From housing and social care to healthcare, education and the emergency services, by working for a public sector organisation you'll be well positioned to make a real difference to society and get to tackle some of its biggest issues

What is the public sector?

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), 5.77 million people are employed in the UK's public sector - accounting for around a sixth of all those in paid work (September 2022).

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.

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 3.57 million and 2 million people respectively (ONS, September 2022).

These aren't your only options, as you can find work with a number of 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 £23,100 in the public sector for those employed by one of The Times Top 100 Graduate Employers (High Fliers' The Graduate Market in 2022 report)
  • 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?

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.

Nearly three-quarters (73%) of the public said that keeping their data safe is a non-negotiable regarding digital public services.

With such concern surrounding the secure handling of personal data, graduates with the latest technical skills in cyber security, big data and artificial intelligence (AI), should be able to find job opportunities in the public services - for instance, by joining the CyberFirst programme, led by the National Cyber Security Centre.

Public sector leaders admitted that a move towards a data-driven government and the use of AI is still the goal, but outdated computer systems are slowing the progress along their digital journey. This means that IT graduates will be required to continue this transformation.

The leaders were also feeling the effects of cost of living issues, with a noticeably reduced public service spending power, despite an increased demand for local services and concern for their workforces.

The health and social care system, which was further weakened by the pandemic, is now said to be at crisis point. Longstanding workforce shortages were listed among the key issues, with healthcare professional skills in high demand.

The report did end on a positive note, with the leaders in agreement that by 2030 the sector can be greater than the sum of its parts, with public bodies working more effectively together and the adoption of a data-led and digital approach ensuring that resources are channelled to the areas of society where they're most needed.

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