Her Majesty's Civil Service

Her Majesty's Civil Service
United Kingdom
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Her Majesty's Home Civil Service,[1][2][3] also known as the Home Civil Service, is the permanent bureaucracy of Crown employees that supports Her Majesty's Government - the government of the United Kingdom, composed of a Cabinet of ministers chosen by the prime minister, as well as the devolved administrations in Wales (the Welsh Government) and Scotland (the Scottish Government).

The executive decisions of government ministers are implemented by Her Majesty's Civil Service. Civil servants 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".[4] 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 the National Health Service, or staff of the Royal Household. As of 2007, there are approximately 532,000 (499,000 full-time equivalent) civil servants in the Home Civil Service.[5]

There are two other administratively separate civil services in the United Kingdom. One is for Northern Ireland (the Northern Ireland Civil Service); the other is the foreign service (Her Majesty's Diplomatic Service). The heads of these services are members of the Permanent Secretaries Management Group.[6][7]




Offices of state grew 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 the growth of the British Empire and economic changes, 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, the East India Company College, near London. The purpose of this college was to train administrators; it was established on recommendation of officials in China who had seen the imperial 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.[8]

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, because 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 were 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. The new Department was set up by Prime Minister Harold Wilson's Labour Government in 1968 and named the Civil Service Department, known as CSD. The first Minister was Cabinet Minister Lord Shackleton, also Leader of the House of Lords and Lord Privy Seal. The first Permanent Secretary was Sir William Armstrong, who moved over from his post as Permanent Secretary at the Treasury. After the 1970 General Election, new Conservative Prime Minister Ted Heath appointed Lord Jellicoe in Lord Shackleton's place.

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 believing in free markets as a better social system in many areas than the state: government should be small but active. Many of her ministers were suspicious of the civil service, in light of public choice research that suggested public servants tend 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.[9] 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.[10]

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.[11] 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' is not part of the Civil Service as it is a political position which has always been held by the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, currently David Cameron.

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.[12] 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.[12]

It was announced on 11 October 2011 that, following Sir Gus' retirement at the end of 2011, the role of Head of the Home Civil Service will be split from the job of Cabinet Secretary. There will additionally be a new, separate, Permanent Secretary to lead the Cabinet Office.[13]

Name Dates Notes
Sir Warren Fisher 1919–1939
Sir Horace Wilson 1939–1942
Sir Edward Bridges 1945–1956
Sir Norman Brook 1956-1963
Sir Laurence Helsby 1963-1968
Sir William Armstrong 1968–1974
Sir Douglas Allen 1974–1978
Sir Ian Bancroft 1978-1981
Sir Douglas Wass 1981-1983
Sir Robert Armstrong 1981-1988 The position of Head of the Home Civil Service was combined with that of Cabinet Secretary in 1981[dubious ]
Sir Robin Butler 1988–1998
Sir Richard Wilson[14] 1998–2002
Sir Andrew Turnbull 2002–2005
Sir Gus O'Donnell 2005–present Retiring December 2011
TBA 2012 onwards Head of the Home Civil Service to be split from Cabinet Secretary.

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.[15] It is chaired by Head of the Home Civil Service[12] and consists of all first permanent secretaries and other selected permanent secretaries and directors general. This includes Bruce Robinson, the current Head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service,[6] and Simon Fraser, the current Head of the Diplomatic Service.[7]

Civil Service Steering Board (CSSB)

The CSSB was established in 2007 and meets monthly,[16] Its role is to enhance the performance and reputation of the Civil Service by focusing on specific areas delegated to it by PSMG.[16][17] The CSSB is chaired by Head of the Home Civil Service.[12]

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.[18]

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.[19]

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.[19]

Northern Ireland has a separate Commission called the Civil Service Commissioners for Northern Ireland which does the same role.[19][20]

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.[21] 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.[21]

All civil servants are subject to the Official Secrets Acts 1911 to 1989, 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.[22][23] 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.[24] 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.[25] 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.[26]


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.[27] 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 the Minister for the Civil Service, in order for them to make internal personnel policies.[28]

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.[29]

Osmotherly Rules

The Osmotherly Rules set out guidance on how civil servants should respond to Parliamentary select committees.[30]


The structure of the home civil service is divided into organisations and grades. Each Secretary of State has a Department which has executive agencies and non-departmental public bodies subordinate to it.

Grading schemes

The grading system used in the civil service has changed many times, and the current structure is made up of two schemes. All senior grades (Deputy Director / Grade 5 level and above) are part of the Senior Civil Service, which is overseen by the Cabinet Office on behalf of the civil service as a whole. Below the Senior Civil Service, each individual department/executive agency can put in place its own grading and pay arrangements, provided they still comply with the central civil service pay and review guidance.

The Senior Civil Service Grade structure[31] is:

Pay Band/Grade Title
Permanent Secretary Cabinet Secretary
Permanent Secretary
SCS Pay Band 3 Director General
SCS Pay Band 2 Director
SCS Pay Band 1 Deputy Director


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 UK 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[specify] 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. The Thick Of It is a similar BBC television series that has been called "the 21st century's answer to Yes Minister", first broadcast in 2005. The series portrays a modernised version of the interactions between the Civil Service and the Government (chiefly in the form of spin doctors), as well as the media's involvement in the process.

See also


  1. ^ "Scotland Act 1998 (c. 46)". Section 51(9): Published by the UK Government. 1998. http://www.opsi.gov.uk/acts/acts1998/ukpga_19980046_en_4#pt2. Retrieved 27-July-2010. 
  2. ^ "Government of Wales Act 1998 (c.38)". Sections 34(2) and 34(3): Published by the UK Government. 1998. http://www.opsi.gov.uk/acts/acts1998/pdf/ukpga_19980038_en.pdf. Retrieved 27-July-2010. 
  3. ^ "Civil Service Order in Council 1995". Published by the UK Civil Service Commissioners. http://www.civilservicecommissioners.org/web-resources/resources/0d89ba78b7c.pdf. Retrieved 16-Sep-2009. 
  4. ^ Bradley and Ewing, p.272
  5. ^ "Civil Service statistics - September 2007". UK Government,. http://www.statistics.gov.uk/pdfdir/cs0708.pdf. 
  6. ^ a b "Membership of the Permanent Secretaries Management Group". UK Government. http://www.civilservice.gov.uk/about/leadership/psmg/psmg.aspx. 
  7. ^ a b "Sir Peter Ricketts, Permanent Under Secretary, Foreign and Commonwealth Office". UK Government,. http://www.civilservice.gov.uk/about/structure/PSMG/peter_ricketts.asp. 
  8. ^ (Bodde 2005)
  9. ^ Sampson, p.174-5
  10. ^ Sampson, p.171
  11. ^ The locus classicus showing the difficulty of this boundary was the interview of Michael Howard on Newsnight on 13 May 1997, which pivoted on the question whether as Minister he had intervened in the detailed management of the Prison Services Agency.
  12. ^ a b c d "Sir Gus O'Donnell, Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Home Civil Service". UK Government. http://www.civilservice.gov.uk/about/leads/Gus/index.aspx. 
  13. ^ Number 10 – Cabinet Secretary announces retirement
  14. ^ David Butler and Gareth Butler, Twentieth Century British Political Facts 1900-2000, Macmillan 2000, p. 302
  15. ^ "Permanent Secretaries Management Group". UK Government. http://www.civilservice.gov.uk/about/structure/psmg/index.asp. 
  16. ^ a b "Civil Service governance". UK Government. http://www.civilservice.gov.uk/about/structure/index.asp. 
  17. ^ "Civil Service Steering Board". UK Government. http://www.civilservice.gov.uk/about/structure/cssb/index.asp. 
  18. ^ "Civil Service Commissioners website (About Us)". Civil Service Commissioners. http://www.civilservicecommissioners.org/About_us/. 
  19. ^ a b c "Civil Service Commissioners website (Code of Practice)". Civil Service Commissioners. http://www.civilservicecommissioners.org/About_us/Code_of_Practice/. 
  20. ^ "CCivil Service Commissioners for Northern Ireland". Civil Service Commissioners for Northern Ireland. http://www.nicscommissioners.org/. 
  21. ^ a b Bradley and Ewing, p.279-80
  22. ^ Bradley and Ewing, p.280
  23. ^ [Chapter 7: Lobbying and All-Party Groups], Sixth Report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life
  24. ^ The advisers: Modernisation or politicisation?, BBC News, 12 January 2000
  25. ^ Spin doctor role under spotlight, BBC News, 5 January 2004
  26. ^ Uncivil to the servants, The Scotsman, 26 February 2002
  27. ^ "The Civil Service Code". UK Government. http://www.civilservice.gov.uk/iam/codes/cscode/index.asp. 
  28. ^ "The Introduction to the Civil Service Management Code". UK Government. http://www.civilservice.gov.uk/iam/codes/csmc/online_report/introduction.asp. 
  29. ^ "The Civil Service Commissioners' Recruitment Code". Civil Service Commissioners. http://www.civilservicecommissioners.org/Reference_Documents/Recruitment_Code_reference/. 
  30. ^ Gay, Oonagh (2005-08-04). "The Osmotherly Rules (Standard Note: SN/PC/2671)". Parliament and Constitution Centre, House of Commons Library. http://www.parliament.uk/commons/lib/research/briefings/snpc-02671.pdf. Retrieved 2009-05-22. 
  31. ^ "What's in a grade?". UK Civil Service, the Cabinet Office. 1 February 2010. http://www.civilservice.gov.uk/about/history/grade/index.aspx. Retrieved 7 July 2010. 


  • 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 [1]
  • 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 [2]

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