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Civil service

A civil servant or public servant is a civilian 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. Collectively they form a nation's Civil Service or Public Service.

In the British system of Civil Service, civil servants are career employees recruited and promoted on the basis of their administrative skill and technical expertise, and as such do not include, nor are appointed by, elected officials or their political advisors. Civil servants are expected to be politically neutral, and may be prohibited from taking part in political campaigns. However, the extent of this political neutrality in practice has sometimes been questioned.

In contrast, the civil service of the United States in the early 19th Century was based on the so-called spoils system, in which all bureaucrats were dependent on elected politicians. This was largely changed by the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883; however, the most senior bureaucrats in the US today are still political appointees.

Many public sector workers are not civil servants. Members of a military or diplomatic services (such as the US Foreign Service), for example, are not considered civil servants. In Britain, another example is the employees of the National Health Service and of Local Government Authorities.

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 again risen somewhat since then.

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


One of the oldest examples of a civil service is the Chinese bureaucracy which during the Tang dynasty relied decreasingly on aristocratic recommendations and more and more upon promotion based on written examinations. The Chinese civil service became known to Europe in the mid-18th century and it is believed to have influenced the 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 favouritism, promotions within the company were based on examinations. The system then spread to the United Kingdom in 1854, and to the United States with the Pendleton Civil Service Act.

See also

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

Last updated: 02-05-2005 18:13:30
Last updated: 02-28-2005 17:47:40