How to be a Civil Servant
Civil Servants are those who are employed by the Crown, excluding those employed by the Monarch herself. The Civil Service therefore excludes those who are employed by Parliament and those employed by other public bodies. The rest of this note examines those three types of public sector employee and ends with a summary of key statistics. See a separate note for civil service and related statistics.
The first category of public body is comprised of Parliament itself, and the bodies which report direct to Parliament, including the National Audit Office, the Parliamentary Ombudsman and the Electoral Commission. Constitutionally, employees of these bodies are not servants of the Crown and they are therefore not civil servants.
The second category of public body is comprised mainly of those who work for Government departments which report to Ministers (who are of course always Parliamentarians). How to be a Civil Servant is written for and about those civil servants who work in such departments. A list of Ministerial Government Departments may be found on the Cabinet Office website.
As civil servants are employed by the Crown, and not by individual departments, they can be transferred between departments without formality and without losing employment rights. This not only facilitates the free flow of staff between departments, but also greatly facilitates reorganisations within central government. Indeed it is quite common for large numbers of civil servants to find themselves working for an entirely different department at only a few hours notice.
Special Advisers are political appointees who are employed by Ministerial government departments on special terms. They are, however, still civil servants. Click here for more information.
Many Ministerial departments have turned parts of themselves into Executive Agencies. These bodies, such as the UK Border Agency, the Benefits Agency and the Patent Office, constitutionally remain part of their parent department. However, they are intended to implement established policies and it makes sense for them to be run semi-independently from their head offices. Most MPs who wish to raise constituency matters with such Agencies are content to correspond directly with their Chief Executives, rather than through Ministerial intermediaries.
But problems can arise when an agency uses (what it regards as) its management freedom in a way which Ministers believe impacts on established polices, especially in highly political areas such as those within the responsibility of the Home Office. The Prison Service was accordingly made into an Executive Agency, but then the decision was reversed when the performance of the Service was subsequently criticised. And then there were problems at the Border Agency when the Agency's managers sought simultaneously (a) to manage the scrutiny of ever-increasing numbers of travellers and (b) to cut staff by relaxing border controls in ways which were not approved my Ministers. John Vine, the Agency's Independent Chief Inspector, reported in February 2012 report and said that "Overall, I found poor communication, poor managerial oversight and a lack of clarity about roles and responsibilities. There was no single framework setting out all potential border security checks, which of these could be suspended, in what circumstances and the level of authority required at Agency or Ministerial level to do so. There is a fundamental question of how free the Agency should be to decide its own operational priorities. These are important issues that need to be considered in order to define and agree the boundaries between the Home Office and the Agency." (emphasis added)
But some civil servants do not report to Ministers but work for a number of non-Ministerial Government Departments (NMGDs), whose detailed status varies considerably from one to another:-
Non-Ministerial Government Departments are listed on the Cabinet Office website. And follow this link for more information about regulators and regulation.
A large number of civil servants also work in the Devolved Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Note, however, that UK civil service statistics generally exclude those working for the Diplomatic Service and the Northern Ireland Civil Service.
Employees of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Commission (ACAS) are also currently classified as civil servants even though these two bodies are in fact large NDPBs (see below for a definition of NDPB). But it looks, from the draft Civil Service Bill, as though their status may have changed or be changing.
There are a wide variety of other public bodies who do not generally employ civil servants (other than on loan from government departments). *The only exceptions (as noted above) are the HSE and ACAS which have not been classified as Government departments but whose employees are nevertheless regarded as civil servants.
The main categories are:-
There are around 1000 NDPBs (Non-departmental public bodies, more popularly known as "quangos":- Quasi Autonomous Non-Government Organisations) and they can be divided into four main categories. Around 300 are "executive", and employ their own staff. The rest are specialised legal tribunals of various sorts, or Boards of Prison Visitors, or "advisory". Some NDPBs are very large and/or powerful organisations such as the Environment Agency and the Competition Commission, as well as the special cases of ACAS and the HSE (*see above). NDPBs are accountable to Parliament (and are headed by "Accounting Officers") and have a complex relationship with their sponsoring department. They are, by definition, not directly accountable to Ministers and their employees (although often seconded from major departments) are not subject to the same constraints as their opposite numbers in their parent departments. For instance, Environment Agency officials will criticise polluting industries in terms which would not be used by officials from Ministerial Departments. However, NDPBs are set up to do jobs defined by, their budgets are allocated by, and their members are appointed by, their sponsoring departments. They are therefore hardly totally independent of those departments.
A list of NDPBs may be found on the Cabinet Office website.
The National Health Service is in a category of its own as a huge central government organisation which has a large degree of independence but is otherwise constitutionally quite similar to NDPBs. It does not employ civil servants, other than on loan from e.g. the Dept of Health.
The Armed Forces are another major central government employer of public servants who are not civil servants.
Other public servants, but not civil servants, work for public corporations such as the BBC, the Bank of England, the communications regulator Ofcom, Royal Mail Group, British Nuclear Fuels, and the British Waterways Board, who run the canals etc.
The Financial Services Authority is a special case in that, although it is a limited company financed by the financial services industry, it exercises statutory powers and is treated for many purposes as part of government. Nevertheless, its employees are not civil servants.
Last, but not least, a great many public servants work for local authorities of various shapes and sizes, as well as in the police service.
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