Specialisms in the civil service

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What are specialisms in the civil service?

Specialisms refer to the different types of jobs that civil servants do.

Civil servants undertake a wide variety of activities, including analysing policy options, managing government contracts, and providing frontline support to jobseekers. For these activities to be done well, they need to be done by people with the appropriate training and expertise, and for government to operate effectively, it therefore needs a workforce with a range of different skillsets.

The civil service recognises this and groups its workforce into a number of defined specialisms (often referred to as professions), provide relevant professional support and training to civil servants, and enable departments to effectively deliver government policies and programmes. 

What are the different types of specialisms?

Specialisms in the civil service divide into three overarching categories:

  • Operational delivery covers civil servants engaged in delivering services to the public. This is a very broad category that can include Case Handlers at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), Border Force Officers at the Home Office (HO) and Prison Officers at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ). In 2018, at least 41% – but likely over half – of civil servants worked in operational delivery. 
  • Cross-departmental specialisms covers roles that are needed across all Whitehall departments. Some of these specialisms are ones that are needed in any large organisation, such as finance or human resources. Others, such as policy, are more specific to government. These roles make up at least a fifth of the civil service.
  • Departmental specialisms offer expertise in areas that are relevant to specific departments or agencies. These include tax specialists at HMRC or education inspectors at the Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills (Ofsted). These roles make up at least 12% of the civil service.

The specialisms of 28% of civil servants is unknown. 

What are operational delivery specialists?

163,000 civil servants worked in operational delivery in 2018. In addition, there were 65,000 operational delivery specialists at DWP in 2017, and the department failed to report specialisms data in 2018. Taking this into account, operational delivery likely makes up over half the civil service.

Most of these jobs are in a handful of very large departments including DWP, HMRC or MoJ. They cover roles such as Operational Support Officers at Jobcentre Plus or Prison Officers at HM Prisons and Probation Service.

Agencies of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the Department of Transport (DfT) and the Department of Health (DH) also employ relatively large numbers of staff for operational delivery. These include technical caseworkers at HM Land Registry, driving and vehicle inspectors at the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency and public health workers at Public Health England.

What are cross-departmental specialisms?

Cross-departmental specialisms are roles that are needed across all Whitehall departments. Some are roles that are a basic requirement for any large organisation such as finance, legal or human resources. Others are more specific to government, such as policy or analytics.

20,000 civil servants work on Policy - the largest cross-departmental specialism. The next largest are Project Delivery, Digital, Data & Technology, and Finance. 

The cross-departmental nature of these specialisms makes them suited to centrally driven efforts to standardise best practice. Many of these specialisms align to the specialist fast-stream programmes in the civil service, including those in communications, human resources, digital and technology, commercial and analytics.

What are departmental specialists?

Departmental specialists offer skills and expertise to support specific requirements of departments or agencies. They tend to be concentrated in certain organisations.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) is home to many of these specialists, including most of the science and engineering, security and medicine specialists.

Virtually all 16,200 of the government’s tax specialists work for HMRC, while psychologists mainly work in the prison service within MoJ.

Specialist agencies such as Ofsted (an agency of the Department for Education), the Animal and Plant Health Agency (an agency of the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs) and the Planning Inspectorate (an agency of the Ministry of Communities and Local Government) respectively employ most education inspectors, veterinarians and planning inspectors. 

In May 2018, a new specialism focussing on international trade was created (but this does not yet show up in the published data).

What don’t we know about specialisms in the civil service?

The specialisms of over one in four civil servants is unknown. This is because they have either not been reported or reported as a vague ‘other’. This has increased from one in ten in 2017, mostly due to DWP – a particularly big department – failing to report any data in 2018. DfT, the Scottish Government (SG) and the Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU) have also regularly failed to provide data on their workforce's specialisms.

A report by the National Audit Office in March 2017 found that not having 'a clear picture of its current skills' hinders the Government's attempts to plan its workforce effectively. For the civil service to deliver on the challenges it faces, this will need to change.

Note: Data on specialisms in the civil service was more complete in 2017. The data for that year can be viewed by clicking on the link beneath each chart and selecting ‘view archive’. 


Update date: 
Tuesday, August 8, 2017