The UK Civil Service
The Civil Service helps the Government of the day to develop and deliver its policies as effectively as possible.
Civil servants are politically impartial.
Before the Civil Service was reformed in the 1850s, Departments of State recruited their staff mainly through political or aristocratic patronage rather than by merit, had a poor reputation and no unity of purpose. In the 1850s, looking back on the way things had been done, one senior Government official commented that:
"I have known many instances of individuals boldly stating that they were not put into the service by their patrons to work…. The most feeble sons in families which have been so fortunate as to obtain an appointment, yes and others too, either mentally or physically incapacitated, enter the Service." Civil Service Papers published by the British Government, 1855Origins of the modern civil service: the 1850's
The Northcote-Trevelyan Report
Sir Stafford Northcote first served in the Civil Service at the Board of Trade and then as Private Secretary to Gladstone. Later he became a Conservative MP, serving Disraeli as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Foreign Secretary.
His biggest impact on the Civil Service came in 1853 when he and Treasury Permanent Secretary, Charles Trevelyan, were commissioned by Gladstone to look into the operation and organisation of the entire Civil Service. They made four recommendations:
Recruitment should be entirely on the basis of merit by open, competitive examinations
Entrants should have a good ‘generalist’ education and should be recruited to a unified Civil Service and not a specific department, to allow inter-departmental transfers.
Recruits should be placed into a hierarchical structure of classes and grades
Promotion would be on the basis of merit not on the grounds of ‘preferment, patronage or purchase’.
1870s to 1900 :Consolidating The New System
Initial reaction to the Northcote-Trevelyan report was hostile and even Queen Victoria declared herself ‘horrified’ that the running of the country might be handed to ‘professional bureaucrats’.
The independent Civil Service Commissioners were established in 1855, but it wasn’t until 1870 that the main recommendations of the report were put in place and that success in a competitive examination became the primary means of entry to the Service.
The 1870s also saw civil servants organised into different divisions and classes, according to the nature of the work they did. The Lower Division was made up of centrally recruited clerks who would be able to serve in any department.
Entrance to some parts of the Civil Service by examination continued right up until 1980s, when departments assumed responsibility for recruitment themselves.
The principles of fair and open competition and appointment on merit remain the cornerstone of Civil Service recruitment.
1920s – 1930s The Increasing Role of Women
Evelyn Sharp was the first female Permanent Secretary.
She started her career in 1926 at the Board of Trade as an Administrative Trainee (a Fast Stream grade), joining what was undoubtedly a male dominated environment. Many women worked in junior levels of the Civil Service, but as in many other organisations of the day, women earned less than men and until 1947, they were expected to resign if they married.
Women in the civil service did not receive equal pay with men until the 1950s, but an exception was made for Evelyn Sharp when she became a deputy secretary in the Ministry of Town and Local Government: she received equal pay ten years before other women in the civil service. Evelyn became the ministry's permanent secretary in October 1955.
Evelyn is acknowledged as one of the most outstanding and formidable Civil Servants of her day.
1960s: Fulton picks up the Northcote-Trevelyan mantle
By the 1960s the Civil Service was a large organisation with many responsibilities, but underneath it was still influenced by a nineteenth century ethos. Many people felt it was still based too much on the philosophy of the amateur and there was a lack of skilled managers.
In the mid-60s, Harold Wilson’s Labour Government, concerned about the lack of professionalism within the Civil Service, asked a committee chaired by John Fulton, then the Vice-Chancellor of Sussex University, to make recommendations for reform.
The Fulton committee found that the Civil Service of the time was often rigid and inefficient and it recommended:
the creation of a Civil Service Department to run the Civil Service;
its head to be designated Head of the Civil Service;
the abolition of all Classes and replacement by a unified grading structure for all;
the creation of a Civil Service College.
The 1990s and Next Steps
The 1990s saw a number of changes to the structure and workings of the Civil Service as part of the ‘Next Steps’ process, where much of the executive work of Government was devolved to agencies focused on operational delivery.
By 1996, 125 government agencies had been established, from very large organisations like the Benefits Agency with over 60,000 staff through to the Government Car and Despatch Agency with fewer than 200.
These changes slowly led to a break-up of the old unified Civil Service. This process was hastened after 1994 when departments were increasingly given delegated authority over pay, grading and recruitment and more and more commonly, departments introduced performance-related pay. The principles of Northcote-Trevelyan were not forgotten though: open competition for posts and promotions became the norm and the recruitment of external candidates was strongly encouraged, particularly to fill senior vacancies.
The Civil Service in the present day
In the space of 150 years the Civil Service has undergone a revolution in the way it operates, but the public service ethos and the values of impartiality embodied by Northcote and Trevelyan are fundamental to the everything that we do.
The Civil Service Values of honesty, integrity, impartiality and objectivity are at the heart of what it means to be a civil servant.