The Civil Service, Put Simply

Yes Minister

By Simeon North

The Civil Service’s image has been popularised by the sitcom Yes Minister but what are its functions, characteristics, the extent of its powers and influence over the government? The administrative cog which government depends is constantly running, however, few people know the extent of the Civil Service and how it works.

Firstly, a civil servant is technically anybody employed by the Crown. This means the service is independent of government. Civil Service employment was 439,323 in 2015, 1/12 of public sector employment. This includes Jobcentres, prisons and the Met Office among roughly 45 other ‘executive agencies’. There is also the ‘higher’ Civil Service which includes ministerial civil servants such as the permanent secretary. There are nearly 120 ministers in 25 departments in the UK and civil servants work in these to advise the government. Other governmental civil servants report to non-Ministerial Government Departments (NMGDs) such as the Charities Commission and the Food Standard Agency.


Implementation is the key function of the Civil Service and its tentacles reach deep into British society, often without people knowing. Civil servants ensure that statute law and government policy are efficiently implemented. In this function, civil servants run employment services such as Jobcentre, issue driving licences and prisons. These are therefore non-governmental servants.

The governmental civil servants have developed an additional function in 1854 when the founder of modern civil service, Charles Trevelyan, said the Government needed ‘the aid of an efficient body of permanent officers, subordinate to ministers’. Thus, governmental servants advise Ministers on policies, brief ministers on issues involved and present alternatives. This gives them great powers. Constitutionally, however, civil servants should never be responsible for decision making as Margaret Thatcher said ‘Civil servants advise; ministers decide’. This is because most ministers are elected whereas civil servants are not. Because of this, if something goes wrong with a policy, it is the minister that resigns.


Moving on, there are certain characteristics the Civil Service is expected to have. These were formalised by the 1854 Northcote – Trevelyan Report. The first of these is permanence. This is key as while ministers come and go, civil servants remain no matter minister or government changes. This ensures that there is stability and continuity in government leading to less disruption. Additionally, it allows for a smooth transition as servants can always brief an incoming minister. Civil servants are also able to gain experience of how departments work and how policies can be implemented effectively.

This leads to the second characteristic, neutrality. This is a cornerstone of the civil service as servants should not allow personal opinions to affect their work. Consequently, servants are required to be non-partisan and apart from voting should not be politically active. Some civil servants take this further and see themselves as servants of the Crown not government. This can lead them to believe their morals are superior and influence ministers in their direction rather than objectively. Tony Benn pointed this out saying, ‘the problem arises from the fact that the Civil Service sees itself as being above the party battle’.

The last characteristic is anonymity. As civil servants are not elected they remain anonymous for the result of policy as the minister makes the final decision. However, this does not mean their identity is secret rather they should not be held publicly accountable.

Power, influence and criticisms

Despite the constitutional view that civil servants should not wield political power, politicians have accused the service of wielding considerable influence over policy making. A lot of this derives from their function of providing advice. With ministers having a large workload and limited time, there is a danger that they may become a mouthpiece for civil service policies.

Once decisions have been made it is left to the civil service to implement those decisions. Again, this leaves room for civil servants to interfere in the political process. Using loopholes, creating difficulties or refusing to co-operate, policies can be undone. In addition, as civil servants are permanent, this gives them a great deal of influence over ministers, who have an average tenure of two years. Nor is this limited to a civil servants’ own department; their years in office enable them to make a network across government to influence policy. This is particularly important in spending departments such as Health where links with the treasury can be vital. Interdepartmental committees then help to institutionalise this and led to Peter Shore to refer to civil servants as ‘permanent politicians’.

A key criticism of the Civil Service is that it fails to be neutral. Politicians have argued civil servants use impartiality as a cloak and instead have their own agenda. This is made worse by the politicisation of the service made famous by Thatcher’s phrase ‘Is he one of us?’ when recruiting top civil servants. Additionally, with departments getting larger, full ministerial control is virtually impossible. This gives civil servants wide-ranging power but weakens their anonymity.

Altogether, this gives civil servants a lot of influence over ministerial decision making. However, servants have claimed that undue influence is largely the fault of weak ministers rather than ambitious civil servants. Harold Wilson agreed, arguing: ‘If a minister cannot control his civil servants he should go’.

Moreover, there are many advantages of the Civil Service. Importantly, it acts as a defence against political abuse and the concentration of power. A permanent Civil Service also allows for continuity and development which makes policies more efficient. Additionally, the Civil Service is more likely to see policies in the longer term whereas politicians may see them in the shorter term. Linked to this, it acts as a unifying force in government and has evolved over time to provide centrality in government.

Overall, it is important to recognise the important work of civil servants in advising ministers and implementing policies even though the system is far from perfect.

Further reading:




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