The UK Civil Service

Facts, Analysis and Comment.


The Civil Service:- More detail

Operational Staff

Around 70% of civil servants have public-facing jobs, including paying pensions and other benefits, processing visa and driving licence applications, checking passports, working in courts, managing prisoners, collecting taxes, and helping people find jobs.

Other civil servants work in the security services, in the Ministry of Defence, improving the transport infrastructure etc.

It is unlikely that there are more than a couple of thousand officials who have regular and frequent contact with the c.100 Government Ministers.

Numbers by Grade

According to the Office for National Statistics, the headcount numbers in each broad grade of the civil service in 2016 were as set out below. (Click here for descriptions of each grade.)

There were:

    4,948 in the Senior Civil Service (SCS)*
  39,500 in Grades 6/7
207,252 in the executive grades,
153,834 in the administrative grades,
  12,809 not reported, and so
418,343 in total.

*This figure is somewhat higher than the 4,000 SCS staff-in-post reported by the Senior Salaries Review Body (SSRB) - see following section. This is probably because the ONS include some NHS staff as well as staff in some smaller organisations whose pay and staffing is not directly controlled by the Treasury and Cabinet Office.

Numbers by Salary

This chart summarises the salary distribution of civil servants.

The Senior Civil Service (SCS)

The above chart is taken from the 2016 report of the Senior Salaries Review Body. The upward sloping red line and the downward sloping green line reflects the increasing proportion of senior managers within the civil service.

In 2015 there were around 3,000 in SCS Pay Bands 1 and 1A, 740 in Pay Band 2, 150 in Pay Band 3, and 40 Permanent Secretaries. Only 4.1% were black and minority ethnic, compared with 1.8% in 1996 and a peak of 4.3% in 2011. 3.2% of the SCS were disabled (1996 1.7%, 3.6% 2011).

Information about SCS pay may be found here.

A high proportion of appointments to the SCS are from the wider public sector or the private sector:

Contrary to its popular image, the Senior Civil Service (SCS) has become less dominated by ‘upper class’ backgrounds than is the case in many other professions. The proportion of ‘public school’ educated top civil servants has declined over the past century (see Figure 1), standing now at only 27% of the ‘Top 200’.

senior civil servants - school background

Women in the Civil Service

54% of civil servants in 2016 were women, compared with 41% in 1984. The proportion decreases steadily in the higher grades, but 40% of the SCS are now women.

senior women civil servant numbers

Considerable further information about women in the civil service (including the gender pay gap) may be found here, in an IfG report here and on the IfG website.

Ethnic Minorities

11% of civil servants (including only 7% of the SCS) were from an ethnic minority background in 2016, compared with 4% in 1988, and compared with 14% in the general UK population in 2011.


9.2% of the civil service identified as having a disability in 2016, many more than in earlier years, but the SCS figure was lower at 4.7% and stable.


Information about civil service pay may be found here.

The Cost of the Civil Service

The civil service pay bill was £16.0bn in 2011. The total public sector pay bill was £167.5bn, and total Managed Government Expenditure was £687.6bn.

Retirement and Dismissal

Only c.16% of civil servants retire at or above their normal retirement age. Over 60% resign to follow other careers etc. (See also Can Civil Servants be Dismissed?.)

Regional Statistics

Around 27% of civil servants work in London and the South East, 53% in the rest of England, 10% in Scotland, 7% in Wales and 3% in Northern Ireland, overseas and unreported (2014 figures). The equivalent figures in 1991 were around 37, 44, 10, 6 and 3%.

Here is chart showing the distribution in 2016.

Departmental Statistics

The majority of civil servants work in only five very large departments. Three or four of the smallest departments have fewer than 50 staff. This IfG table neatly summarises the size of the major Ministerial departments at the end of 2015. The purple segments represent civil servants in the main department. The grey segments represent those employed in arms length bodies such as NDPBs/Quangos.

Fast Stream Recruitment

Most recruitment to the civil service is carried out by individual departments whose needs vary greatly from one to another, and from year to year. But around 1,000 particularly talented graduates - economists, engineers, lawyers, scientists, generalists and many others - are recruited each year via the Fast Stream Recruitment Scheme, chosen from around 20,000 applicants.

Further Information

The Institute for Government regularly publishes detailed analyses of civil service employment data, as well as much other interesting data, in its Whitehall Monitor series, from which many of the above charts are taken.

Detailed Civil Service Statistics are published annually by the Office of National Statistics; and a sample of these, including the 2016 data, are in the statistics section of my online reference library.

Further detail is also available from the Cabinet Office and Treasury websites, and also in the annual reports of the Senior Salaries Review Body.

The Context for Civil Service Reform 2012 also contains some interesting data and charts. 

And an annex to the Oughton Report reports some interesting statistics as they were in 1993.


Martin Stanley