A Brief Rundown of the British Civil Service Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

A Brief Rundown of the British Civil Service

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This entry is intended as a brief guide to the workings of the British Civil Service and its members.

History of the Civil Service

The use of competitive examinations to select civil officials was begun in China during the Han dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD). In the West, however, selection of civil administrators and staff on the basis of merit examinations is a late development. The Roman Empire, for example, seems to have recruited and promoted officials largely on the basis of custom and the judgement of superiors.

The establishment of the modern civil service is closely associated with the decline of feudalism and the growth of national states that were centrally governed. In Prussia, as early as the mid-17th Century, Frederick William, Elector of Brandenburg, created an efficient civil administration staffed by civil servants chosen on a competitive basis. In France similar reforms preceded the Revolution, and they were the basis for the Napoleonic reforms that transformed the royal service into the civil service. Development of a professional civil service came several decades later in Great Britain and the United States, who both separately established the notion of a politically independent civil service in the mid-late 19th Century.

In the 1990s a lot of the civil service departments became agencies eg, Information Technology Services Agency (ITSA) and Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA). It was a Conservative idea whereby the old departments, which were all controlled centrally, were allowed to do their own thing. This meant that different agencies could have different pay scales and recruitment practices. It also meant that they could start doing work with/for the private sector as well as government departments. In the old department-based service, if you wanted to change jobs you could apply for a transfer to anywhere in the civil service. So one week you could be getting abuse from a benefit claimant in Sheffield (no offence intended to anyone in Sheffield) and the next, you could be counting sheep in Cornwall. Now, because the agencies are all independent, you can only apply for a job in the same agency. What it also allowed the agencies to do was outsource a lot of their work to private companies. This led to a strange situation where former colleagues could not buy each other a drink without declaring it in a hospitality log to avoid accusations of undue influence. At the time these changes were deeply unpopular. It was seen as the start of a process whereby all the perks of working in the civil service eg, job security, decent pension, flexible working practices, which were compensation for the comparatively low salary, were slowly being eroded but without any increase in pay. The reforms were to departments which weren't directly involved with drawing up legislation (ie, the Department of Trade and Industry), but to departments which concerned the implementation of law or the execution of services.

Since the devolution of power over Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales in the late nineties, civil service departments in each area now have a greater degree of responsibility and no longer report to ministers in Whitehall, but ministers in each principality. Therefore, the civil service isn't as centralised as it used to be, except over certain matters, such as defence, which is still controlled by Westminster.

People in the Civil Service

Who is a Civil Servant?

When the term 'civil servant' is used, it generally means people that work in governmental departments drawing up delegated legislation (legislation that doesn't need the consent of Parliament as it is too minor to go before it or is simply enacting EU Law into British Law) or advising government ministers on what decisions to take, and to ensure that ministers' decisions are implemented. Civil servants also ensure that the execution of public services (ie, handing out army kits or sending out and checking tax returns) is efficient. Internationally, there are around 1/2 million civil servants of this nature, working in areas as diverse as the Inland Revenue to the Diplomatic Corps.

The Top Positions within the Civil Service

The number one spot in the civil service, the one to which all civil servants aspire, is 'Head of the UK Home Civil Service'. It's not exactly a glamorous title, is it? Currently this post is combined with that of Cabinet Secretary1 and then there are the various Permanent Secretaries for each governmental department below the Cabinet Secretary. Other posts within the civil service are Principal Private Secretary, Ambassador, Information Officer; the list goes on. In case you were wondering, the Minister for the Civil Service is the Prime Minister.

Ranks in the Civil Service

Formerly, the run-down for the Civil Service would have been as follows:

  • Administrative Assistant - Lowest of the low, although the numbers in this grade are slowly going down and most permanent staff are being upgraded to Administrative Officer.

  • Administrative Officer - The legions of AOs are what keeps the civil service running. Whenever you deal with the civil service, eg, Benefits Office, your first point of contact will usually be an AO.

  • Executive Officer - This is considered to be the first management grade. An EO may be responsible for a number of AOs, but in some departments an EO would be the standard grade for staff.

  • Higher Executive Officer

  • Senior Executive Officer

You then had the very senior management grades, ranging right up to the Head of the Civil Service. However, this hierarchy has changed in the last few years, with grades being replaced by bands.

Alongside this hierarchical structure you have technical grades such as Medical Technical Officer, or Engineering Officer. These are generally for professionals such as lawyers/engineers where there were no managerial responsibilities. These levels are pegged at an equivalent to the standard civil structure, so a Senior Technical Officer would be on the same pay scale as a Higher Executive Officer and would accrue pay increments in the same manner.

Security Clearance

All Crown Servants (of which civil servants come under) undergo some kind of vetting. Initially it's what is called 'negative vetting'. The subject will hardly know it's being done as all it involves is checking the accuracy of statements made on job applications and checking police criminal records. In most of these cases, the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act doesn't apply, so if you've served a prison sentence that otherwise would be considered spent (and so there would be no need to declare it on most job application forms) then the civil service would still ask for the details of this offence.

Depending on the job you are doing, positive vetting may take place. This is something else. It takes about six months to complete and your past history is gone into in great detail. The level of 'negative vetting' was stepped up after the discovery of a number of serious security breaches in the 1950s and '60s, most notably the cloud of betrayal that surrounded Philby, McClean, Blunt and Burgess2.

The principal is that negative vetting gives you casual access to the information classified as 'secret' and above. Positive vetting gives you constant and regular access to secret and above, with the principal of 'need to know' applied.

Neutrality of the Civil Service

Up until 1854 the minister of the department or the Patronage Secretary of the Treasury nominated candidates for appointment to posts in the Civil Service. Then the Northcote-Trevelyan Report on the organisation of the permanent civil service identified this practice as one of the main reasons for the service's endemic inefficiency and public disrepute. It recommended open competitive examination to test merit. Since then, Civil Service Commissioners have been appointed to run the examinations and to give approval for the appointment of those qualified. This has ensured that the civil service has kept politically neutral.

The Reforms of the Civil Service Commissioners

Several phases of reforms have taken place to the Civil Servant Commissioners since the 19th Century. Firstly, when the Civil Service Commission, previously an independent department, merged with the personnel management divisions of the Treasury in 1968 to form the Civil Service Department. The power to appointment civil servants was then split between the Commissioners, who became responsible for selecting middle and senior level staff, and departments assumed full responsibility for selection at junior levels, on behalf of their Ministers, 'subject to central regulation by the Minister for the Civil Service in support of the policy of selection on merit on the basis of fair and open competition.' After this, in 1991, power to select around 95% of the civil service was handed over to departments and the Commission was replaced with an Office of the Civil Service Commissioners and RAS3. The Civil Service Commissioners were handed back their powers to oversee the recruitment of civil servants in 1995. From this date they have had the power to approve appointments to the most senior posts only, but provision was also made for them to audit the recruitment systems of departments and agencies so it was as fair and unbiased as possible. They have also acted as a court of appeal to civil servants who feel they have been unfairly treated.

1Responsible for overseeing all governmental departments that serve central government.2Civil Service workers - MI5 agents - who were discovered to have been working in secret for the Soviet government.3Recruitment and Assessment Services. It provided 'recruitment, consultancy and related services to departments and agencies and other public sector bodies on a full repayment basis.' This company was subsequently privatised and now forms part of Capita.

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