Civil servants are defined as staff who are “politically impartial and independent of government and work in central government departments, agencies, and non-departmental public bodies”. In this way, civil servants are defined much more narrowly than public sector workers and police, teachers, NHS staff, members of the armed forces or 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.
ONS numbers focus on home civil servants (excluding the diplomatic service) classified as working in central government departments or the agencies they oversee. For example, the Met Office is overseen by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency is overseen by the Department for Transport (DfT).
In our analysis, we include some agencies – like HM Prison and Probation Service at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) or the Education and Skills Funding Agency at the Department for Education (DfE) – within the main department figures, as they are directly line-managed by it, and you can find a full list of where we do that here.
Scottish and Welsh civil servants are included in the ONS figures, but the Northern Ireland Civil Service is not because it is administratively separate.
As of the end of March 2019, there were 414,390 full-time equivalent (FTE) civil servants.
Approximately 63% of civil servants work in the four largest departments, or their respective agencies and non-departmental bodies: Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), Ministry of Justice (MoJ), HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) and Ministry of Defence (MoD).
The majority of civil service staff in these departments work in the ‘core’ departments, rather than in the executive agencies or non-ministerial departments they oversee. These departments have the most staff because their work is focused on delivery and they are often client-facing. For example, DWP administers tax credits and pensions.
The five smallest departments in terms of staff levels are the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG); Treasury; Department for International Trade (DIT); Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS); and Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU). The Treasury and MHCLG each have over 2,000 staff, while DIT and DCMS have 1,650 and 1,140 respectively. By contrast, DExEU, the smallest department, has an estimated 600 FTE staff.
However, DExEU figures are complicated by the fact that many employees are transferred from other departments. Some of these transfers are not yet officially reported under DExEU but under their old departments, and they do not appear in DExEU figures to avoid double counting. The ONS estimates that DExEU has a headcount of around 730.
Departments such as BEIS, DfT, Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC), and Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) have more of their staff in the bodies that they oversee than in the core department: there are 3,950 staff in BEIS’ core department, and 13,510 in the organisations it oversees, such as the Met Office.
In the last year, the overall number of civil servants has risen by 4%, with numbers increasing by over 10,000 in the six months between September 2018 and March 2019. Between 2010 and 2016, the size of the civil service fell by 19%, but numbers have risen in every quarter since the EU referendum in 2016.
The increase in each of the last eleven quarters means that over a third of the job cuts made between September 2010 and June 2016 have now been reversed. In June 2016, when the EU referndum took place, the civil service had a workforce of 384,260. This was the smallest the civil service had been since World War II, however numbers never reached the 380,000 expected by the 2012 Civil Service Reform Plan.
The overall changes in staff numbers can mask some other trends, for example, the proportion of staff at more senior grades has actually been increasing since 2012.
Eight departments – Department for International Development (DfID), Cabinet Office (CO), DCMS, DfT, DfE, the Treasury, the Home Office and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) – have seen the numbers of civil servants rise since 2010. The Cabinet Office and DfID have around 70% more staff than in 2010, with numbers increasing by 65% at DCMS, and around 30% at DfE and DfT.
In all other departments, the numbers have fallen: by almost 40% at DHSC, a third at DWP, and over a quarter at MoD.
In the last quarter (December 2018 to March 2019) the biggest increases in staff were at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), BEIS and MHCLG, which grew by 4.6%, 4.2% and 4% respectively.
In departments such as BEIS, Defra, and the Cabinet Office, staff increases are likely driven by Brexit and the heavier workload such departments face. The former permanent secretary of Defra, Clare Moriarty, estimated that over 80% of the department’s activity is framed by the EU, and its workload is increasing significantly: the department has grown in each of the last nine quarters, and is now larger than it was in 2010, after being cut by 28% between the 2010 Spending Review and 2016 Q2. Home Office numbers have also risen in every quarter since the end of 2016.
As well as Brexit, other challenges in public services may also be driving the increase of staff. The overall number of staff at MoJ increased by more than 7,000 in the past eighteen months, most of which was at HM Prisons and Probations Service, reflecting its recruitment drive for new prison officers to quell soaring prison violence.
Explore all the Whitehall Monitor explainers.
See the full list of government department abbreviations.