Permanent Secretary of the Welsh Government is accountable to the First Minister of Wales and is the Principal Accounting Officer for the Welsh Government.”

Finally, there are three boards within the Civil Service:

  1. Civil Service Board (CSB), which is responsible for the strategic leadership of the Civil Service. The CSB is chaired by the Chief Operating Officer for the Civil Service, and includes a cross-section of permanent secretaries from Civil Service departments.
  2. People Board, which is a formal sub-board of the CSB, and considers people-related issues within the Civil Service. For example, it oversees the development of policies around pay and pensions for civil servants.
  3. The Civil Service Shadow Board (CSSB), which is a collection of civil servants from the departments represented at the CSB. CSSB members, however, are more junior than the representatives on the CSB, and can offer different viewpoints on the issues raised at the CSB.

Departments within the Civil Service

The Civil Service includes a diverse range of central government departments and agencies. 

  • The Attorney General’s Office
  • The Cabinet Office
  • Competition & Markets Authority (CMA)
  • Crown Prosecution Service (CPS)
  • Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL)
  • Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS)
  • Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS)
  • Department for Education (DfE)
  • Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs (Defra)
  • Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC)
  • Department for International Trade (DIT)
  • Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC)
  • Department for Transport (DfT)
  • Department for Work & Pensions (DWP)
  • Driver & Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA)
  • Environmental Standards Scotland (ESS)
  • Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO)
  • Government Digital Service (GDS)
  • Governmental Legal Department (GLD)
  • HM Land Registry
  • HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC)
  • HM Treasury
  • Home Office
  • Homes England
  • Intellectual Property Office (IPO)
  • Ministry of Defence (MOD)
  • Ministry of Justice (MOJ)
  • National Crime Agency (NCA)
  • Office for National Statistics (ONS)
  • Office of the Public Guardian (OPG)
  • Planning Inspectorate
  • Serious Fraud Office (SFO)
  • UK Export Finance (UKEF)
  • Valuation Office Agency (VOA)
  • Vehicle Certification Agency (VCA)
  • Welsh Revenue Authority

Which organisations are not included in the Civil Service?

Not all organisations that are funded by the government sit within the Civil Service. For example, the Civil Service does not include organisations, non-ministerial departments, and non-departmental public bodies such as: 

  • The National Health Service (NHS).
  • The BBC.
  • Local governments.
  • The Armed Forces.
  • The National Archives.

What is the largest department in the Civil Service?

The largest department in the Civil Service is the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) with more than 79,000 staff members. According to the Institute for Government, the five largest departments in the Civil Service employ about 68% of all civil servants. These departments are:

  1. The Department for Work and Pensions.
  2. The Ministry of Justice.
  3. HM Revenue and Customs.
  4. The Ministry of Defence.
  5. The Home Office.

The Civil Service code

Civil servants are obliged to adhere to the Civil Service Code, which was first introduced in 1996, with several updates in the years after.

The code outlines four core values for civil servants.

  1. Honesty – Civil servants should always aim to be truthful and open with one another and with the people they serve and advise.
  2. Integrity – Civil servants need to put the obligations of public service above their personal interests.
  3. Impartiality – Civil servants must be politically neutral.
  4. Objectivity – Civil servants should base their advice and decisions on rigorous analysis of evidence.

If asked to do anything that conflicts with the code – or if they are aware of another civil servant acting in conflict with the four core values – civil servants can raise their concerns within their departments, or directly with the Civil Service Commission. 

How many civil servants are there?

According to Understanding the Civil Service, there were 515,000 civil servants in the UK as of March 2023. This is approximately 1.6% of the UK workforce (which is around 32.9 million people), and 8.9% of all 5.8 million public sector employees in the UK.

Benefits of working in the Civil Service

According to the Civil Service Careers website, those who take a Civil Service job benefit from:

  • working for an evolving and progressive organisation
  • investments in digital technology
  • access to “exceptional learning and development opportunities and a variety of career paths”
  • flexible working arrangements
  • the Civil Service Pension Scheme, which is one of the more enviable pensions offered by UK employers.

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