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The British Government: Government Departments
The British Government: A Brief Overview
Information courtesy of The British Information Services

Government Departments & The Civil Service
Government departments and their agencies, staffed by politically neutral civil servants, are the main instruments for implementing government policy when Parliament has passed the necessary legislation, and for advising ministers. They often work alongside local authorities, statutory boards, and government-sponsored organisations operating under various degrees of government control.

A change of government does not necessarily affect the number or general functions of government departments, although major changes in policy may be accompanied by organisational changes.

The work of some departments, for instance, the Ministry of Defence - covers Britain as a whole. Other departments, such as the Department of Social Security, cover England, Wales and Scotland, but not Northern Ireland. Others, such as the Department of the Environment, are mainly concerned with affairs in England. Some departments, such as the Department of Trade and Industry, maintain a regional organisation, and some which have direct contact with the public throughout the country, for example, the Department of Employment, also have local offices.

Departments are usually headed by ministers. In some departments the head is a permanent official, and ministers with other duties are responsible for them to Parliament. For instance, ministers in the Treasury are responsible for HM Customs and Excise, the Inland Revenue, the National Investment and Loans Office and a number of other departments as well as executive agencies such as the Royal Mint. Departments generally receive their funds directly out of money provided by Parliament and are staffed by members of the Civil Service.

Non-Departmental Public Bodies There are bodies that have a role in the process of national government, but are not government departments nor parts of a department. In April 1993 there were 1,389 of these. There are three kinds of non-departmental public bodies: executive bodies, advisory bodies and tribunals. The last of these are a specialised group of bodies whose functions are essentially judicial.

Executive Bodies
Executive bodies normally employ their own staff and have their own budget. They are public organisations whose duties include executive, administrative, regulatory or commercial functions. They normally operate within broad policy guidelines set by departmental ministers but are in varying degrees independent of government in carrying out their day-to-day responsibilities. Examples include the British Council, the Legal Aid Board, the Commonwealth Development Corporation and the Commission for Racial Equality.

Advisory Bodies
Many government departments are assisted by advisory councils or committees which undertake research and collect information, mainly to give ministers access to informed opinion before they come to a decision involving a legislative or executive act. In some cases a minister must consult a standing committee, but advisory bodies are usually appointed at the discretion of the minister. Examples include the British Overseas Trade Board and the Theatres Trust.

The membership of the advisory councils and committees varies according to the nature of the work involved, but normally includes representatives of the relevant interests and professions.

In addition to the standing advisory bodies, there are committees set up by the Government to examine specific matters and make recommendations. For certain important inquiries Royal Commissions whose members are chosen for their wide experience, may be appointed. Royal Commissions examine evidence from government departments, interested organisations and individuals, and submit recommendations; some prepare regular reports. Examples include the standing Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, set up in 1970, and the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice, which issued its report in 1993. Royal Commissions are often referred to by the names of the people who have chaired them. Inquiries may also be undertaken by departmental committees.

The Civil Service
The Civil Service is concerned with the conduct of the whole range of government activities as they affect the community. These range from policy formulation to carrying out the day-to-day duties of public administration.

Civil servants are servants of the Crown. For all practical purposes the Crown in this context means, and is represented by, the Government of the day. In most circumstances the executive powers of the Crown are exercised by, and on the advice of; Her Majesty's Ministers, who are in turn answerable to Parliament. The Civil Service as such has no constitutional responsibility separate from that of the Government of the day. The duty of the individual civil servant is first and foremost to the Minister of the Crown who is in charge of the Department concerned. A change of minister, for whatever reason, does not involve a change of staff. Civil servants do not assist ministers in their party political work and do not normally attend meetings arranged by the governing party.

Ministers sometimes appoint special advisers from outside the Civil Service. The advisers are normally paid from public funds, but their appointments come to an end when the Government's temr of ottice finishes, or when the Minister concerned leaves the Government or moves to another appointment.

The number of civil servants fell from 732,000 in April 1979 to 533,350 hin April 1994, reflecting the Governnsent's policy of controlling the cost of the Civil Service and of improving its efficiency. About half of all civil servants are engaged in the provision of public services. These include paying incapacity benefits and pensions, collecting taxes and contributions, running employment services, staffing prisons, and providing services to industry and agriculture. A quarter are employed in the Ministry of Defence. The rest are divided between: central administrative and policy duties; support services; and largely financially self supporting services, for instance, those provided by the Department for National Savings and the Royal Mint. The total includes about 48,000 'industrial' civil servants, mainly manual workers in government industrial establishments. Four-fifths of civil servants work outside London.

Counselling at an Employment Service job centre With I,100 local offices, the Employment Service employs around 45,000 staff.

Equality of Opportunity
The Government is committed to achieving equality of opportunity for all its staff: In support of this commitment, the Civil Service, which recruits and promotes on the basis of merit, is actively pursuing policies to develop career opportunities for women, ethnic minorities and people with disabilities. The number of ethnic minority staff has been in proportion to, or better than, their representation in the working population since the Civil Service began ethnic monitoring in 1989.

Management Reforms
Civil Service reforms are being implemented to ensure improved management performance, in particular through the increased accountability of individual managers, based on clear objectives and responsibilities. These reforms include pertormance-related compensation plans, otherwise known in the king's English as pay schemes, and other incentives.

Government proposals published in July 1994 recommend that departments should be given greater responsibility for deciding their organizational structures, the pay of their staff and the best combination of efficiency measures in order to raise standards within tightly controlled running costs.

Editor's Note: It sounds a lot like streamlining or re-engineering to us.

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