What is the civil service and how does it work?

3 mins
February 25, 2022
So you want to know more about the civil service? Maybe you've just done your GCSEs and are looking into apprenticeships, or you're fresh out of uni, and you have a passion for policy and changing people's lives? Look no further; in this article, we'll explain what the civil service is and why you might want to work in it.

How does the civil service work?

Put simply, the civil service is there to provide public services and help the government of the day implement its policies. Unsurprisingly, civil servants are the people that work in the civil service. They are also often called public servants, and to be honest, this name makes more sense as they serve the public!

What do civil servants do?

Civil servants ensure the effective running of government and provide the best possible services to the public. Civil servants have to be impartial; this means that they have to serve the government party in power, even if they voted for the opposition. Basically, you can't let your own political opinions impact how well you do your job.

Is the civil service the same in every country?

In some countries, like the US, the whole civil service changes when a government changes (this can happen every four years). When a new party (and president) is sworn in, usually their first task is to appoint key staff that report to the president. Think of this like a company getting a new managing director and then recruiting a new set of department heads. US government staff are aware that the job isn’t the most stable gig, whereas in the UK system employees tend to stay for a fairly long time.

Why do civil service staff have to be impartial?

An interesting thing to note is that civil servant staff don't change depending on who is in power in the UK. If staff didn't act impartially, governments would crumble because they wouldn't be able to trust their team (the civil service) to carry out their duties. Often the government has used these policies and promises to get elected in the first place. This could be more funding for the NHS or notably a referendum about whether or not to stay in the EU- you see the reason for impartiality now!

What does civil service work involve?

Civil service careers involve everything from advising ministers on policy to delivering services to the public. The work conducted by the civil service is huge, which means that the number of career opportunities available is also huge! You could work as a vet, a customer service adviser, a weapons engineer, a marine biologist or a web developer, or anything in between!

Civil service career paths

As we've already discussed there are loads of civil service careers due to the scope and span of the organisation. Instead of listing every civil service job type here, we're going to explain some of the functions that each job title will fall under:

Analysis and Policy

Researching, proposing and shaping government decisions and developing new ways to meet government priorities and objectives. Careers include economists, engineers, scientists, actuaries, policy advisors, corporate strategy and research.

Commercial and procurement

Improving commercial capabilities and enabling savings for the taxpayer while delivering better public services. Careers include supplier engagement, contract management, procurement and commercial strategy.

Digital, data and technology

Designing, building and running digital public services and working with innovative government projects. Careers include technical development, testing, IT operation, UX design, and cyber security. If you’re looking to get started with a career in IT why not start building your portfolio with our software development virtual work experience programme?


Ensuring public money is spent correctly and improving the delivery of public services. Careers include financial planning, auditing, accounts and financial advice. In our finance and accounting virtual work experience we cover all aspects of financial planning, if you’re interested, why not take a look!

Human resources

Helping to make the civil service a great place to work, develop inspiring leaders and build a skilled workforce. Careers include workforce planning, diversity and inclusion, and learning and development. To learn more about the skills involved in running a successful HR department, have a look at our business management virtual work experience programme.


Communications work involves creating public service communications and enabling the efficient operation of public services. Careers include strategic communications, marketing and media campaigns.

International trade and negotiation

Helping to negotiate good deals for the UK. Careers include trade negotiation, trade analysis, country/sector specialisms and trade policy development.

Project management and operational delivery

Delivering projects that improve people's lives and make the Government work more efficiently as well as providing excellent customer service. Careers include project delivery, project management, employer advisers, compliance officers, job-centre managers, and call-centre and customer-service support.


Working on a significant portfolio of buildings. Careers include facilities management, valuation, property projects, development, surveying and consultancy.

To find out even more about the jobs available within the civil service, have a look at the government website.

What is public policy?

Public policy refers to the actions taken by the government that are intended to solve problems and improve the quality of life for its citizens. These policies can cover anything, and you might be aware of some without even knowing it (like in 2007, the government banned smoking in public places). Government policy is constantly reviewed to make sure it's A) helpful and B) will improve the quality of citizens' lives.

As you've probably figured out by now, civil service work touches all aspects of life, from education to transport to the environment. As most of the civil service is funded by taxes, the money is limited. Although billions of pounds sounds like loads to you and me, think about it in the context of running hospitals, schools, transport, heck, the entire country!

How many organisations make up the civil service?

The civil service comprises departments, public bodies, and agencies, all reflecting the span of responsibility within the government. There are:

  • 23 Ministerial Departments - (these are generally the most high profile government departments, each with their own minister, for example, a Transport Minister and a Department of Transport).
  • 20 Non-Ministerial Departments - (a government department without its own minister; but it is accountable to Parliament through its sponsoring ministers). Examples of non-ministerial departments are the Crown Prosecution Service and HM Revenue and Customs. 
  • 412 agencies and other public bodies.

- Agencies usually provide government services rather than decide policy; examples of agencies include Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, the Environment Agency, and the UK Space Agency.

- A public body is a formally established organisation that is publically funded to deliver a public or government service. The nature of public bodies means that their day-to-day decision making is independent of government. However, ministers are ultimately responsible to Parliament for their effectiveness and efficiency. Most public bodies that operate within the UK are established and used by the government.

Think you're interested in a career in the civil service?

Why not apply for our politics virtual work experience programme? We spend the first module introducing you to politics in the UK, including current socio-political movements, types of power and political parties. We then learn more about the different roles and pathways in Parliament and touch on what happens when Law meets Politics. The programme is absolutely packed with information and insights, so what are you waiting for?

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