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Government & Public Admin | The Careers Service Government & Public Admin – Oxford University Careers Service
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About this sector

The range and breadth of opportunities in Government and Public Administration reflects the highly diverse remit of this sector. The effective running of a country at national, regional and city/metropolitan level requires administrators of all stripes: economists, statisticians, policy analysts, researchers, scientists, communication specialists, accountants and many more.

This briefing focuses on the opportunities, routes into and career paths for those interested in the UK Civil Service and local government. For roles in international government see our information on International Organisations.

The Civil Service is a major employer and employment opportunities can be found at all levels offering many additional opportunities. The Fast Stream is the generic title given to the principal  graduate recruitment scheme offered by the Civil Service in the UK, but there are many other opportunities and entry points for graduates. Similarly, the Local Government Association (LGA) coordinates the National Graduate Development Programme for over 50 participating local authorities that provide two to three year graduate schemes.

Structure of the Civil Service

The Civil Service is one of the largest graduate recruiters in the country. It plays a key function in British life by ensuring that Government policy is implemented, and although it serves the government of the day, it is politically independent.

The UK Civil Service effectively comprises 46 departments (there are 26 Ministerial and 20 non-Ministerial departments) and 380 Agencies and Public Bodies. There are some 420,000 civil servants in the UK: half are women and only 1 in 5 works in London.

The majority of civil servants have a direct influence on life in Britain, responsible for ‘operational delivery’ across a vast array of services: for example, administration of pensions and tax, controlling borders, supporting people back to work and running courts. Civil servants also offer support and advice on policy-making to ministers.

Broadly speaking, the Departments work with government to formulate policy while their Executive Agencies and Public Bodies 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. The complete list and web-links to all these bodies are included via the Government’s Organisations webpage.

Structure of Local Government

Local government administrations manage the delivery of services locally as determined by the policies and priorities set by Councillors. The administration is therefore responsible for the planning, implementation and delivery of local services across a swathe of services that directly impact on people’s lives, including areas such as managing and delivering education and social care, promoting local business, managing planning, infrastructure, housing, parks and policing.

Types of job

Jobs within the Civil Service can range from administrative positions with arts councils, to embassy posts with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), to intelligence roles at MI5, to legal services with the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). As such, the range of jobs is enormous. The Civil Service employs people from many sectors, including finance, research and development, business, administration, education, military, and sports. Staff may work anywhere in the United Kingdom and possibly overseas, although a large number, especially those dealing with policy formulation and advice, are located in London. There are increasing numbers of opportunities within the devolved regions and many departments and agencies now have offices in other cities such as Bristol, Leeds, Sheffield, Newcastle, Edinburgh and Cardiff.

In recent years the Civil Service has undergone a great deal of change, becoming more streamlined and commercially aware. The ‘Professional Skills for Government’ framework is designed to ensure that all staff are able to operate effectively in operational, corporate services and policy roles. Another significant trend has been the appointment of increasing numbers of special advisers and the recruitment to senior posts of those from outside the ranks of existing civil servants, although this tends not to affect graduate entry employment.

Local Government roles mirror those in central government, with opportunities in finance, Human Resources (HR), technology, library and information management and more. There are two main schemes to be aware of when considering working in either central or local government: The Civil Service Fast Stream and, for local government, the National Graduate Development Programme (NGDP).

The flagship graduate entry route of the Civil Service Fast Stream gives early responsibility (e.g. policy, operations, and corporate services) within a particular government department or function, and aims to fast-track candidates to leadership roles at the end of the training period. There are 15 different ‘streams’ at present, some generalist and some quite technically specialised, but all offer rotations through developmental roles and supported with additional training. Most Fast Streamers can expect to work in more than one department or agency, and there are opportunities for external secondment as well.

In local government, the National Graduate Development Programme offers developmental roles within individual local authorities and councils. Across the country more than 50 local authorities participate, and there are opportunities to take a secondment at an alternative authority or with other public sector partners on their graduate programmes.

Graduate opportunities within the Civil Service also exist outside the Fast Stream. For example, some departments and agencies operate independent graduate programmes, and candidates who are a ‘near miss’ for the fast stream may well be approached for direct entry positions by a department. Many graduates will also be recruited outside these high profile schemes. Similarly, graduate roles will also exist at all local government authorities, not just those that participate in the NGDP.

Take time to research and seek out alternative programmes (start with those listed in External Resources below). For the organisations or departments you are most interested in joining, be sure to follow them on social media and register for email alerts where you can.

Entry points

In the expansive landscape of government and policy careers there are many, many potential entry points and ways to find and monitor job opportunities. These are reflected throughout this briefing, and this section focuses on the principal graduate entry points into the Government’s Civil Service.

The Fast Stream

The Civil Service Fast Stream  consists of two pathways: the Corporate scheme and the Analytical scheme. These are the high-profile graduates routes into the Civil Service, although many graduates each year enter as direct hires and can re-apply to the fast-stream in subsequent years.

For the current 2018-19 academic year, applications for all the Corporate scheme pathways will open at noon on 20th September 2018, and

  • close at noon on 25th October 2018 for both full-time graduate positions and SDIP (the Summer Diversity Internship Programme).
  • close at noon on 15th November 2018 for the spring EDIP (the Early Diversity Internship Programme) for first year students (and second year students on 4-year degree).

The number of open positions in different streams will vary, and this affects the amount of competition for places. For example, the Generalist scheme is the largest scheme by a considerable margin, and the HR, Economics, and Science & Engineering streams have a good number of vacancies. The Diplomatic Service (FCO) also takes a good number of fast streamers every year, but this is the one of the most popular choices and competition is even more fierce for these roles. You can also expect the more specialist schemes, such as the Houses of Parliament, to be much smaller with perhaps only a handful of positions annually, and yet can still attract thousands of applicants.

The Civil Service Fast Stream website provides details of all the different options and the application processes and is comprehensive. Keep checking for updates however, as things can change and use social media to keep an eye for changes as well as opportunities to read about the work and experiences of current fast streamers. The following is correct at the time of writing.

The Corporate Scheme

The Corporate Scheme has the following options:

  • Generalist
  • Diplomatic Service
  • Houses of Parliament
  • Science & engineering
  • Commercial
  • Finance
  • Human Resources (HR)
  • Government Communication Service
  • Digital, Data and technology
  • Project delivery
  • Diplomatic Economic Scheme

Analytical Scheme

The Analytical Scheme has the following options:

  • Government Economic Service
  • Government Statistical Service
  • Government Operational Research Service
  • Government Social Research Service

Specific Departments

A number of departments/services have specialist recruitment schemes. Some of the direct entry routes that we are aware of include: the HM Treasury OfficeGovernment Legal Service, National Audit Office, Valuation Office, Government Operational Research, and HMRC Graduate Programme (Tax Professional). Others offer internship programmes, such as the Government Economic Service (GES) summer vacation student placement with roles in many departments.

Do your own research if you have a specific focus or strong interest in particular Department or Agency. Check websites regularly because schemes can be opened throughout the year and can have quite short application windows: for example, the GES summer vacation scheme had only a 48 hour application window announced only one week before applications closed. Also, use social media to keep in touch – for example, the FCO (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) will publish careers information via Twitter (@FCOcareers), Facebook and LinkedIn as well as their own FCO Careers site, where you can also register for job alerts.


The Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) recruit directly for positions and these are advertised at different times of the year. GCHQ recruit graduates for specific functions requiring certain degrees such as languages, mathematics and IT. They operate a non-degree specific route for graduates into their GCHQ Leadership Development Programme.

Intelligence Services

The Security Service (MI5) offer a Technology Graduate Development Programme. This programme is specifically designed to develop knowledge and experience in Project Management, Business Analysis, IT Security and IT/Software Engineering. The Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) also has a variety of graduate schemes offering opportunities from Intelligence Officers and Corporate services to language analysts.

A note on Security Clearance and Vetting Processes

We have heard that some positions and sensitive locations within the government service require vetting under counter terrorism measures, which requires new hires to have resided within the UK for the past 5 years. There will be a wide variety of alternative positions that are not affected by this requirement but it may be an additional complication for some graduates who receive offers, notably linguists who will have spent a year abroad as part of their studies. We want to stress that any students who may be affected by this specific issue should not in any way be discouraged from applying to the Civil Service nor should they feel they will be at a disadvantage in the recruitment processes. 

If you think this may apply to you, we recommend that you highlight this to the recruitment team at the point you are accepting an offer for either the Fast Stream or Direct Entry (for near-miss candidates) and seek clarification from them about the processes for determining your first posting. The Careers Service is seeking clarification from the Cabinet Office on this issue [September 2018].

Skills & experience

Skills needed

The sector is looking for talented graduates who will become senior managers that will shape the future of government at the highest level. The Civil Service places the Civil Service Code at the heart of its values, and recruits against its Competence Framework. The Fast Stream specifically looks for the key competencies below.

Setting direction

This means being innovative and always looking for opportunities to improve and work in smarter, more focused ways; showing clarity of thought – using sound judgement, evidence and knowledge to provide accurate, informed and professional advice; focusing your contribution on the activities which will meet Civil Service goals and delivering the greatest value.

Engaging people

This means being able to lead from the front, communicating with clarity, conviction and enthusiasm. To do this you’ll focus on continuous learning for yourself, others and the organisation. This will help you create and maintain positive, professional and trusted working relationships with a wide range of people to get things done. Underpinning all this are principles of fairness for all and a dedication to a diverse range of citizens.

Delivering results

This includes applying programme and project management approaches, working to agreed goals and activities, and dealing with challenges in a responsive and constructive way. It also needs a commercial, financial and sustainable mindset to ensure everything you do adds value and works to encourage economic growth.

For specialist and technical posts, such as statisticians, sound subject knowledge is also required.

For entry into Local Government positions the key skills and behaviours sought are not dissimilar to those of the Civil Service. Councils are ‘specifically looking for adaptable, resourceful graduates who will embrace and effect change’ (NGDP)

Getting experience

Comparatively few formal opportunities exist for working in the government service during the vacations.  The main recognised internship opportunities are as follows:

  • Early Diversity and Summer Diversity Internship Schemes. These are aimed at UK nationals and EEA citizens from an ethnic minority background, care leavers, students registered as disabled and those from socially or economically disadvantaged backgrounds. The Early Diversity programme targets first year students and offers a one week experience, whereas the Summer Diversity programme offers undergraduates and graduates a six to nine week training work placement within a government department. The SDIP is also available for disabled students. The application deadline is late November for EDIP.
  • The Government Economic Service offer 8 week summer internships. Details are normally available from January.
  • The Government Communication Service (GCS) offers summer internships lasting  6-12 weeks across a number of Departments. Advertised on the GCS Careers page in early February, these opportunities were only open to students eligible for the Diversity schemes as outlined above.

  • The FCO Scheme. This is a work experience and training programme at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) aimed at students who are interested in applying to the Fast Stream in the future. In recent years the scheme has been split into two strands: the first targeted female undergraduates, who are one of the under-represented groups in the FCO; and the second strand targeted undergraduates, both male and female, who have the skills the FCO needs (these are currently hard languages: Arabic, Mandarin, Japanese, Farsi, Dari, Pashtu, Russian). The scheme offered experience  in the FCO for a six-week period over the summer. During this time, participants were assigned to teams in the FCO and given work that may be typical of what a new Fast Stream entrant may take on when joining the office. Generally the FCO announces what internship and work experience opportunities it has from spring each year.
  • Maths Summer Students (GCHQ) offer a 9 – 12 week placement practicing advanced mathematical research in the penultimate year of study. Applicants need to expect to obtain a first class degree.
  • Student Sponsorship Scheme (GCHQ) is aimed at those studying computer science, engineering and similar disciplines. Participants have the opportunity to work on research, development or projects within GCHQ’s technical areas. The scheme also offers summer placements (9 – 12 weeks) for the last two years of a degree or a summer placement in the  penultimate year with sponsorship for the final year of study. See the scheme webpages for details.
  • Student Sponsorship Scheme (DESG) is offered to those studying an engineering degree. Its aim is to widen awareness and provide experience of working within Ministry of Defence (MOD) establishments. A bursary of £3000 is paid and work experience is offered over the summer. To be eligible for this scheme, you need to be of British nationality or dual nationality whereby British is one of them.
  • Graduate Talent Pool. The Graduate Talent Pool, is a government initiative designed to help new and recent graduates gain work experience, facilitating paid internships for people who have graduated in the last three years. This is one route that has been used by FCO and other government departments to offer paid internship opportunities from August to March of each year.

You may be able to obtain vacation/temporary work in departments by contacting your local Civil Service public offices, e.g. HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) or Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) offices, which would give you an insight into some aspects of the work. To receive job alerts and apply for roles in the Civil Service go to the Civil Service jobs portal. Another option is to register for government work with a temping agency in Westminster, London.

It may also be possible to find or generate internship opportunities at local authorities, and it is well worth exploring this possibility with the local authority in your home region.

National Minimum Wage

There is often confusion about whether you should be paid to do an internship or work experience. It will depend on your arrangement with the employer and also the status of the employer. To find out if you are entitled to be paid when undertaking work experience or an internship, visit the Government’s webpages on the National Minimum Wage.

Getting a job

The level of competition for all Fast Stream entry posts is high. About half the entrants to the Fast Stream schemes have worked elsewhere post-graduation, and have applied more than once. If successful in the selection process for the Fast Stream it is possible to defer your start date only if you will first be taking a position with one of their partners: Teach First, Front Line, Lead First, Police Now, Year Here, or Entrepreneur First.

The details of the process and advice about how to approach the application and practice tests, are described on the Fast Stream website. Online applications usually open in September and in 2017 closed before the end of October. You may be allowed an extension in exceptional circumstances. Contact the Fast Stream helpdesk on 01276 400 333 or send a message through the application service to enquire.

All Graduate Fast Stream assessments are usually completed by the end of April, but it is a long process.

Fast Stream Options

Corporate Scheme: Central Departments, Digital and Technology, Government Communication Service, Finance, Commercial, HR, Project Delivery and European Fast Stream

You can apply to up to four different streams that you are eligible for, and we recommend that you only apply to those schemes you are genuinely interested in. If you wish to be considered for the Diplomatic Service, we recommend that you put this as your first choice, but please note it is one of the most difficult schemes for new graduates to secure a place on, particularly without some experience of a relevant internship or early diversity programme within the Civil Service.

Once you have selected the scheme(s) you are applying to you will be invited to start the online assessment stages. Each stage will give you only a limited number of days in which you must complete the tests.

The process aims to reflect the type of work done by Fast Streamers and the skills they use. You will be evaluated against the criteria set for each of the different Fast Streams that you have applied to. It is quite possible to be successful for one or more of the routes you have entered but to knocked out of others, depending on the amount and quality of other applicants in the process for the number of open positions.

Once you begin you application, the steps are:

  1. Three separate assessments online. You are given five days to complete each assessment and will only be invited to take the next stage if successful. The sequence is:
    1. two online questionnaires: Situational Judgement (SJT) and Behavioural questionnaires – we recommend that you use the practice SJT questions and review and reflect upon the model answers
    2. an e-tray exercise lasting 80 minutes that tests decision-making skills and
    3. a video interview lasting 20 minutes, with 8 questions.
  2. For all Fast Stream schemes other than Generalist, Commercial, Finance and Human Resources, you will then be asked to complete extra information online, which you must complete before you can progress to the next stage for those schemes.
  3. For the  the Commercial or Finance schemes you will also be required to complete an online Numerical Test within 7 days. See our briefing on Psychometric Tests for how to prepare for your numerical ability test.
  4. Attend FSAC: the Fast Stream Assessment Centre on the day assigned. Comprehensive guidance and advice is provided in the FSAC Assessment Guide.


Candidates for the Generalist and HR schemes will have completed the application process when they have attended FSAC. For other schemes though you should expect an additional stage. Depending on the scheme you have applied for, it may be relatively light touch but for some it has might involve further written assessment, a presentation and/or some kind of a Final Selection Board (panel interview).

Analytical Fast Stream

Aimed at those who want to be:

  • An Economist in the Government Economic Service (GES)
  • A Social Researcher in the Government Social Research Service (GSR)
  • An Operational Researcher in the Government Operational Research Service (GORS)
  • A Statistician in the Government Statistical Service (GSS)

Online applications open in September and have early deadlines (generally end of September). They are open again in March to early April each year.

Science and Engineering

This stream is aimed at those with a doctorate or Masters degree in biological, physical, computational or mathematical science. Roles will be in defence, security, health, climate, energy or animal and plant health.

Graduate entry for Intelligence Services

Opportunities exist in the Intelligence Services (MI5 and MI6) as Intelligence Officers and in technical roles. Recruitment is at different times of the year. Register with them to get job alerts.

Local government

Alongside direct entry into specific posts, numerous authorities participate in the National Graduate Development Programme (NGDP). This is usually a two or three year graduate management development programme, run by the Local Government Association. The programme is built on a series of placements in key areas within a council and offers a range of experiences and challenges, for example, in education; social services; planning and strategy roles. there are also options to take a secondment into other authorities and external public sector graduate schemes with participating partner organisations like Teach First and NHS Direct.

Trainees are given a broad understanding of different aspects of local government in strategy, front-line service and support. At the end of the programme the vast majority of NGDP participants successfully transition into permanent positions, most usually within their existing authority although it is possible to move into other authorities at this point as well.

Applications for the 2017 intake are open from November 2016 to January 2017. Please check on their website or follow twitter @ngdp_LGA for confirmation of their recruitment timetable.

Our resources


The following books are available to read in our Resource Centre at 56 Banbury Road:

  • How to Pass the Civil Service Qualifying Tests, Mike Bryon
  • Careers in Nonprofits & Government Agencies, Wetfeet Inside Guide
  • The Insiders Guide to Political Internships, ed. Grant Reeher and Mack Mariani


We subscribe to the following relevant journals in our Resource Centre at 56 Banbury Road:

  • The Economist, weekly

Podcasts of past events

Civil Service

In this podcast you can listen to a Senior Diplomat in the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO), an intern with the FCO, current Fast Streamers from the Government Economic Service, Generalist Fast Stream and Digital and Technology Fast Stream, about what it’s like to work in the Civil Service.

Careers in the Public Sector, February 2016 

This podcast allows you to hear from three speakers working in a variety of roles within the public sector, covering public policy (both international and national), the police force and social work (in this order). The podcast finishes with further discussion arising from questions taken from the audience.

External resources

Sector vacancies, and occupation information


All departments have their own websites, which contain information about their work/responsibilities and vacancies. Some of the more popular websites include:

Equality, diversity & positive action

The public sector is particularly known for its policies and attitude in recruiting and providing substantial career paths for individuals, regardless of their background. The Civil Service is proactive with schemes such as EDIP and SDIP targeting individuals who are disabled, or are from a lower socio-economic background to those who are BAME. They  are a ‘two ticks employer’ and offer a Guaranteed Interview Scheme for disabled applicants.

To find out the policies and attitudes of local authorities that you are interested in, explore their equality and diversity policies and see if they offer ‘Guaranteed Interview Schemes’ (for disabled applicants) or are recognised for their policy by such indicators as ‘Mindful Employer’ or as a ‘Stonewall’s Diversity Champion’.

The UK law protects you from discrimination due to your age, gender, race, religion or beliefs, disability or sexual orientation. For further information on the Equality Act and to find out where and how you are protected, and what to do if you feel you have been discriminated against, visit the Government’s webpages on discrimination.

This information was last updated on 17 September 2018.
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  • Including: Teaching and Education

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