Overview of the public services sector in the UK

Daniel Higginbotham, Editor
December, 2019

If you're passionate about making a real difference to society at a local level, as well as tackling wider environmental issues, discover more about working in public services and administration

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), 5.42 million people are employed in the UK's public sector - accounting for 16.5% of all those in paid work (June 2019). It's a huge employment source, but what exactly is the public sector?

In a nutshell, the public sector is responsible for providing all public services in the UK, from the emergency services and healthcare, education and social care, to housing and refuse collection. A range of opportunities and a varied workload are just two reasons why you should consider a career in this sector.

What areas of the public sector can I work in?

Opportunities in the public services can be broadly categorised into the two main areas of central and local government, which employ around 3.23 million and 2.03 million people respectively (as of June 2019).

These aren't your only options - you can find work with a number of other public services, but these tend to cross over with other sectors. You could work in:

Opportunities in administration can be categorised into general, specialist (e.g. legal, educational, agricultural and medical) and professional (e.g. personal assistant or company secretary). Every sector needs administration staff, so you'll be able to find work in a range of settings.

For examples of job roles within the public sector, see public sector jobs and administration jobs.

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 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.

What's it like working in the sector?

You can expect:

  • jobs to be available throughout the UK
  • good working conditions
  • a starting salary of between £15,000 and £25,000
  • some roles to be stressful - you'll work to tight deadlines and have a high degree of responsibility
  • some jobs to have strict nationality entry requirements
  • plenty of opportunities for continuing professional development (CPD)
  • to be able to travel as part of your job, both locally and nationally. Some posts will offer the chance to work abroad.

To find out more about typical salaries and working conditions in your chosen career, browse public services and administration job profiles.

What are the key issues in the public sector?

According to The State of the State 2019-20, a collaboration between professional services firm Deloitte and British think tank Reform, which collects the views of the public, sector leaders and those working at the frontline of UK public services, there's a strong demand for greater public spending on services and actions to tackle social inequality.

The annual report also found that an investment in skills is required to address economic issues, while technology is becoming increasingly out of date and working environments do not meet the needs of a modern workforce.

Health and social care are the two key areas where professional skills are in high demand. Graduates with the latest technical skills in cyber security and other areas of information technology (IT), such as automation, big data and artificial intelligence (AI), would also find opportunities to work in this sector.

A major issue facing the sector is managing population growth. While the growth rate has slowed over the past two years, the UK population has risen to 66.4 million (ONS, 2018). People are living longer, due to advancements in medical research and technology, and in turn the demand for high-quality, personalised care has increased. The public sector plays a big part in ensuring this care is delivered cost-effectively and sustainably.

The secure handling of personal data is also a concern, although generally the public sector is regarded as one of the most trustworthy sectors in the UK. In an annual study conducted by the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), public sector organisations had some of the highest levels of public trust with personal data in 2018.

At the top of the list, 65% of those surveyed reported high levels of trust in GPs and the NHS, with just 12% reporting low levels of trust. Additionally, the police, central and local government each scored well for high levels of trust (54%, 51% and 42% respectively) - much higher than the national average of 34%.

While these figures may look promising, in the wake of recent data breach scandals the public sector must work hard to maintain a high level of confidence.

Find out more

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