service industries

Her Majesty's Civil Service

Her Majesty's Civil Service, also known as the Home Civil Service, is the permanent bureaucracy of Crown employees that supports UK Government Ministers and the devolved administrations in Wales and Scotland. Ministers are responsible to the Sovereign and Parliament and the Scottish Parliament in administering the United Kingdom, but their executive decisions are implemented by civil servants, who are employees of the Crown and not Parliament. Civil servants also have some traditional and statutory responsibilities which to some extent protect them from being used for the political advantage of the party in power. Senior civil servants may be called to account to Parliament.

In general use, the term "civil servant" in the United Kingdom does not include all public sector employees; although there is no fixed legal definition, the term is usually defined as "a servant of the Crown working in a civil capacity who is not the holder of a political (or judicial) office; the holder of certain other offices in respect of whose tenure of office special provision has been made; [or] a servant of the Crown in a personal capacity paid from the Civil List". As such, the Civil Service does not include government ministers (who are politically appointed), members of the British Armed Forces, police officers, local government officials, members of a National Health Service, or staff of the Royal Household. As of 2003, there are approximately 450,000 civil servants in the Home Civil Service.. There is a separate Northern Ireland Civil Service.



Offices of state grew up in England, and later the United Kingdom, piecemeal. Initially, as in other countries, they were little more than secretariats for their leaders, who held positions at Court. In the 18th century, in response to empire and economic change, institutions such as the Office of Works and the Navy Board grew large. Each had its own system, and staff were appointed by purchase or patronage. By the 19th century it became increasingly clear that these arrangements were not working.

In 1806, the Honourable East India Company established a college near London for training administrators based on the recommendation of officials in China who had seen the Chinese examination system. The civil service based on examination similar to the Chinese system was advocated by a number of Englishmen over the next several decades. (Bodde 2005)

A permanent, unified and politically neutral civil service, in which appointments were made on merit, was introduced on the recommendations of the Northcote-Trevelyan report of 1854, which also recommended a clear division between staff responsible for routine (“mechanical”) work, and those engaged in policy formulation and implementation in an “administrative” class. The report was well-timed, since bureaucratic chaos in the Crimean War promptly caused a clamour for the change. A Civil Service Commission was accordingly set up in 1855 to oversee open recruitment and end patronage, and most of the other Northcote-Trevelyan recommendations implemented over some years. This system was broadly endorsed by Commissions chaired by Playfair (1874), Ridley (1886), MacDonnell (1914), Tomlin (1931) and Priestley (1955).

The Northcote-Trevelyan model remained essentially stable for a hundred years. This was a tribute to its success in removing corruption, delivering public services (even under the stress of two world wars), and responding effectively to political change.

Lord Fulton's committee report

Following the Second World War, however, demands for change again grew. There was a concern (illustrated in C. P. Snow’s Strangers and Brothers series of novels) that technical and scientific expertise was mushrooming, to a point at which the “good all-rounder” culture of the administrative civil servant with a classics or other arts degree could no longer properly engage with it: as late as 1963, for example, the Treasury had just 19 trained economists. The times were, moreover, ones of keen respect for technocracy, with the mass mobilisation of war having worked effectively, and the French National Plan apparently delivering economic success. And there was also a feeling which would not go away, following the war and the radical social reforms of the 1945 Labour government, that the so-called “mandarins” of the higher civil service were too remote from the people. Indeed, between 1948 and 1963 only 3% of the recruits to the administrative class came from the working classes, and in 1966 more than half of the administrators at under-secretary level and above had been privately educated.

Lord Fulton’s committee reported in 1968 . He found that administrators were not professional enough, and in particular lacked management skills; that the position of technical and scientific experts needed to be rationalised and enhanced; and that the service was indeed too remote. His 158 recommendations included the introduction of a unified grading system for all categories of staff, a Civil Service College and a central policy planning unit. He also said that control of the service should be taken from the Treasury, and given to a new Department, and that the “fast stream” recruitment process for accessing the upper echelons should be made more flexible, to encourage candidates from less privileged backgrounds.

Into Heath’s Downing Street came the Central Policy Review Staff (CPRS), and they were in particular given charge of a series of Programme Analysis and Review (PAR) studies of policy efficiency and effectiveness.

But, whether through lack of political will, or through passive resistance by a mandarinate which the report had suggested were “amateurs”, Fulton failed. The Civil Service College equipped generalists with additional skills, but did not turn them into qualified professionals as ENA did in France. Recruits to the fast stream self-selected, with the universities of Oxford and Cambridge still producing a large majority of successful candidates, since the system continued to favour the tutorial system at Oxbridge. The younger mandarins found excuses to avoid managerial jobs in favour of the more prestigious policy postings. The generalists remained on top, and the specialists on tap.

Margaret Thatcher's government

Margaret Thatcher came to office in 1979 determined to prefer the "free market" to the state: government should be small but active. Many of her ministers were suspicious of the civil service, following the New Right doctrine that public servants always seek to increase their own power and budgets.

She immediately set about reducing the size of the civil service, cutting numbers from 732,000 to 594,000 over her first seven years in office. Derek Rayner, the former chief executive of Marks and Spencer, was appointed as an efficiency expert with the Prime Minister's personal backing; he identified numerous problems with the Civil Service, arguing that only three billion of the eight billion pounds a year spent at that time by the Civil Service consisted of essential services, and that the "mandarins" (senior civil servants) needed to focus on efficiency and management rather than on policy advice. In late 1981 the Prime Minister announced the abolition of the Civil Service Department, transferring power over the Civil Service to the Prime Minister's Office and Cabinet Office.

Meanwhile Michael Heseltine had introduced a comprehensive system of corporate and business planning (known as MINIS) first in the Department of the Environment and then in the Ministry of Defence.

A Financial Management Initiative was launched in September 1982 (Efficiency and Effectiveness in the Civil Service (Cmnd 8616)) as an umbrella for the efficiency scrutiny programme and with a wider focus on corporate planning, efficiency and objective-setting. But by the mid 1980s, although cuts had been made, transformation had not happened. In February 1988 Robin Ibbs, recruited from ICI in July 1983 to run the Efficiency Unit (now in No. 10), published his report Improving Management in Government: The Next Steps. This envisaged a new approach to delivery featuring clear targets and personal responsibility. Without any statutory change, the managerial functions of Ministries would be hived off into Executive Agencies, with clear Framework Documents setting out their objectives, and whose chief executives would be made accountable directly (in some cases to Parliament) for performance. Agencies were to, as far as possible, take a commercial approach to their tasks. However, the Government conceded that agency staff would remain civil servants, which diluted the radicalism of the reform. The approach seems somewhat similar to the Swedish model, though no influence from Sweden has ever been acknowledged.

The Next Steps Initiative took some years to get off the ground, and progress was patchy. Significant change was achieved, although agencies never really achieved the level of autonomy envisaged at the start. Meanwhile, the accountability of the remaining civil servants began to be improved. MINIS-style business planning became standard, and delegated budgets were introduced, so that individual managers were for the first time held fully accountable for meeting objectives, and for the resources they used to do so. The Priestley Commission principle of pay comparability with the private sector had been abandoned in February 1982. Performance-related pay began in December 1984, was built on thereafter, and continues to this day.

Next Steps may always have had the ultimate goal of privatisation. Certainly, the focus on smaller, more accountable, units revived the keenness of Ministerial interest in the perceived efficiencies of the private sector. Already in the late 1980s, some common services once set up in the expectation of economies of scale, such as the Property Services Agency or the Crown Suppliers, were being dismantled or sold off. Next, shortly after Thatcher left office, in July 1991, a new programme of market-testing of central government services began, with the White Paper Competing for Quality (Cm 1730). Five-yearly or three-yearly policy and finance reviews of all agencies and other public bodies were instituted, where the first question to be answered (the “prior options exercise") was why the function should not be abolished or privatised. Strategic contracting-out also took place, where the Government did not wait to examine whether a private sector solution would be more efficient, but went ahead with it on the principle that the private sector was always more efficient and more responsive. For example, the Government's internal Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency (CCTA), a civil-service staffed consultancy which monitored and directed internal government IT projects was closed down as it was leading the fight to retain internal expertise. This has led to most IT services within the UK Government being managed by private companies; the US firm EDS now has a large proportion of the total, which some have suggested gives it the capacity to manipulate pricing, or even be a strategic threat to UK interests. In November 1991 the Private Finance Initiative was launched, and by November 1994 the Chancellor of the Exchequer had referred to it as ‘the funding mechanism of choice for most public sector projects’. In 1995 the decision was taken to privatise the Chessington Computer Centre, HMSO, the Occupational Health & Safety Agency and Recruitment & Assessment Services.

The Citizen’s Charter

It was believed with the Thatcher reforms that efficiency was improving. But there was still a perception of carelessness and lack of responsiveness in the quality of public services. The government of John Major sought to tackle this with a Citizen’s Charter programme. This sought to empower the service user, by setting out rights to standards in each service area, and arrangements for compensation when these were not met. An Office of Public Service and Science was set up in 1992, to see that the Charter policy was implemented across government.

By 1998, 42 Charters had been published, and they included services provided by public service industries such as the health service and the railways, as well as by the civil service. The programme was also expanded to apply to other organisations such as local government or housing associations, through a scheme of “Chartermark” awards. The programme was greeted with some derision, and it is true that the compensation sometimes hardly seemed worth the effort of claiming, and that the service standards were rarely set with much consumer input. But the initiative did have a significant effect in changing cultures, and paradoxically the spin-off Chartermark initiative may have had more impact on local organisations uncertain about what standards to aim for, than the parent Citizen’s Charter programme itself.


Minister for the Civil Service

The position of 'Minister for the Civil Service' was created in 1995 by Queen Elizabeth II by Order-in-Council with the adoption of the Transfer of Functions (Treasury and Minister for the Civil Service) Order 1995. The position itself has always been held by the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, currently Gordon Brown.

Head of the Home Civil Service

The highest ranking civil servant is the Head of the Home Civil Service who is also the Cabinet Secretary and Permanent Secretary of the Cabinet Office. The position holder is accountable for ensuring that the Civil Service is equipped with the skills and capability to meet the everyday challenges it faces and that civil servants work in a fair and decent environment. He also chairs the Permanent Secretary Management Group and the Civil Service Steering Board which are the main governing bodies of the Civil Service.

Name Dates Notes
Sir Warren Fisher 1919-1939
Sir Horace Wilson 1939-1942
Sir Edward Bridges 1945-1956
Sir Douglas Allen 1974-1977
Sir Robert Armstrong 1979-1988 The position of Head of the Home Civil Service was combined with that of Cabinet Secretary in 1981
Sir Robin Butler 1988-1998
Sir Richard Wilson 1998-2002
Sir Andrew Turnbull 2002-2005
Sir Gus O'Donnell 2005-Present

Permanent Secretaries Management Group (PSMG)

The PSMG consider issues of strategic importance to the Civil Service as a whole as well as providing corporate leadership where a single position is required across all government departments. It is chaired by Head of the Home Civil Service and consists of all first permanent secretaries and other selected permanent secretaries and directors general. This inculdes Nigel Hamilton the current Head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service.

Civil Service Steering Board (CSSB)

The CSSB was established in 2007 and meets monthly, it's role is to enhance the performance and reputation of the Civil Service by focusing on specific areas delegated to it by PSMG. The CSSB is chaired by Head of the Home Civil Service.

Civil Service Commissioners

The Civil Service Commissioners are not civil servants and are independent of Ministers, they are appointed directly by the Crown under Royal Prerogative and they report annually to The Queen.

Their main role is regarding the recruitment of civil servants. They have the responsibility to ensure that all civil servants are recruited on the “principle of selection on merit on the basis of fair and open competition.” They maintain a recruitment code on the interpretation and application of that principle, and approve any exceptions to it. They audit recruitment policies and practices within the Civil Service and approve all appointments to the most senior levels of the Civil Service.

The Commissioners also hear and determine appeals in cases of concern about propriety and conscience raised by civil servants under the Civil Service Code which cannot be resolved through internal procedures.

Northern Ireland has a separate Commission called the Civil Service Commissioners for Northern Ireland which does the same role.

Political neutrality

The Home Civil Service is a politically neutral body, with the function of impartially implementing the policy programme of the elected government.

Like all servants of the Crown, civil servants are legally barred from standing for election as Members of Parliament or any other political office. Also, under regulations first adopted in 1954 and revised in 1984, members of the Senior Civil Service (the top management grades) are barred from holding office in a political party or publicly expressing controversial political viewpoints, while less senior civil servants at an intermediate (managerial) level must generally seek permission to participate in political activities. The most junior civil servants are permitted to participate in political activities, but must be politically neutral in the exercise of their duties.

All civil servants are subject to the Official Secrets Act, meaning that they may not disclose sensitive government information. Since 1998, there have also been restrictions on contact between civil servants and lobbyists; this followed an incident known as "Lobbygate", where an undercover reporter for The Observer, posing as a business leader, was introduced by a lobbyist to a senior Downing Street official who promised privileged access to government ministers. The Committee on Standards in Public Life, also created in 1998, is responsible for regulation of contacts between public officials and lobbyists.

One criticism of Civil Service neutrality in recent years has centred around the increasing influence of politically-appointed "special advisers" in government departments, which is alleged to have reduced the political neutrality of public administration. In 2000, then-Prime Minister Tony Blair was criticised for appointing 20 special advisers (compared to eight under his predecessor John Major) and for the fact that the total salary cost of special advisers across all government departments had reached £4 million. In 2001, Stephen Byers, then Secretary of State for Transport, was forced to resign because of the actions of his special adviser Jo Moore, who instructed a departmental civil servant, Martin Sixsmith, that September 11th 2001 would be "a good day to bury bad news"; this was seen as inappropriate political manipulation of the Civil Service. In particular, under the administration of Tony Blair, the influence of two Downing Street special advisers, Jonathan Powell and Alastair Campbell, both of whom were given formal power over Downing Street civil servants, provoked widespread criticism.


Civil Service Code

A current civil service code was introduced on 6 June 2006 to outline the core values and standards expected of civil servants. The core values are defined as integrity, honesty, objectivity, and impartiality. A key change from previous values is the removal of anonymity within the core values. The Code includes an independent line of appeal to the Civil Service Commissioners on alleged breaches of the Code.

Civil Service Management Code

The Civil Service Management Code (CSMC) sets out the regulations and instructions to departments and agencies regarding the terms and conditions of service of civil servants. It is the guiding document which gives delegation to civil service organisations, from Minister for the Civil Service, in order for them to make internal personnel policies.

Civil Service Commissioners' Recruitment Code

The Civil Service Commissioners' Recruitment Code is maintained by the Civil Service Commissioners and is based on the principle of selection on merit on the basis of fair and open competition.


Whitehall is the central London street on which many ministries sit. Whitehall is therefore often used as a metonym to refer to the executive branch of Government, and particularly the civil service (somewhat as in earlier days European foreign ministries were referred to by their addresses as "the Quai d'Orsay", "Wilhelmstraße" or "the Sublime Porte"). This contrasts with Westminster, which is used similarly to refer to the Houses of Parliament, and "Downing Street" or simply "No. 10" which is used for the Prime Minister's office.

The BBC television series Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister are a parody of the Civil Service and its relationship with government ministers. The portrayal is a caricature, but many insiders recognise a considerable element of truth in it, and though the Civil Service reforms since the 1980s have made the portrayal of powerful civil servants like Nigel Hawthorne's Sir Humphrey Appleby increasingly out-of date, the programme continues to have many legions of loyal fans, including ex-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.



  • Bradley, A.W. and Ewing, K.D., Constitutional and Administrative Law (Pearson, 2003), ISBN 0-582-43807-1
  • Sampson, Anthony, The Changing Anatomy of Britain (Hodder and Stoughton, 1982)
  • Bodde, D., Chinese Ideas in the West
  • Jonathan Tonge, The New Civil Service, Baseline, Tisbury 1999
  • Christopher Foster, British Government in Crisis, Hart 2005
  • House of Commons Public Administration Committee, "These Unfortunate Events": Lessons of Recent Events at the Former DTLR, HMSO 2002

See also

External links

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