What is the civil service and how many civil servants are there in the UK?

The Department for Work & Pensions is one of the biggest departments in the civil service. (John Stillwell/PA) (PA Archive)
The Department for Work & Pensions is one of the biggest departments in the civil service. (John Stillwell/PA) (PA Archive)

The Cabinet Office is expanding trials of an AI-powered civil service, known as the Redbox Copilot project.

So named after the red briefcases used by ministers for official papers, the system can search and analyse government papers, summarising them into briefings for employees.

The end goal is for every civil servant in the UK to have access to it, with the potential of adding official government announcements and transcripts to it as well down the line.

Redbox Copilot developers claim that civil servants could also use ChatGPT to ask questions about the details of the data within.

With fears that tools like this could result in job losses, trade unions have stated that they are not against using AI to improve productivity but any savings should be used to increase pay, not cut jobs.

But what is a civil servant and what kind of roles are involved?

What is a civil servant?

Civil servants work for the civil service, which directly provides services to people across the UK in a number of ways. The jobs that civil servants do include paying benefits and pensions, running employment services, and issuing driving licences.

Civil servants also include analysts, lawyers, and economists, who work on policy development and implementation.

Civil servants work across various government departments, such as the Cabinet Office, Department for Education, Department of Health and Social Care, Department for Transport, Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency (DVLA), HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), Ministry of Defence, and the Office for National Statistics, just to name a few.

Although civil servants often work in central government departments, they are politically impartial. The Prime Minister is the Minister for the Civil Service, and he is responsible for coordinating and managing the service.

Jobs that are not a part of the civil service include government ministers, members of the British Armed Forces, the police, officers of local government or NDPBs of the Houses of Parliament, NHS employees, or staff of the Royal Household.

How many civil servants are there in the UK?

As of the end of December 2021, there were 475,020 full-time equivalent civil servants, according to the Institute for Government.

Around 69% of civil servants work for the five largest departments in the civil service: the DWP, the Ministry of Justice, HMRC, the Ministry of Defence and the Home Office.

The size of the civil service decreased by 19% between 2010 and 2016, but since the EU referendum in 2016, numbers have risen every quarter.