The public sector is vast and spans a range of services, which means you have plenty of opportunities to make a difference. Learn more about employers and discover what it's like to work in the industry

What is the public sector?

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), 5.87 million people are employed in the UK's public sector - accounting for around a sixth of all those in paid work (June 2023).

It's clear that 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, including:

  • education
  • emergency services
  • healthcare
  • housing
  • refuse collection
  • security
  • social care
  • tax collection.

What's the difference between the public and private sectors?

Simply put, public sector organisations are owned and controlled by the government and are therefore subject to government funding. Private sector businesses are owned and managed by individuals or privately owned firms.

What areas of the public sector can I work in?

Opportunities in public services can be broadly categorised into the two main areas of central and local government, which employ around 3.67 million and 2 million people respectively.

These aren't your only options, as you can find work with several other public service agencies and non-departmental public bodies, but they tend to cross over with other sectors.

You can choose to work in:

Opportunities in administration can be categorised into general, specialist (for example, legal, educational, agricultural and medical) and professional (such as 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, see public sector and administration jobs.

Who are the main graduate employers?

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

The Civil Service departments, agencies or public bodies you could work for include:

  • Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO)
  • Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ)
  • Government Economic Service (GES)
  • Government Legal Profession (GLP)
  • Government Operational Research Service (GORS)
  • Government Statistical Service (GSS)
  • HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC)
  • HM Treasury
  • National Crime Agency (NCA)
  • 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:

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

What's it like working in the sector?

You can expect:

  • jobs to be available throughout the UK
  • good working conditions
  • a median starting salary of £26,400 in the public sector for those employed by one of The Times Top 100 Graduate Employers (High Fliers' The Graduate Market in 2023 report)
  • to be paid more than those working in the private sector. According to a House of Commons briefing paper published in October 2022, median weekly earnings for public sector workers were 12% higher than those in the private sector.
  • 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, while some posts will offer the chance to work abroad.

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

What are the key issues in the public sector?

Throughout 2023 the public services sector has seen unprecedented strike action with nurses, paramedics, junior doctors, consultants, radiographers, dentists, airport staff, rail and London Underground workers, teachers and university staff all walking out in disputes about pay and working conditions.

While the government has announced that it will increase public sector pay for teachers, doctors, dentists, civil servants, justice staff, the police and those in the armed forces by between 5% and 7% in 2023/24, strikes are likely to continue as some professions continue to fight for better pay.

According to The State of the State 2022-23, a collaboration between professional services firm Deloitte and British think tank Reform, four-fifths of the public (81%) expect the government to prioritise addressing the cost of living crisis.

This was highlighted as the key area that the public expects improvement in, followed by reducing NHS waiting lists (66%), climate change and working towards Net Zero (46%), crime and policing (44%), social care (44%) and affordable housing (40%).

The annual survey also found that people were overall less trusting in the government and public services as a whole, despite the Scottish and Welsh governments, the NHS and the police still being among the most trusted parts of the sector.

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