|Sources of vacancies|
It is impossible to simply define a career in the Civil Service as the range of opportunities reflects the incredibly diverse remit of this organisation. The effective running of a country requires administrators, economists, statisticians, engineers, researchers and scientists to name but a few. The Fast Stream is the graduate recruitment scheme offered by the Civil Service. It represents early responsibility (e.g. policy, operations, and corporate services) within a particular government department. Graduate opportunities are also exist outside of the fast stream; some departments and agencies operate independent graduate programmes. Further to the graduate schemes, the Civil Service is a major employer and consequently employment opportunities can be found at all levels.
AGCAS - the professional body for higher education careers advisory services ,has produced an Industry Insight for Government and Public Administration which provides an overview of what it is like to work in this area
The Civil Service is one of the largest graduate recruiters in the country. It effectively comprises 173 (at the time of writing) different employers (i.e. all the Departments and Agencies). Broadly speaking, the Departments work with government to formulate policy while their Executive Agencies implement these policies. Agencies make up 75% of the Civil Service. In addition to the departments and agencies there are also non-departmental public bodies (NDPBs). Public bodies are independent organisations that deliver specific functions on behalf of certain departments. Examples of public bodies include the Environment Agency, Low Pay Commission and Pensions Ombudsman. There are half a million civil servants in the UK, half are women and only 1 in 5 works in London.
As with any sector of employment work experience is very important and the Civil Service is no different. Defining the nature of work experience is very difficult because of the sheer size and scope of the public sector. A graduate considering a research career in a government laboratory will have different experience needs to someone considering a career in public sector audit. In respect of the graduate entry programme, the Fast Stream, specific work experience is not essential but compelling evidence of key transferable skills is essential.
What are the options?
The majority of departments and agencies do not offer formal internships but may be responsive to speculative applications. It is important to research aspects of the civil service that interest you and target relevant government organisations accordingly. The easiest way to do this is to use the directory of departments and accredited NDPBs that is available on Civil Service website.
A number of departments and agencies do offer structured work experience opportunities that are advertised on their respective websites. Examples include:
Larger NDPBs are more likely to offer internships as they are managed independently of central government and are responsible for their own recruitment. Examples include:
There are internship opportunities aimed specifically at students from a minority ethnic or a lower socio-economic background. The Summer Diversity internship Programme lasts between 6-9 weeks with the usual start date being in June; interns will be assigned to a government department for the duration of that period. The application process normally opens in November and closes at the beginning of January. For further information visit the Fast Stream website.
Some government bodies provide volunteering opportunities. This is more common with organisations, such as the Forestry Commission and English Heritage, which need practical support to achieve their goals.
A number of government departments and agencies also offer one/two day visits for undergraduates. Visits can be arranged by directly contacting government departments and agencies.
As a graduate or undergraduate short-term employment is possible and represents an effective way of gaining experience within public sector organisations. Opportunities in the Civil Service are primarily sourced through their own website but a lot of recruitment agencies, such as Adecco, recruit on behalf of the public sector. Refer to the Recruitment & Employment Confederation for a comprehensive list of consultancies.
What else can I do?
The Civil Service puts significant emphasis on skills and competencies, particularly areas such as team work, problem solving and communication. Irrespective of whether you are a graduate or a first year undergraduate it is critically important to be exploring means of developing your skill base. This could be via employment, extra-curricular activities, private sector internships, gap year projects, academic study or volunteering. The context does not really matter; what is important is your ability to reflect positively upon the activities you have been involved in and the skills that you have gained.
Experience outside of the Civil Service can be a means of demonstrating your interest in particular aspects of government, whether specific professions (e.g. lawyer, accountant, planner) or areas of policy (e.g. health, education, environment etc).
Each Department/Agency is responsible for their recruitment, grading and pay scales. They recruit in similar ways to any employer with the majority of opportunities being publically advertised via the Civil Service website and in the regional and national press. There are 2 main ways graduates enter the Civil Service: Fast Stream and direct entry. In addition to this, certain departments recruit graduates independently. Recruitment is not consistent across all departments and is not guaranteed to take place every year. Recent examples of departmental graduate schemes include Highways Agency, Forestry Commission, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, GCHQ, Ministry of Defence (DESG) and the Homes and Communities Agency.
At the time of writing (August 2012) there is considerable public concern about job prospects within the public sector as a consequence of the ongoing austerity measures. While this will undoubtedly have an impact on the wider public sector job market, the government’s commitment to graduate recruitment, via the Fast Stream, remains strong. The situation is less clear in respect of other public sector graduate schemes (e.g. Highways Agency, Environment Agency, Forestry Commission, Homes and Communities Agency) that were ended in response to the economic situation and have yet to be reinstated.
This is the only centralised recruitment scheme operated by the Civil Service. As the name suggests, the Fast Stream is an accelerated training and development programme for graduates with approx 500 vacancies a year. The scheme offers exposure to different aspects of the civil service via a number of placements within your attached department. Each placement lasts 12 or 18 months and will be linked to the three core professional areas: corporate services delivery, operational delivery and policy delivery. Secondment opportunities also exist for those wishing to gain exposure to other government departments and agencies.
There are a number of Fast Stream pathways to be considered; each pathway presents different professional opportunities within the civil service. The Graduate Fast Stream is open to graduates from any academic discipline and is subdivided into four options:
- Central Departments
- Diplomatic Service
- Houses of Parliament
- Science and Engineering
In addition to the Graduate Fast Stream there is the Analytical Fast Stream. This provides more specialist career opportunities for graduates from particular academic backgrounds:
- Economist (Government Economic Service)
- Statistician (Government Statistical Service)
- Social Researcher (Government Social Research Service)
- Operational Researcher (Government Operational Research Service)
There are a further four fast stream pathways to consider:
- HR Fast Stream
- Technology in Business Fast Stream
- European Fast Stream
- Northern Ireland Fast Stream
The application period runs between September and November each year. You will need to check the exact details in any given year, particularly as some of the specific streams operate a little differently to the Graduate Fast Stream. Some of the analytical fast stream pathways, for example, recruit over two rounds but the closing date for the first round is in mid-October. As you may imagine, competition is very high but also consistent with other graduate schemes (approximately 16,000 applications for 200 vacancies). This however should not be viewed as a deterrent; a large number of candidates are sifted out very early in the process and a significant number only go as a far as registering but do not actually apply! Basic entry requirements are 2:2 degree and UK nationality although 75% of posts are open to Commonwealth citizens and nationals of any of the member states of the European Economic Area (EEA). Further details of the aptitudes sought are available on the Civil Service website. Relevant work experience is not necessary but the ability to evidence a broad skill set via a wide range of activities is important. The application procedure is designed to see whether you have the potential to become a senior manager so you don’t need to have worked for the Civil Service before. Application is online via the website where you can also find a wealth of information on the scheme and entry requirements. Separate arrangements can be made for disabled candidates.
Other graduate schemes
In addition to the centralised Fast Stream schemes, a number of government departments and agencies operate independent graduate programmes. Graduate opportunities exist in specialist career areas such as intelligence (GCHQ, Secret Intelligence Service), technology (Defence Engineering Science Group), law (Government Legal Service), research (Government Social Research), finance/professional services (Audit Commission, National Audit Office, Government Actuary’s Department, Government Operational Research Service). It is very difficult to provide a comprehensive list of which organisations operate independent graduate schemes as the situation can change annually. If you do have a particular preference in terms of the area of government in which you would like to work it is important to establish whether the appropriate departments and agencies recruit graduates outside of the central scheme. The list below represents examples of such government organisations:
- National Audit Office
- HM Prison Service
- Highways Agency
- Government Legal Service
- HM Treasury
- HM Revenue & Customs
- Government Finance Profession
- Valuation Office Agency
- Bank of England
Essentially this covers all other recruitment into the Civil Service. Some graduates will enter as specialists, e.g. accountants, lawyers, scientists, engineers etc. These posts will often be advertised in the relevant professional press (e.g. New Scientist in respect of science posts) in addition to the vacancy pages of individual departments and agencies. Obviously professional level vacancies require tailored experience and qualifications; this must be taken into account when applying for opportunities outside of the graduate job market.
Many graduates enter the Civil Service in a generalist administrative role, e.g. Executive Officer. This is the first level of management. Responsibilities will depend on the agency or department but will often centre on the management of staff and particular services/operations. Administrative posts tend to be advertised via the local and national press, job centres, university careers services and the websites highlighted towards the end of this article. Recruitment agencies that work with public sector clients, particularly in London, are a means of gaining short-term employment in the Civil Service. Increasingly, ‘competencies’ (e.g. time management, communication skills etc) are being used as the selection mechanism, rather than educational qualifications. It is possible to enter the Civil Service in an entry level role (e.g. Administrative Assistant) and work your way up. Managers can recommend staff for the internal Fast Stream (and you may not have to take the Online Tests). The competition is exactly the same as that undertaken by undergraduates and graduates but exclusively for people currently employed in the Civil Service.
If you have a strong interest in the public sector there are other graduate opportunities to consider. Of particular note is the NGDP (National Graduate Development Programme). The NGDP is concerned with developing leaders within local government. The 2 year graduate programme is rotational and allows graduates to experience difference aspects of one local authority. Occasionally local authorities manage their own graduate recruitment. Kent is one such example. Their graduate scheme consists of three streams: management, finance and highway transportation. The LG Jobs website, which specialises in local authority opportunities, provides a talent pool for graduates wishing to work in the sector.
In addition to the NGDP, the NHS has an established graduate scheme but also runs a programme for clinical scientists (NHS Scientist Training Programme). The Bank of England and GCHQ are further examples of public bodies that recruit graduates.
Opportunities in the wider field of politics are available although tailored work experience and qualifications may be necessary. The EU has a graduate scheme; language qualifications are not a requisite but candidates must be able to speak French or German. Internship opportunities are available with international organisations such as the UN, WHO and World Bank. Political consultancies, public affairs consultancies, think tanks, trade unions and charities are examples of other organisations relevant to a career in politics.
How to find out more
The main source of opportunities is the Civil Service jobs portal. Vacancy details are available here, together with a job notification service along with information and advice. For general information on Civil Service career opportunities refer to the recruitment website. If you are interested in a particular department or agency, contact them directly to find out how, when and where they recruit. If you are interested in using a recruitment agency the Recruitment Employment Confederation provides an excellent database of organisations on its website. It is possible to search for agencies that do recruit on behalf of the Civil Service and the wider public sector. The online resources below are useful job search tools in respect of the Civil Service.
Useful vacancy websites
- Primary source of Civil Service job opportunities
Comprehensive job search tool allowing user to search by department/agency as well as location, grade and field of work
- Job vacancies across all aspects of public sector work
Opportunities searchable by job category, location and contract type
- Useful free job email alert service when you register to use the site
Jobs searchable by occupational group and sector, which includes central government
- Very large database of job opportunities including many vacancies in the public sector
Limited search facility but effective quick keyword search option
- Dedicated section on government vacancies
- Possible to refine search further as opportunities categorised by sector (e.g. central government, health, education, policy etc)
- Temporary opportunities advertised as well as permanent positions
Postgraduate study is not necessary for the Fast Stream but might represent a means of developing your understanding of issues connected to governance and public policy; broad based courses in areas such as public policy, politics or international relations are widely available. Postgraduate study is perhaps of greater importance if you are keen to apply your knowledge and interest to a very specific area of the Civil Service or wish to also consider related employers such as think tanks, public affairs consultancies, trade unions and charities. The Department for International Development (DfID) is one example of a Civil Service organisation that does look favourably at those with a relevant postgraduate qualification, usually linked to development issues.
Outside of the Fast Stream, postgraduate study can be viewed as more important in terms of equipping you with the skills and knowledge to apply for specific career roles and professions. Postgraduate study linked to specific areas of employment (e.g. economics, education, finance, public relations, marketing, engineering, personnel, administration) are useful options to consider if you are confident about the specific career path you wish to follow within the Civil Service. Research based careers, possibly in the context of policy development, is an example of an area where a strong academic research background is important. The Civil Service requires experts within fields such as technology, science, education, health and the economy; relevant postgraduate study can support those wishing to undertake research, advisory or policy based roles linked to specific fields of interest.
Further information on postgraduate courses can be found on the Prospects and FindaMasters websites. Research the courses on offer before you apply; don't assume that they are all the same, particularly as the area of governance and international politics is so diverse. It is vital to approach admissions tutors at an early stage to establish specific entry requirements. There are no absolute deadlines for postgraduate courses in this field but it is recommended that you apply early.
- "Who’s who in public affairs” is a useful resource but is unfortunately no longer produced as a publication. However, the Public Affairs News website contains some useful information on public affairs, and includes a section on "Who's who in public affairs".
- The APPC (the Association of Professional Political Consultants) website is a useful resource for information on political PR and lobbying