Central government and the civil service

What is ‘the Government’?

The term ‘government’ refers to the collective group of people who exercise executive power in a state.

In the United Kingdom, the government is made up of the Prime Minister and approximately 100 MPs and peers who are selected by the Prime Minister to hold ministerial positions. The most senior of these government ministers, together with the Prime Minister, form the Cabinet, which is the supreme government decision-making body.

The government is supported in developing and implementing policy by civil servants working in departments and government agencies. Civil servants are independent of government and work to the political priorities of the government of the day.

An important principle of the constitution of the United Kingdom, and of parliamentary democracy, is that of ‘responsible government’. This means that the government is accountable to Parliament, and must maintain the confidence of the House of Commons. Parliament alone can pass primary legislation (Acts); consequently it also has significant impact on what policy becomes law.


The Cabinet is the collective decision-making body of the government, and comprises the Prime Minister and, currently, 21 Cabinet ministers. Cabinet ministers are selected by the Prime Minister primarily from elected members of the House of Commons, although they may also be chosen from the House of Lords. Cabinet ministers are usually heads of government departments, holding the office of ‘Secretary of State’, although positions such as Leader of the House of Commons may also be appointed to Cabinet. Some junior ministers below Cabinet level may be invited to regularly attend Cabinet; the Attorney General and the chair of the governing party are traditionally included. Here you can see a list of current Cabinet ministers and attending ministers.

Cabinet traditionally meets on a Thursday morning to discuss and make decisions about the most important issues in government policy. However, it also operates numerous Cabinet sub-committees which scrutinize particular policy areas or specific issues; consequently the actual decision-making process may occur outside these full Cabinet meetings. A central principle of the Westminster system of government is that of collective Cabinet responsibility, which means that all Cabinet decisions must be unanimous, and all Cabinet ministers take responsibility for those decisions.


Ministers hold significant public office above that of a Member of Parliament. They are chosen by the Prime Minister from among members of the Houses of Commons and Lords, and are responsible for leading government policy on a particular area or portfolio. There are three ministerial ranks: Secretary of State, Minister of State, and Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State. Secretaries of State have overall responsibility for a particular government department, and are usually, although not always, members of Cabinet.

The term ‘junior ministers’ refers to those ministers who do not make up Cabinet (although some may attend Cabinet regularly or on an ad-hoc basis). The creation of junior ministerial roles is at the Prime Minister’s discretion. Ministers of State assist their Secretaries of State, and are often assigned specific portfolios within the department  (for example, within the Department for Education, there is currently a Minister of State for Skills, a Minister of State for Schools, and a Minister of State for Children and Families). Parliamentary Under-Secretaries of State, who rank below Ministers of State, likewise hold specific portfolios within a department. Here you can see a list of current ministers by department.

Ministers are supported and advised by the civil servants who work within their department, by their Private Secretaries, who are permanent civil servants seconded from the department to the Minister’s office and act as the link between the Minister and the department, and by their special advisors, who are politically-appointed temporary civil servants and advise the Minister on policy and political matters (see <How to find a contact> for how to find out who holds these positions for different ministers).

The civil service

The civil service is the name given to the body of state employees who support the government in carrying out its work. The UK civil service is responsible for developing and implementing government legislation. While overall policy directions will be set by the government of the day, much of the detailed thinking about government policy is undertaken by civil servants.

The civil service is permanent, independent of the government and politically neutral. Politicians make policy (based on a varying mixture of political and civil service advice) and civil servants then implement the policy, whether or not they personally to agree with it. However, as ministers may not stay in the same department for long, they will not have the same knowledge as a civil servant, who will tend to become highly expert in their particular area. For this reason, civil servants can have a high degree of influence on government policy.

At the head of every ministerial department is its most senior official, the permanent secretary. The permanent secretary reports only to the minister, and has oversight of running the entire department. Under the permanent secretary there are six or seven deputy secretaries or directors who oversee the work of individual policy directorates. Each directorate is subdivided into a number of different sections which handle specific elements of that policy area. A list of the current permanent secretaries can be found here. Most departments also publish some information about their senior civil servants at data.gov.uk.

Non-ministerial departments, agencies, and public bodies may have different structures, and the title of the senior civil servant who heads them will depend on the agency’s remit.

Government departments and agencies

The work of developing the majority of government policy and implementing legislation is divided among 24 ministerial departments, each headed by a Secretary of State (apart from the Attorney General’s Office, led by the Attorney General, and the Offices of the Leaders of the Houses of Lords and Commons, led by the respective House Leaders). Ministerial departments are responsible for public policy on large areas that impact on most of our lives and on the nation as a whole, such as health, education, defence, taxation, and law and order.

The 22 non-ministerial departments are headed by a senior civil servant. These departments’ remits tend to be much more specific than the ministerial departments, and are often regulatory in nature. For example, the Serious Fraud Office, Ofsted, and the Food Safety Authority are all non-ministerial departments. Other non-ministerial departments include the National Archives and Ordnance Survey.

In addition, there are a further 362 government agencies and other public bodies, which cover a wide range of very specific remits. Some, for example the Victoria and Albert Museum, manage a specific single entity, while others, such as the Independent Police Complaints Commission, have a national remit. Some public bodies, such as the Morecombe Bay Investigation, are temporary organisations. Finally, there are 11 public corporations, the best-known of which is the BBC, and the three devolved administrations (see <Devolved nations>)

Here you will find more information about the ministerial and non-ministerial departments, agencies, and public bodies that support the government.

The Engaging with central and devolved government guide provides advice and information on how to work with and influence government ministers and civil servants in the national and devolved governments.