Discover The Facts

Civil Service

This section contains non-partisan factual information about the Civil Service. It has been compiled by the site editor and is updated periodically. It cannot be re-edited by site users. If you believe any of this material is factually incorrect or politically biased please contact the editor.

Key Questions


To what extent are civil servants still anonymous, neutral and permanent?

The introduction of executive agencies headed by senior civil servants as the major vehicles for the implementation of policy has changed the work and the culture of the civil service. There has also been an increased identification of key civil servants in relation to their impact on policy, in particular the Cabinet Secretary has been the subject of considerable interest.


Should civil servants be shielded by Ministerial responsibility?

Reform calls for greater accountability for civil servants. Suggested reforms include the appointment of senior civil servants by democratically elected politicians, a more open recruitment process at the higher levels of government, the abolition of Ministerial responsibility in relation to officials, and its replacement by personal responsibility for construction and implementation of policy.


Are quangos sufficiently accountable? Are there some functions or powers that ought only to be held by those democratically elected?

The Taxpayers' Alliance argues for the reduction in the number of 'SAPBs'-Semi-Autonomous Public Bodies-because of problems of accountability, cost, cronyism, duplication of function and taxpayer-funded lobbying.

The Alliance employs a broad definition of quangos-'anything in which a politician or senior Government official has a say in the appointment of staff, the setting of goals, strategy or budgets, then the organisation can be considered a candidate'. This definition means including not simply non-departmental public bodies but also executive agencies (such as JobCentre Plus). As a result, SAPBs number well over 1000.


Some of the common arguments often raised about quangos are set out below:



* Quangos allow decisions about certain issues to be taken with minimal interference from party politics

* Quangos provide a useful service for government: experts may be more appropriate for certain kinds of issues

* Quangos may reduce the workload of other executive bodies



* Quangos allow politicians to avoid responsibility for controversial issues

* Quangos themselves are not democratic: there is often little accountability or effective scrutiny either of appointment or of the quango's actions

* Quangos are an unacceptable source of patronage; representation of diversity is still an issue

* Quangos are costly; there may be duplication of functions; they constitute an extra, unnecessary level of government.


Section last updated September 2010

What you need to know

The civil service is the British state's bureaucracy.  In constitutional theory civil servants are 'servants of the Crown'.  In this context it means that civil servants serve the Government of the day and have no overarching obligations to Parliament.  The civil service has no 'constitutional personality' or separate responsibility from the Government.


Civil servants are thought to be characterised by the principles of neutrality, anonymity and permanence.  The civil service's role is to help the Government formulate policy, implement policy and deliver public services.  The traditional picture is of a neutral, unified civil service working within a department headed by a Minister; this Minister is in turn accountable to Parliament and ultimately the public.


The civil service's neutrality means it should serve whatever Government is in power, and shift its allegiance immediately whenever there is a newly-elected Government.  The duty of civil servants is to serve their Minister; they remain anonymous, and in return, Ministers act as a shield; Ministers alone are responsible to Parliament, and accountable for all decisions made by their departments.  Finally, the civil service's permanence provides every Government with continuity and experience in administration.


This traditional picture no longer entirely reflects the reality, if it ever did.  Government Ministers engage numerous individuals and think tanks to advise them in formulating policy.  Civil servants are now more fully employed in delivering policy initiatives than advising on them.  At the beginning of the 21st century, the administration of the state is carried out through Government departments, executive agencies, and quangos. Most civil servants now work in executive agencies; organisations charged with 'delivering services' to the public, and which fall under the management of a Chief Executive.  These executive agencies are sponsored by Government departments, which in conjunction with the departmental Minister, set the objectives of the agency.  With the growth of the use of external agencies, questions have arisen about accountability and Ministerial responsibility.

Why does it matter?

The civil service is likely to be the part of government with which citizens have most contact.  The civil service is empowered to take actions which may directly impact on the lives of citizens, both in financial terms and in terms of enjoyment of individual liberties.  Accordingly the decisions made as to who may serve in the civil service, the systems of accountability and the question of who, ultimately, takes responsibility for the actions of the civil service are of critical importance to citizens.

What are the key dates?

The following list of key dates is mostly sourced from Whither the Civil Service?  House of Commons Research Paper 03/49  20 MAY 2003

Sir Stafford Northcote and Sir Charles Trevelyan Report on the Organisation of the Permanent Civil Service
(4 June) Civil Service Order in Council: ensured the Commission would oversee a genuinely competitive examination system (except in the Home and Foreign Offices) 1875-1886 The Playfair and Ridley Reports endorsed transfers within departments and reform of the grading structure
Until 1914 The MacDonnell Royal Commission proposed central management of the Civil Service
The Haldane Report called for rationalisation of departmental responsibilities
The Bradbury Report resulted in new Establishments branch of the Treasury to oversee Civil Service organisation and pay
Until 1939 Warren Fisher was Permanent Secretary to the Treasury and Head of the Civil Service
Establishment of Whitley Councils
(22 July) Order in Council formally confirmed Civil Service management and personnel issues under Treasury control
The Tomlin Royal Commission
The Plowden Report argued that Civil Service needed to professionalize its management systems and behaviour
The Fulton Report recommended:
  • Civil Service Department comprising Civil Service Commission and management divisions of Treasury
  • a Civil Service College
  • special assistants and senior policy advisers to Ministers
  • integration of specialists and generalists
  • hiving of some departmental functions to agencies
Civil Service Order in Council: set out criteria for employment of outsiders
Richard Meyjes from Shell seconded to advise Opposition on reform of Whitehall
Until 1972 Derek Rayner seconded from Marks & Spencer to set up Defence Procurement Executive
Central Policy Review Staff (CPRS) set up, headed by Lord Rothschild, followed by Kenneth Berrill, Robin Ibbs, John Sparrow
The Hardman Report suggested between 50,000 and 150,000 jobs could be dispersed outside London: (by early 1990s approximately 20 per cent of 'non-industrial' staff work in Whitehall)
Policy Unit set up in No. 10, headed by Bernard Donoughue followed by John Hoskyns, Ferdinand Mount, John Redwood, Brian Griffiths, Sarah Hogg, David Miliband
guidelines on Special Advisers issued by Harold Wilson
Efficiency Unit set in the Cabinet Office headed by Sir Derek Rayner, staffed by civil servants and consultants
Civil Service strike
Civil Service Department abolished
Civil Service Order in Council amended: Commission's responsibilities for staff limited to top 15 civil servants
CPRS abolished by Margaret Thatcher
Cassells Report: reviewed personnel management in the Civil Service and measures introduced to increase attractiveness of Civil Service to potential recruits
Until 1985 House of Commons Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee Report54 proposes 'ministers policy units' concept.
Civil Service Order in Council: time limits on appointment of advisers and new guidelines for appointment of senior Civil Servants from outside
Improving Management in Government: the Next Steps report (the Ibbs report): recommended radical extension of executive agencies
Office of the Minister for the Civil Service created: Peter Kemp appointed 'Project Manager'
Working Patterns by Anne Mueller proposed core civil and peripheral Civil Service with latter comprising wide range of conditions of employment
Government responds to Treasury and Civil Service Committee report: Next Steps Agency Chief Executive Officers to be accountable to Public Accounts Committee
Civil Service Order in Council extended departmental and agency responsibilities for staff to 95 per cent of recruitment; limits set on role of special advisers
Civil Service (Management Functions) Act gives delegated authorities to Agencies and office holders in charge of departments
Abolition of Senior Appointments Selection Committee and replacement with Civil Service Commissioners ; Senior Civil Service established
Civil Service Order in Council: Civil Service Commission assumes responsibility for interpreting recruitment principles; exceptions to principles established in Civil Service Recruitment Code
Amendment to Civil Service Order in Council to allow three special advisers in Prime Minister's office to hold executive authority over civil servants
Civil Service Order in Council (Amendment) Order: appointment of Special Advisers to members of Scottish Parliament and National Assembly for Wales
Civil Service Reform Programme launched
Civil Service College joins Centre for Management and Policy Studies within Cabinet Office
Order in Council giving Civil Service Commissioners powers of approval, to the top 600+ posts (Pay Band 2 and above) in the Senior Civil Service

What are the key facts?

There are currently just under 500,000 full-time civil servants in Britain. More

  • The senior civil service-colloquially called 'mandarins'-constitute less than 1% of the entire civil service, or about 3500-4000 people.
  • Just over half (53%) of all civil servants are women; about 8.5% are from non-majority ethnic backgrounds.
  • The largest proportion of civil servants (one third) are aged between 40 and 50 years old.
  • Over three-quarters of the civil service work in executive agencies.
  • Almost three-quarters of all civil servants work outside London.
  • The median gross annual earnings for permanent full-time civil servants is £22,520.


The civil service supposed to be defined by 3 interlinked principles: neutrality, anonymity and permanence.  Its neutrality means it should serve whatever Government is in power, regardless of party politics.  Its anonymity means that civil servants should not speak publicly on Government-related matters and it is Ministers who are responsible to Parliament and accountable for decisions and actions taken by their departments.  A civil service made of up long-term employees provides continuity and experience to an incoming Government.


The functions of the civil service are wide and varied: traditionally, the civil service has

  • informed and advised Ministers
  • helped formulate policy
  • helped Ministers get legislation through Parliament
  • represented Ministers in Government meetings
  • managed the bureaucracy of central government.


Recent History


Modern reform of the civil service began under Margaret Thatcher.  The number of civil servants was reduced. More

In 1979, there were 740,000 civil servants; by 1990, 600,000; and by 1997 it had dropped to 500,000.
The 1988 'Next Steps' Report recommended policy-making and delivery functions be split between government department and agency to increase efficiency.  The effect was to create a separate 'core' civil service, located in departments, which continued to give advice to Ministers, while the majority of the members of the wider civil service were now to be found within agencies, charged with service delivery and answerable to their agency's Chief Executive.  In short the vast majority of civil servants became managers and administrators within agencies.


Splitting the policy (core) and delivery (agency) functions made it easier to see if policy targets were being met but it has also led to issues of accountability - the issue being whether the Minister for a department is responsible for key actions or the Chief Executive of the relevant agency.  Moreover, this division of functions has led to a loss of anonymity for some civil servants which can compromise their work. More

One example of this was the establishment of the Child Support Agency under the Child Support Act 1992. The Agency was charged with tracing absent parents, and assessing and then enforcing child maintenance fees.  There was widespread criticism of the Agency in its first year.  There were allegations of wrongful identification, miscalculations of maintenance payments and the Agency failed to meet the savings target set by the Government. The Chief Executive of the Agency resigned, but many critics argued the fault lay not with the Chief Executive and her administration of the Agency, but rather the legislation, and the policies which lay behind the legislation.  Source: Hilaire Barnett Britain Unwrapped: Government and Constitution Explained (Penguin, London, 2002)

The proliferation of departments, agencies and quangos led to further concerns about the integrity of the civil service.  More specifically, a number of incidents involving civil servants, their loyalty and the leaking of 'official secrets' suggested a need for a code of conduct, a restatement of civil service values.  In 1996 a Civil Service Code was enacted by prerogative Order in Council. The Code sets out the civil service's core values - integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality - standards of behaviour, and rights and duties. More

The Civil Service Code reflects the traditional view of the civil service - "The Civil Service is an integral and key part of the government of the United Kingdom.  It supports the Government of the day in developing and implementing its policies, and in delivering public services.  Civil servants are accountable to Ministers, who in turn are accountable to Parliament".  The Code provides a process for situations where civil servants believe they are being required to act in a way that conflicts with the Code - ultimately, by appeal to the Civil Service Commissioners.
Provisions in the 2010 Constitutional Reform and Governance Act resulted in the Civil Service Code being placed on a statutory footing.

Despite the introduction of the Civil Service Code, concerns have endured that there has been continuing erosion of the principles of neutrality, anonymity and permanence.  Factors contributing to these concerns include:

  • senior civil servants have become more publicly identified in the policy-making process
  • the recruitment by the Government of people from outside the civil service into the policy-making process
  • an increase in the number of special advisors - temporary civil servants who are party-politically allied to the Government, which civil servants are not permitted to be
  • an increase in the number of external agencies, or Quangos (Quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations) running state business.


Management of the Civil Service

Although recommendations to put management of the civil service and its principles on a statutory basis were first made in 1854 and have been almost continually under discussion ever since, the management of the Civil Service is still carried out by Ministers under royal prerogative powers.  Thus Ministers can for example establish new departments without debating the matter in Parliament or obtaining Parliament's approval. 

By convention, the Prime Minister is the Minister for the Civil Service, and is responsible for its coordination and management, which includes the powers of appointment and dismissal.  The Prime Minister is supported in this by the Cabinet Secretary, who is also the head of the civil service.  The Cabinet Secretary is not a Minister or a member of the Cabinet, but is the most senior civil servant. The Cabinet Office is the operational centre which organizes and coordinates the cascading down of Government policy into the relevant departments and agencies.

The Civil Service Commissioners are responsible, amongst other things, for ensuring that recruitment to the Civil Service should be based on merit and on fair and open competition.  The Civil Service Commissioners are not civil servants themselves and remain independent of the Government of the day. More

The Civil Service Commissioners are appointed by the Crown under royal prerogative; in practise appointment is made upon the recommendation of a recruiting panel, the parameters for which are not prescribed in any code or directive.  The panel has in the past been chaired by the head of the civil service, itself a political appointment. 

The 2009 Constitutional Renewal Bill currently before Parliament would put the management of the civil service on a statutory basis.  It has provisions devoted to the civil service, including granting the power to manage the civil service to the Minister for the Civil Service (who is usually the Prime Minister), the establishment of a Civil Service Commission and a requirement that a civil service code of conduct be published and laid before Parliament. More

Although the Bill provides for the establishment of the Civil Service Commission, "as a body corporate whose purpose is to maintain the principle of selection on merit on fair and open competition ", the Bill is somewhat obscure as to the mechanism for the appointment of the Commissioners.  There are provisions relating to the appointment of the First Civil Service Commissioner and about tenure of office.

In the last thirty years there have been frequent recommendations that the structure and operation of the civil service should be codified into a Civil Service Act, but successive governments have fought shy of following such recommendations.  Some argue that the provisions in the 2009 Bill are unlikely to make a major difference in practise without a comprehensive act of Parliament dealing with the civil service as a whole.


Government Institutions


The Government is divided into departments, usually organized by subject and function.  It is through departments that the Government implements its policies: to some extent, British government is 'departmental government'. 

Government departments can be divided into two kinds: ministerial and non-ministerial.  There are currently over 19 ministerial departments. More

A current list of ministerial government departments can be found here:
These are usually run by a Secretary of State, with a number of Ministers working underneath the Secretary. A Permanent Secretary, a senior civil servant, is in charge of the day-to-day running of each department.

Ministerial departments are far from uniform. For instance, the Treasury, Home Office and Foreign Office are often thought of as the most important departments, but these departments differ widely from each other in size.  For example, the Treasury consists of just over 1,100 full-time civil servants; the Home Office approximately 26,000 and the Foreign Office just under 6,000.  Other departments may be much larger, for example  HM Revenue and Customs, which has over 83,000 civil servants and the Ministry of Justice with more than 88,000. More

72% of civil servants work in one of the four main departments: the Department for Work and Pensions, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Defence and HM Revenue & Customs. More Ministerial departments also hive off certain responsibilities and functions to a variety of executive agencies.


Non-ministerial government departments are usually small, with a function thought best kept distant from direct political control.  They are part of government but are mostly independent of Ministers.  These departments are often headed by an office-holder, Commissioner, or Board and staffed by the civil service. There are currently 20 non-ministerial departments.  Examples include the Charities Commission, the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets (OFGEM) and the UK Statistics Authority. More

Departments are established under the royal prerogative, and thus can easily be broken up, merged with other departments, their functions transferred to other departments. More

For instance, in 2007, the Department for Constitutional Affairs was abolished; many of its functions were transferred to the newly-established Ministry of Justice.  The Ministry of Justice also took on some of the functions for which the Home Office had previously been responsible.  The effect of this was to shrink the Home Office, and make the Ministry of Justice one of the four biggest state departments.  see

The swiftness of these changes was criticised by the Public Administration Committee in its report Machinery of Government Changes (Seventh Report, 2006-7).  In essence, the PAC argued that there needed to be a mechanism to ensure changes to the machinery of government were fully considered before being made, because such changes could have far-reaching effects-financial and otherwise.


Executive agencies

Executive agencies are tasked with particular functions and objectives determined by the umbrella department overseeing the agency. Government departments, in conjunction with the relevant Minister, determine policy; executive agencies exist to implement and administer that policy.  In short, executive agencies act like subcontractors.

Each such executive agency is run by Chief Executives, who are responsible for the day-to-day running of the agency.  Chief Executives answer to Ministers, who are in turn responsible to Parliament.  Executive agencies are staffed by civil servants: in fact, over three-quarters of all civil servants work in executive agencies.  So, for instance, the UK Border Agency is an executive agency of the Home Office, and is immediately responsible to the Minister of State for Borders and Immigration.  It has its own Board and its own Chief Executive. More

The UK Border Agency organizes itself internally under a regional structure.  Each of the six regions of the UK Border Agency has a director, who "has the freedom to put local delivery and relationships with local stakeholders at the heart of" their work.  Source:
Concern has been expressed that the traditional view that Ministers remain accountable for everything that happens in their department, and that civil servants act and speak only on behalf of the Minister, is being eroded by the creation of executive agencies.  In practice, it will be the Minister who answers Parliamentary questions and therefore might properly be viewed as being ultimately responsible, with the role of chief executives being no different from the role of Permanent Secretaries. However, the position of chief executive is unlike the position of other civil servants.  In October 2009 the List of Ministerial Responsibilities produced by the Cabinet Office includes the names of Chief Executives of executive agencies alongside the responsible Minister's name.  Whether this is intended to imply a greater level of responsibility on the part of the Chief Executive is unclear. More


The number of executive agencies has varied over time: in 2002 there were 127; as of 2009 there are 66. More

Further examples include JobCentre Plus and Companies House.  Like Government departments they also vary considerably in size: JobCentre Plus employs over 66,000 civil servants; Companies House over 1,100.  A current list of executive agencies can be found here:


'Quangos', or quasi-autonomous non-government organisations, are often seen as a defining characteristic of the British state.  The basic remit of quangos is to provide some public function - such as advice or regulation - for the Government, and for which it is necessary to have some degree of independence from the Government.  Quangos vary widely in form and function, ranging from the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Electoral Commission to the Royal Navy Submarine Museum. A major problem is actually identifying what counts as a quango.

Quangos are usually established by legislation.  They are not staffed by the civil service.  Members of their governing bodies are appointed by the Government, but the quangos themselves determine how to structure their own management.  There is a Commissioner for Public Appointments, who now regulates many, but not all, appointments to quangos, ensuring that appointments are made according to merit and are free from influence.  However, ultimately Ministers determine appointments; Parliament has no say and there are many bodies which the Commissioner does not cover. More

Some critics have argued that Britain now has a 'quango state'.  There are now so many quangos, it is argued, that they constitute another layer of government.  More importantly, there are deep concerns about democratic accountability and patronage - in particular, there is little debate in Parliament about when it is appropriate that quangos should be established.  Arguably, quangos with great power ought to have an element of democratic accountability.  Currently, the British government does not refer to 'quangos' but rather to 'non-departmental public bodies', or NDPBs. There are four kinds of NDPB:

  • Executive NDPBs: these carry out executive, administrative, regulatory and/or commercial functions. Examples include the Pensions Regulator, the Independent Police Complaints Commission and the Royal Navy Submarine Museum.
  • Advisory NDPBs: these provide expert advice to Ministers on a wide range of issues. Examples include the Committee on Standards in Public Life Senior Salaries Review Body and the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.
  • Tribunal NDPBs: have jurisdiction in a specialised field of law.
  • Independent Monitoring Board NDPBs: these act as watchdogs of the prison system.


As of 31 March 2008, just over 92,500 people are employed by Executive NDPBs. The total expenditure of Executive NDPBs came to £43 billion. The number of appointees to public bodies came to over 18,000. More

The number of NDPBs seems to be declining. In 1979, there were over 2,000 NDPBs; in 1989 just over 1,500; by 1997, there were about 1,100 NDPBs; and as of 31 March 2008, there were 790 NDPBs.  However, these numbers are determined by the Government's definition of 'non-departmental public body' at the time. The narrower the definition, the fewer the number of quangos are, and vice versa.  Currently, for instance, the Government excludes from the definition of NDPBs all executive agencies, non-ministerial Government departments like OFSTED and OFWAT, and task force - all bodies which share similar characteristics to NDPBs, being mostly appointed and at a distance from central government.  Similarly, local body quangos and quangos which are the responsibility of the devolved governments are not included in the government definition of NDPB.  In 2003 the Public Administration Committee identified over 5,300 such local body quangos. More

Public Administration Select Committee Sixth Report: Quangos (HC 209, 1999); and Public Administration Select Committee Mapping the Quango State (HC 367, 2001)


References and Links

Research papers

Useful websites

Further reading

Research papers

Special Advisers, House of Commons Library, 2010

Civil Service Legislation, House of Commons Library, 2009

The Civil Service Code, House of Commons Librar, 2006

The Quango Debate, House of Commons Library, 2005

Individual Ministerial Responsibility: Issues and Examples, House of Commons Library, 2004

Useful websites

The Civil Service website

The Civil Service Code

The Compact

The Civil Service Commissioners

How to be a civil servant

Public bodies and quangos

House of Commons Library: Parliament and the Constitution

Further reading

- Peter Hennessy Whitehall (second edition, Pimlico, London, 2001)

- Vernon Bogdanor "The Civil Service" in Vernon Bogdanor (ed) The British Constitution in the Twentieth Century (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2003)

- Anthony King The British Constitution (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2007)

- The Civil Service Yearbook (updated anually, currently on 47th Edition)