Overview of the public services sector in the UK

Dominic Claeys-Jackson, Editor
January, 2017

Whether you have an ambition to shape government policy or want to make a difference to your local area, there are numerous job opportunities in the public services and administration sector

What areas can I work in?

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), more than 5.4 million people work in the public sector across the UK - accounting for 17.1% of those in employment.

Opportunities in the public services can be broadly categorised into two areas: central government, which employs roughly 2.9 million people, and local government, which employs around 2.2 million people.

Other options include working in teaching and education, law enforcement and security, or in an administrative/management role in the National Health Service (NHS) - the sector's biggest employer.

More than three million people work in administration; around four in ten of these are in healthcare, teaching and education, or public administration, with around half of the workforce employed on a part-time basis.

Opportunities in administration can be categorised into general administration, specialist administration (e.g. legal, educational, agricultural and medical) and professional administration (e.g. personal assistant and company secretary).

For examples of job roles in this sector, see graduate jobs in public services.

Who are the main graduate employers?

There are two key employers in the public services: the Civil Service and local government.

Civil Service departments, agencies or public bodies include:

  • Diplomatic Service
  • Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO)
  • Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ)
  • Government Economic Service (GES)
  • Government Legal Service (GLS)
  • Government Operational Research Service (GORS)
  • Government Social Research (GSR)
  • Government Statistical Service (GSS)
  • HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC)
  • HM Treasury
  • Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), MI6
  • Security Service, MI5.

In local government, roles can be found in areas of work including:

  • architecture, heritage and housing
  • environmental health
  • media and communications
  • social services
  • surveying and town planning
  • Trading Standards
  • youth and community work.

Other notable employers in the public services include:

  • armed forces
  • Bank of England
  • British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)
  • British Museum
  • Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA)
  • Financial Conduct Authority (FCA)
  • National Audit Office
  • National Probation Service
  • NHS
  • ONS.

Roles in administration are found across all sectors.

What's it like working in the sector?

You can expect:

  • a starting salary of between £14,000 and £25,000
  • good working conditions, but relatively low job security
  • some jobs to have strict nationality entry requirements
  • strong opportunities for continuing professional development (CPD) and working abroad.

To find out more about typical salaries and working conditions in your chosen career, see job profiles.

What are the key issues in the public services sector?

Public sector employment in the UK has continued to fall in recent years. However, it remains one of the key graduate employers, with particular skills shortages existing in IT, social care, Trading Standards and environmental health. According to The Graduate Market in 2016, the sector enjoyed a 12% increase in recruitment in December 2015 compared to the previous year.

However, the number of people employed by local government has fallen due to an increasing number of public services being outsourced to private organisations such as Mitie, Serco, G4S, Capita, Carillion and Babcock International. Therefore, there's now a greater range of employers to consider if you're looking for a role in public services.

Roles in administration increasingly involve performing other business functions such as IT, because the need for routine administrative work has decreased due to technological advancements. If you have a desire to work in this area, you'll need to keep up to date with technological developments.