The senior civil service in Britain: what it is, who is in it, and how it has changed

By on 11/03/2022 | Updated on 14/03/2022
A street sign displaying the word Whitehall, the name for the centre of the UK government.
Photo Steph Gray/Flickr

The UK’s senior civil service is the top group of officials responsible for top policy advice to ministers and running departments and agencies. Colin Talbot explains how it was formed, and how it has changed

The senior civil service is a recognised group within the wider British civil service, constituting the top three layers of the service.

It is important to put the SCS into context. Firstly, the civil service as a whole is only a small part – organisationally – of the whole public service in the UK.

The public sector as a whole – which includes the civil service, local government, some of health, education and social care – constituted 5.7 million workers in 2021 (full- and part-time). The civil service was only 0.5 million, or only about 9% of the total.

This is because most large-scale publicly funded services in the UK are not included in the ‘civil service’ as such. The main services provided by civil servants are tax collection, benefits payments (pensions and social security) and prisons.

So very roughly only about 1 in 10 senior leaders of public services in the UK are members of the senior civil service, which obviously has important implications for their role.

But the civil service, and hence the SCS, does control the flow of funding to, and regulation of, most of these other services in a wide variety of ways. This makes the SCS by far the most powerful group of (unelected) public service leaders.

The civil service itself numbers about 470,000 full-time equivalent posts. Of these only 7,080 are members of the SCS.

The SCS is often thought of as “Whitehall” (the location of most government ministries in London). But over recent decades the geographical ‘labelling’ has become less accurate. Firstly, a number of government functions have been dispersed away from London, and with them some of the SCS.

Another big change occurred with the creation of elected devolved governments in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. With devolution of many powers and services to the new ‘regional’ governments some civil servants became accountable to their local political executives rather than to London.

There are about 48,000 civil servants in Scotland and 36,000 in Wales. But of these only 22,250 in Scotland and 5,770 in Wales work directly to the Scottish or Welsh governments. Of the whole SCS (7,080) only 250 work for the Scottish and 180 for the Welsh governments – 6% of the total.

It is an important anomaly to note that civil servants – including SCS members – who work for the devolved governments in Scotland and Wales still remain part of the British civil service.

Northern Ireland is a special case because its local civil service was a remnant of the separate all-Ireland civil service and not formally part of the British civil service.

The constitutional role of the senior civil service

The constitutional role of the civil service in the UK is difficult to define because of the absence of a written constitution. Until 2010 the main basis for the civil service was Crown prerogative powers – which meant in practice the government could change almost anything to do with the civil service organisation, management and structures without needing to legislate.

In 2010, the passage of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act introduced some statutory provisions for the civil service. But it was very restricted when compared to other ‘Westminster’ style democracies with similar systems – such as Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

For example, most UK civil service organisations – such as ministries and agencies – can be established, abolished or merged almost without any scrutiny and certainly without any need for legislation.

Read more: Former UK cabinet secretary backs call to publish civil service policy advice

The UK also has a somewhat unique combination of ways in which the civil service is politically accountable. Unlike some countries that make many political appointments to leading positions in the state bureaucracy, the UK makes very few. Politicians – mostly elected ones who are Members of the House of Commons, but also some from the unelected House of Lords – are appointed as ministers.

There are about 150 MPs who have government roles, but most of them are fairly junior. This compares to the thousands of political appointments made by US presidents in federal government or some European countries with much larger numbers of political appointees.

But the UK also has a much closer relationship between the elected government and the permanent civil service. In a famous memorandum in 1985 Robert Armstrong, then the head of the civil service stated that “the civil service as such has no constitutional personality or responsibility separate from the duly constituted government of the day.” This has been characterised as the civil not being ‘neutral’ but being married to whoever is in government – serial monogamists.

Changing sociology and education of the SCS

The traditional image of the UK civil service, especially its senior ranks, was that they mainly came from private schools, via Oxford or Cambridge universities (Oxbridge), into the “Fast Stream” entry system and on to top jobs. They were also overwhelmingly male and white.

This basic sociology – white, male and coming from private schools via Oxbridge – has changed considerably (as has the composition of the wider civil service). In the early 20th century (1900-19) only 13% of top civil servants came from state schools, by 1960-70 that had risen to 25%. Over the same period those coming from working class backgrounds rose from 4% to 19%.

The number of candidates joining the ‘Fast Stream’ entry route to the top posts coming from Oxbridge fell from 35% in 1998 to 26% in 2011. The number of women in the SCS doubled from 17% in 1996 to 34% in 2009.

But the SCS still has some way to go in this transformation. In the whole civil service participation by women (53%) and ethnic minorities (9%) is much higher than for the SCS where it is only 34% and 4% respectively.

It is also worth noting that in the early 20th century, most did not have a “professional degree” – directly related to government, public administration or public policy – even at undergraduate level, and very few had advanced degrees in any subject. This was partly because very few such degree programs existed in the UK.

This raised an interesting problem. In a seminal speech in 1950 the then head of the civil service tried to claim that its senior ranks constituted a profession (Portrait of a Profession, The Civil Service Tradition, Sir Edward Bridges, Cambridge University Press, 1950).

Bridges manifesto for the senior civil service was notable for what it did not say, almost as much as for what it did. What he claims is a strange professional status for the upper ranks of the civil service, even though it has none of the usual attributes of a profession.

Most 20th century professions – certainly in Britain – had a long period of education and training, including higher degrees, and professional practice. The senior civil service certainly lacked the former. Most professions also had professional standards, set by recognised professional bodies, which constituted “licences to practice” in their domain. Again, the senior civil service had nothing similar.

What Bridges completely ignored was the experience of the World War II. It saw a massive influx of experts – from academia, industry, and civil society – into government service to support the war effort. Most of these “irregulars” left after the war, but some remained to implement the post-war social and economic reforms that became known as the ‘welfare state’. This was the much larger public sphere mentioned earlier.

Bridges argument that the higher civil service was, in itself, a “profession” re-emerged half a century later with the creation of the “policy profession” in the early 21st century.

Read more: Why do UK civil servants rank themselves as the least responsive government?

Professional, managerial and organisational reforms

Several types of professional, managerial and organisational reforms have impacted the SCS since the 1980s. These reforms have come in a variety of ‘waves’ with different emphases.

The first, chronologically and probably in emphasis, has been what is usually called ‘managerialism’. This is basically the attempt to get senior people – in the SCS and below – to act more like active managers in the private sector and less like bureaucratic administrators of internal rules.

This trend started in 1979 with the election of the Thatcher government. Early reforms included the Financial Management Initiative (aimed at getting civil service managers to more actively manage their budgets) and the Efficiency Review programme (aimed at encouraging more active management of all resources).

When neither of these achieved significant results the government switched to an organisational change programme known as the “Next Steps’, which started in 1988. This involved creating ‘executive agencies’ within the civil service responsible for a narrow range of tasks or functions. These each had a chief executive (reporting directly to ministers), a framework document, a single budget, performance targets and flexibilities over internal allocation of human and financial resources.

By the mid-1990s around 80% of the civil service were said to be “organised on Next Steps lines”, in around 140 agencies (although this claim was exaggerated). However, our research at the time established that the majority of the SCS – probably around 80% – remained outside of agencies (with only about 20% of civil servants). Whilst the 80% of civil servants in ‘agencies’ only included about 20% of the SCS.

‘Next Steps’ has since been eroded, with the number of units designated as agencies falling dramatically and with under half of the civil service in them. Moreover, many of the so-called ‘freedoms’ granted to agencies have disappeared. In reality they are now not much more than administrative units within departments and ministries.

The Labour Government elected in 1997 switched the focus of organisational reforms from agencies to whole Government departments. They introduced Public Service Agreements and Spending Reviews which set medium-term (three year) performance targets and budgets for every department. This was followed up with the creation of a Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit that held some key departments to account on a quarterly basis for their progress.

Later in its term in office Labour also tried to ‘professionalise’ the SCS, and the rest of the civil service, by introducing formal professional designations – including the two biggest – a “policy profession” and a “operational delivery profession”. This programme was called “professional skills for government”.

Has the senior civil service changed?

How did all this impact the SCS? The answer is far less than might be expected. As Bridges argued in 1950, the upper echelons of the civil service were mainly concerned with policy and had little interest in delivery as such. The majority of the SCS were, and remain, policy people – but without any formal training in policy science.

Current data which we obtained from the civil service suggest, on our analysis, that around 62% of the SCS are in the “policy profession” or closely related specialisms. Only 38% are in the “operational delivery profession” or closely related specialisms. This is probably an increase in the ‘delivery’ related roles, but the data does not exist to confirm this.

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In 1950 Bridges said that the ideal was that policy people should move posts every three years or so to something completely different, either within their department or in another one entirely. This is still largely true, especially for the almost two-thirds of SCS members in policy-related roles.

The constitutional-legal position of the SCS has also largely remained unchanged, although there are now some elements of codification of their role – such as the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act (2010) or the Civil Service Code (which has no legal force).

In short the SCS has succeeded in “changing without changing” (as I have argued previously in a French journal[1]).

[1] The British Administrative Elite. The Art of Change without Changing? January 2015 Revue Française D Administration Publique 151(3):741-761

About Colin Talbot

Colin Talbot is emeritus professor of government at the University of Manchester and a research associate at the University of Cambridge

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