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Civil service

Please note this article is currently written from a British perspective. Internationalization is very welcome.

A civil servant is a career public sector employee working for a government department or agency. Further workers in non-departmental public bodies may also be classed as civil servants for the purpose of producing statistics. Examples in this category include some employees of so-called QUANGOs.

Civil servants are career employees recruited and promoted based on administrative skill and technical expertise, and as such do not include elected officials or their political advisors. Civil servants are supposed to be poltical neutral. However, this political neutrality has sometimes been questioned.

Many public sector workers are not civil servants. In Britain, examples include members of the Armed Forces, the National Health Service and Local Authority employees.

The British civil service was at its largest in 1976 with approximately three-quarters of a million servants employed. By April 1999 this number had fallen to a record low of 459,600 due to privatization, outsourcing and cutbacks. The number has since risen somewhat since then.

The archetypal civil servant was famously caricatured in the 1970s and 80s BBC comedy Yes, Minister.


One of the oldest examples of a civil service was the Chinese bureaucracy which during the Tang dynasty relied increasingly less on aristocratic recommendations and more on promotion based on written examinations. The Chinese civil service became known to Europe in the mid-18th century and is believed to have influnced creation of civil services in Europe.

Ironically, the first European civil service was not set up in Europe, but rather in India by the East India Company. In order to prevent corruption and favortism, promotions within the company were based on examinations. The system then spread to the UK in 1854, and to the United States with the Pendleton Civil Service Act.

Note: in some countries such as New Zealand and Niue, the name used in practice instead is the public service.