Introduction to the civil service

The Civil Service consists of all those people who work directly for the government. It consists of a wide range of occupations, from clerical assistants to engineers to prison officers. There are currently about 500,000 civil servants in Britain. Most discussion, however, is focused on the senior civil service, the relatively small number of people who advise ministers on policy and head the major government departments, located in Whitehall.

Origins and ethos

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, the civil service was noted for corruption, nepotism and incompetence. In 1854 the Northcote-Trevelyan Report was published, recommending that the civil service should become strictly meritocratic - i.e. appointing people purely on the basis of merit. Entrance examinations to the higher civil service were instituted, which only highly able people were able to pass. The skills required were largely abstract intellectual skills rather than expertise in any particular vocational specialism.

As a result, the higher civil service came to be dominated by a narrow elite of Oxbridge graduates, often with a classical education, who were “generalists” skilled in administration but not necessarily with any specialist knowledge. They emphasised the importance of permanence, neutrality and anonymity as key values for civil servants. This tradition continued for the second half of the 19th century and much of the 20th.

In the second half of the 20th century, this tradition began to be questioned: after the Second World War, the role of government expanded significantly and this exposed some of the weaknesses of the generalist system. The Labour government of Harold Wilson set up the Fulton Committee, to consider how the civil service could be modernised. The Fulton Report (1969) recommended the recruitment of more specialists and experts, improved training and more accountable management.

A number of changes followed the Fulton Report - for example, the Civil Service College was established to improve training - but many of the traditions of the civil service were difficult to remove. It is only in the 1980s and 90s that significant changes in the civil service have become evident.