Who exactly are civil servants?
We define civil servants as politically impartial, appointed officials of the UK Home Civil Service, which supports the work of the UK’s central government departments. This includes agencies that employ civil servants such as executive agencies, non-ministerial departments and some non-departmental public bodies.
Our definition includes the staff of the Scottish and Welsh devolved governments, but not the staff of the Northern Ireland civil service, which is administratively distinct. We also include officials working in the three Whitehall-based territorial offices that manage the UK’s relationship with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
In this way, civil servants are defined much more narrowly than public sector workers: police, teachers, NHS staff, members of the armed forces and local government officers are not counted as civil servants.
The data we use for our analysis of civil service staff numbers comes from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), which provides quarterly estimates of the number of civil servants employed both in terms of absolute headcount and full-time equivalent.
We organise each body into ‘departmental groups’ according to which secretary of state has ultimate ministerial responsibility for the organisation in question. We do this even in cases where a body’s staff numbers are reported separately to their central Whitehall department. For instance, we group Ofsted with the Department for Education (DfE) departmental group and not as a separate department.
To define which bodies belong to which departmental groups, we have used both the ONS’s quarterly public sector employment reports and the most recent (2020) Public Bodies report published by the Cabinet Office. For a full breakdown of each departmental group, see the methodology from our 2023 Whitehall Monitor report.
Unless otherwise indicated, the figures given throughout this explainer are for departmental groups, and therefore include the civil servants who work in ‘core’ departments as well as the agencies and non-ministerial departments they oversee.
Throughout this explainer, we refer to departments and departmental groups as they existed before the machinery of government changes announced in February 2023. This is because these changes have not yet been reflected in the official statistics.
When comparing the size of departments over time, we have excluded the effect of machinery of government changes, where staff have been transferred between departments.
How many civil servants are there?
As of June 2023, there were 489,280 full-time equivalent (FTE) civil servants – 790 (0.16%) more than in the previous quarter, and 10,970 (2.2%) more than a year ago.
With the exception of Q2 2022 – when the civil service shrank slightly – this quarterly growth rate is the lowest since the civil service began to expand after the EU referendum in 2016.
The total number of civil servants has fluctuated significantly since 2010. The size of the civil service, already falling before the 2010 spending review, fell by 19% between 2010 and 2016. This meant that in June 2016, when the EU referendum took place, the civil service had a workforce of 384,260 – the smallest it had been since the Second World War, although numbers never quite reached the low of 380,000 anticipated by the 2012 Civil Service Reform Plan. 16 Civil Service, ‘Civil Service reform plan’, June 2012, retrieved 16 March 2023, www.gov.uk/government/publications/civil-service-reform-plan, p. 11
After the referendum, civil service numbers grew in every quarter, with the rate of growth accelerating during the pandemic, surpassing the 2010 headcount at the beginning of 2022. Following a slight fall in Q2 2022 (when numbers fell by 500 staff compared to Q1), numbers have continued to rise.
Because this growth of the civil service since 2016 was partly spurred by the preparations to leave the EU and the pandemic, there has been a notable increase in the number of policy specialists. Since March 2016, just before the EU referendum, the policy profession has grown by 15,565 staff – an increase of 94%. However, both the digital, data and technology profession and the analytics profession have also grown significantly – by 107% and 108% respectively, though the absolute increases in numbers are smaller than in the policy profession. The largest absolute increase in the number of civil servants since 2016 has been in the operational delivery profession, which has grown by almost 37,000 (17%).
After this significant growth in the size of the civil service, recent governments have committed to cut it. In October 2021, as part of the 2021–24 spending review, the government set an aim to “reduce non-frontline civil service headcount to 2019-20 levels by 2024-25”. 17 HM Treasury, ‘Autumn budget and spending review 2021: documents’, October 2021, retrieved 17 March 2022, www.gov.uk/government/publications/autumn-budget-and-spending-review-2021-documents, p. 45. It is estimated that around half the civil service workforce undertake delivery roles directly with the public – meaning that the government would have had to cut an estimated 28,500 to 57,000 roles, depending on how it defined “frontline” officials.
In May 2022, the government revised its target upwards, to removing 91,000 civil service roles over three years, based on a return to 2016 staffing levels.
BBC News, ‘Boris Johnson wants to cut up to 91,000 civil service jobs’, 13 May 2022, retrieved 23 May 2022, www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-61432498
The Sunak government later abandoned this specific headcount target in November 2022 while maintaining that staff reductions and efficiency savings were needed. 19 BBC News, ‘Rishi Sunak: No 91,000 target for civil service job cuts’, 1 November 2022, retrieved 13 December 2022, www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-63477209
It is not yet clear how these reductions will be made, particularly because the government still plans to hire more civil servants into back-office areas such as science, engineers and digital, 20 Cabinet Office, ‘Declaration on Government Reform’, Gov.uk, 2021, retrieved 17 March 2022, www.gov.uk/government/publications/declaration-on-government-reform and because the overall size of the civil service has continued to grow in recent quarters. If the government is going to meet its commitments, it is likely that policy roles – of which there have been significant increases in recent years – will need to be cut.
How many civil servants are employed by each department?
There is great variation in the number of civil servants employed in different government departments.
The largest departments are often those whose work is focused on ‘delivery’, or providing services directly to the public. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), for example, administers Universal Credit, tax credits and pensions, and is the second largest department, with over 78,000 staff. The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) – the largest and third largest departments – employ tens of thousands of prison officers and tax officials respectively. Approximately 68% of all civil servants work in the five largest departments, or their respective agencies and non-departmental bodies: the MoJ, DWP, HMRC, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the Home Office (HO).
The five smallest departments in terms of staff are the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), HM Treasury, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC), the Department for International Trade (DIT), and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO). These departments can be less than a twentieth of the size of the largest departments. DCMS, for example, has 2,990 staff. The Treasury has 3,200 staff, while DIT has 4,030.
Departments also differ in how their staff are organised. In the larger departments, except for MoJ, most civil servants often work in the ‘core’ departments, rather than in executive agencies or non-ministerial departments that the core department oversees. By contrast, departments such as the Department for Transport (DfT), the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) have more of their staff in the bodies that they oversee than in the core department: there are 6,440 staff in BEIS’s core department and 16,230 in the organisations it oversees, such as the Met Office. In the case of the MoJ, the vast majority of staff in the departmental group are employed by HM Prison and Probation Service.
How have civil service numbers changed in different departments?
The fluctuation in the overall size of the civil service since 2010 is reflected in individual departments’ staffing numbers. Most departments saw their numbers of civil servants fall after the 2010 spending review, before rising in later years.
All but four departments now have more civil servants than they did in 2010. DCMS has quadrupled in size, while DfE has almost doubled. But key ‘operational’ departments which employ large numbers of staff– DWP, MoJ and HMRC – employ fewer civil servants now than they did in 2010.
The specific drivers of recent expansions in the civil service – Brexit preparations and the pandemic – are also evident in the departmental trends.
Before its merger with BEIS to form the Department for Business and Trade, DIT more than tripled in size since its staff numbers were first reported in Q4 2016, following its creation in the wake of the referendum result. Other departments which had significant responsibilities preparing for and implementing Brexit, such as DCMS, the Cabinet Office and Defra, have all also seen significant proportional growth since the referendum.
The pandemic also drove growth in the number of civil servants. As evident in the pink chart above, between Q4 2019 and Q3 2021, DHSC saw the highest proportional growth of all departments – adding 4,220 civil servants (46%). The size of the department has since been falling since Q4 2021, perhaps due to pandemic pressures abating.
What are the latest changes to civil service staff numbers?
Data from the latest quarter (March – June 2023) show the largest proportional reductions in staff at the Department for Education (DfE), DHSC and HMRC. This is the third consecutive quarter in which the DfE has reduced in size, having grown rapidly since 2016. DHSC has renewed a recent shrinking trend, while HMRC has alternated between growing and shrinking in recent quarters.
The largest proportional increases this quarter were seen at HMT, FCDO and BEIS. The expansion of HMT is notable, as the department has stayed exactly the same size in previous quarters. For the FCDO, meanwhile, this marks the third consecutive quarter of growth – its first run of growth since 2019 – while BEIS has also continued a long trend of increasing in size.
If or when the civil service begins to make staff reductions to meet the chancellor’s aim to find efficiency savings, we may expect to see staff numbers in other departments fall.