Government and Public Services

Running a country at national, regional and city/metropolitan levels requires staff and administrators for all kinds of roles: economists, statisticians, policy analysts, legal experts, 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 flagship graduate programme in this sector is Civil Service Fast Stream. However there are a multitude of other organisations, graduate programmes and direct entry opportunites and anyone interested in working in the public sector should broaden their search and research to encompass the very wide array of potential employers. For example:

  • The Local Government sector is an important graduate destination and each year more than 50 local authorities offer positions through the Local Government Association’s (LGA) National Graduate Development Programme (NGDP); outside the NGDP, other local authorities are also likely to recruit for direct entry positions. 
  • There will be opportunities across many front line services such as law and order, social work, teaching and healthcare. In the UK, all these fields offer specific graduate entry and accelerated development programmes.
  • Direct entry positions to all the above, including civil service departments, agencies and other public bodies.
  • Beyond this, roles in policy, campaigning, communications, think tanks and even frontline politics can offer attractive alternatives.


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Structure of the UK Civil Service

The UK Civil Service plays a key role in British life and although it serves the government of the day, it is politically independent. Civil servants:

  • Provide advice on policy-making to ministers, helping to formulate Government policy
  • Are responsible for ‘operational delivery’ across a vast array of services, ensuring that policy is implemented: for example, administration of pensions and tax, controlling borders, supporting people back to work and running courts.

Half of all civil servants are women and only 1 in 5 works in London. The UK's civil service and government public bodies includes:

  • 44 departments (there are 24 Ministerial and 20 non-Ministerial departments), which broadly speaking work with government to formulate policy
  • 424 executive agencies and non-departmental public bodies (NDPBs), making up 75% of the Civil Service, which implement these policies. Public bodies are independent organisations that deliver specific functions on behalf of certain departments. 

For an accessible, and helpful commentary that examines the duties, responsibilities and working practices of officials, we recommend using the Understanding the Civil Service website, created by an experienced senior civil servant. This and related websites on Policy Making, Regulation and Local Government are listed in the Resources section of this briefing. 

Structure of Local Government

Local government administrations manage planning, implementation and delivery of local services in line with the policies and priorities set by councillors.  The services include both revenue raising and delivering services that impact people’s everyday lives, including local education and social care, promoting local business, planning and managing infrastructure, housing, parks and policing.

The Understanding Local Government website provides accessible information on the structure and working practices of local government across the UK, offering a valuable introduction to this important but diverse branch of public sector administration.  

The range of jobs within the Civil Service is enormous. It embraces administrative roles with arts councils and embassy posts with the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), intelligence roles, legal services with the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), frontline service delivery as well as policy work, statisticians, economists and social researchers working across Whitehall departments and ensuring the proper functioning of Parliament. Public sector roles can also be found in engineering and defence, the administration of patents, passports and tax, border control and much more.   

The Civil Service employs people across many functions, including business administration, finance, personal management, technology, communications, and research and development. Although a large number or roles are based in London, especially those dealing with policy formulation and advice, staff may work anywhere in the United Kingdom and possibly overseas. The civil service has successfully moved many roles out of London and there are offices and agencies in cities across all four home nations to support devolved governments, and to implement and deliver national and regional policies. 

Another significant trend, although not one that affects graduate recruitment, has been the direct recruitment to senior posts from outside the civil service and the appointment of increasing numbers of special advisers. For people interested in politics, and perhaps seeking public office in future, the route may well involve working for a local MP or party political work as a parliamentary researcher or adviser.  

Local Government roles mirror those in central government. The NGDP, a graduate entry route co-ordinated by the LGA (more details in next section), offers a developmental programme with challenging assignments within a single participating local authority to accelerate the graduate's learning. Graduates can also seek out and apply directly to specific positions advertised by local authorities. The variety of roles in local authorities includes:

  • Policy related roles in areas such as local government strategy, policing, housing and education
  • Functional roles such as finance, human resources (HR), technology, library and information management specialists
  • Operational management and delivery of services.


The Civil Service Success Profiles framework underpins fair and open competition in all Civil Service recruitment. Designed to improve diversity and inclusivity in the selection process, it is a sufficiently broad tool to recruit into all roles across corporate services, operational and policy roles. In fact, anyone applying to a public sector role can use this framework as a reference to gain valuable insights into the typical recruitment processes used, and the nature of the evidence they will be asked to provide. More information is include below in the section on 'Skills and Experience'. 

The Fast Stream

The flagship Civil Service Fast Stream has been one of the most widely recognised and desirable graduate recruitment options for decades, consistently placing first or second in the annual Times Top 100 Graduate Employers survey. The Fast Stream typically takes more than 1000 new starters each year, and perhaps a similar number of 'near-miss' candidates have received graduate-level entry positions through the Direct Appointments Scheme. In addition to full-time entry positions, the Cabinet Office also runs the Early (EDIP) and Summer (SDIP) Diversity Internship Programmes which offering insight and work experience to undergraduates from diverse backgrounds. See the Getting Experience section below.

The Fast Stream website provides comprehensive information on the overall programme, the many different streams and the application processes, and can also act as a proxy guide for people preparing for many other public sector recruitment processes.   

Departmental and Direct Entry positions

Graduates are also recruited directly by individual Departments and the Government professions, many of which also recruited Fast Streamers. Based on previous patterns of recruitment, the main routes to research include:

  • Departmental and Agency graduate recruitment schemes, including: the HM Treasury OfficeFinancial Conduct Authority; National Audit Office; Valuation Office; the Office for National Statistics; the Department of Health and Social Care Leadership programme; HMRC Graduate Programme (Tax Professional), and the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA). Some may accept applications from as early September, so research details and deadlines early.  
  • The main cross-government service professions that offer direct entry routes, with opportunities opening around the turn of the year (November to February/March). Each year, there have been opportunities to join the Government’s Economic Service(GES); Operational Research (GORS), Statistical Service (GSS) and Social Research services. 
  • The Government Legal Profession offers trainee solicitor and trainee barrister positions: applications close in April/May for starting roles 15 months later.
  • Direct entry to positions advertised by individual Departments, most typically at HEO (Higher Executive Officer) and EO (Executive Officer) for new graduates. Positions at SEO (Senior Executive Officer) and Team leader levels may also be within reach for some DPhils and graduates who have more substantial work experience, although most will require some management experience.  

Use online events and the Oxford Careers Fairs to meet current civil servants and learn about other public sector careers. We plan to offer panel discussions featuring our alumni working in the public sector in Michaelmas Term:

  • the Oxford Careers Fair (Thursday 6th October 2022) may bring representatives of graduate programmes from the wider public sector, such as the NHS Leadership programme, and the accelerated development programmes for social work (Frontline and Head Start), prison service (Unlocked), the police (Police Now) and teaching profession (Teach First).
  • the Science, Engineering and Technology Fair may attract public sector oriented organisations keen to recruit STEM candidates, including GORS, the Statistical Service, the Intellectual Property Office, the UK Atomic Energy Authority, and the Defence Science and Technology Laboratories (Dstl) and the NHS Scientist Training Programme (STP) .

If you have a specific focus or strong interest in particular Department or Agency, check their website regularly, register for email alerts and follow them on social media to keep in touch. Not every programme is well marketed and some schemes may open only a very short application window. 

Local Government and the NGDP

The NGDP is a graduate entry and accelerated development programme coordinated by the Local Government Association (LGA). Successful applicants are employed by their local authority for the duration of the NGDP. Although this is not a permanent contract, some 95% of participants successfully transition into permanent positions at the end of the programme, usually with their existing authority and with about 10% of each cohort securing a permanent position at a different local authority.

Trainees will develop a broad understanding of different aspects of local government by undertaking placements in corporate roles, and front-line and support services across a number of the key areas within a council, for example, in education, social services, planning, corporate services and strategy. There may also be the opportunity to take an external secondment with a different local authority or on a separate public sector graduate scheme such as Teach First or NHS Direct.

To stay up to date, and for confirmation of the recruitment timetable, monitor the LGA NGDP website or follow @ngdp_LGA on Twitter, although the details may not be updated until applications open in the autumn.

GCHQ and Intelligence Services

The intelligence services recruit graduates in many disciplines. Some core programmes will be open to graduates from all subjects, such as the graduate leadership scheme, intelligence officers (analysts) or project management programmes. In addition, other roles require specialist skills such as higher-level mathematical modelling skills for code-breaking, opportunities for language students, and expertise in software engineering and cyber security.

The different branches of the security service (Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ); The Security Service (MI5); The Secret Intelligence Service (MI6)) run their own programmes. See the Intelligence Analyst job description on Prospects (a national graduate careers website) for insights into these roles, the skills required, sources for vacancies and likely entry routes as well as suggestions for other similar roles.

Transform Alliance and Partner Schemes

To support the broader aim of improving public services and delivery, a suite of graduate development programmes were recognised by the Civil Service Fast Stream as important partners, including the Transform Alliance that embraced five frontline public services; teaching, children’s social work, policing, prisons, and mental health social work.  Each offers a two-year management and leadership development programme, and many have embedded element supporting trainees to study for a relevant Masters Degree.

TeachFirstTwo years as a teacher. Teacher and leadership training for people who are passionate about giving children from the poorest backgrounds a great education. It only takes one brilliant teacher to change a child’s life.

FrontlineTwo years as a social worker transforming the lives of the most vulnerable children and families. At least half a million children in England do not have a safe or stable home and the children who need social workers deserve life-changing professionals. Through intensive training with expert academic input you will become a social worker and leader, so you can empower families to achieve positive, lasting change.

Police Now: Two years as a neighbourhood police officer, policing a community of 20,000. Leadership training programme which gives people the opportunity to transform challenged and often deprived communities. Develop skills in negotiation, problem solving and decision-making as well as resilience and emotional intelligence - all skills relevant to many careers. Help to improve lives, not just for today, but for generations to come.

Think AheadTwo years as a mental health social worker. Social work, mental health and leadership training for people passionate about making a real difference to people with mental health problems. Mental illness is everywhere, it turns lives upside down. Give those with mental health problems the chance to flourish.

Unlocked Graduates: Two years as a prison officer, leading change on the inside. Expert leadership training to lead on the frontline in prisons for people passionate about tackling the damage and cost of prisoner reoffending. Inject new ideas, insights and energy into the rehabilitation of offenders through your actions and thoughts on wider policy. Develop negotiating, influencing decision-making and relationship-building skills vital to any career whilst leading subtle changes on the inside that deliver huge benefits on the outside.

Other partner schemes:

Entrepreneur FirstEurope’s leading early-stage investor in technology companies. Helping talented individuals build high growth technology start-ups.

Lead FirstThe opportunity to complete an intensive leadership development course, before spending up to a year gaining experience in roles within the British army.

Year Here: Designed as a platform for graduates and young professionals who want to build smart solutions to entrenched social problems


The sector is looking for talented graduates who can become senior managers that will shape the future of policy and management in government at the highest level.

All potential applicants for the Civil Service should be familiar with Civil Service Code, a short document which introduces the core principles that provide the foundations for the civil service culture: Honesty; Impartiality; Integrity and Objectivity.

Skills needed

Since 2019, the Civil Service has recruited against its Success Profiles framework. There are a number of explanatory documents that applicants can use to understand how the recruitment process works and the assessment criteria used. For roles outside the Civil Service it is probable that equivalent information will be available for that recruitment - but if not, candidates will benefit from using the following content.

Use three resources when drafting written answers, personal statements and preparing for interviews:

  • Success Profiles Candidate Overview This gives a short introduction to the five elements of the Success Profiles, the range of assessment methods you may face, how your performance will be assessed and the scope for reasonable adjustments within the process to accommodate candidates with specific requirements.
  • Success Profiles: Behaviours This longer document provides short definitions (1 or 2 sentences) for each of the nine Behaviours, which are broadly aligned with the earlier Civil Service Competency Framework. The document includes detailed exemplification of effective behaviours for each Behaviour across six different levels, from administrative grades to director general level. Candidates should pay most attention to the examples provided for the level appropriate to their application: for example, Fast Stream candidates should review the Level 3 statements for HEO/SEO grades for the Behaviours being assessed.
  • Success Profiles: Strengths Dictionary The addition of strengths to the recruitment mix allows for a wider selection of questions and enables assessors to acknowledge a wider variety of experiences when evaluating candidates. The Strengths Dictionary includes definitions for 36 separate strengths and also summarises how different strengths map onto the nine Behaviours.  

The inclusion of Abilities, Technical Skills and Experience extends the scope for the Success Profiles framework to be used for recruitment across the whole civil service. For example, more weight can be given to Experience when evaluating candidates for senior appointments. Perhaps most relevant for graduate recruitment, the final selection stage for recruitment to the professions (e.g. the Government Services for Economics; Statistics; Operational Research; Social Research; Legal Profession) will include analysis and policy exercises that assess Technical Skills and knowledge, which should have been covered in your degree studies, whilst the Diplomatic FS assessments are likely to include a language acquisition Ability test. 

For entry into Local Government positions the key skills and behaviours sought will be similar to those for the Civil Service. Councils are looking for "adaptable, resourceful graduates who will embrace and effect change" (NGDP). Look for more information on the website for the NGDP and, once you have made an application, use the career pages of the local authorities to which you have applied in order to understand their local culture and any specific expectations above and beyond the content outlined above.

Getting experience

Comparatively few formal opportunities exist for working in the government services during the vacations, with many summer internships promoting access for students from under represented groups.

The Cabinet Office manages two diversity programmes alongside the Fast Stream recruitment process. These are open to students from an ethnic minority background, care leavers, students registered as disabled and those from socially or economically disadvantaged backgrounds. 

  • EDIP (Early Diversity Internship Programme) offers a one-week experience for undergraduates in their first year. 
  • SDIP (Summer Diversity Internship Programme) offers undergraduates (including finalists) and new graduates a six- to nine-week work placement in a government department. Finalists can apply to both the Fast Stream and SDIP.    

The other summer programmes we have seen each year have tended to be within the cross-governmental service professions. These target penultimate year students, and are run independently by the Government’s Economic Service (GES); Operational Research Service (GORS); and Statistical Service (GSS). The Government Communication Service (GCS) also runs a 6-12 week internship for students that meet their diversity criteria. Expect announcements in January and applications to open in February or March. Interested students need to monitor relevant career pages closely - and register their interest to receive updates - because the application window can be very short (e.g., 2 weeks).

The intelligence services also run their own summer programmes. For example, GCHQ's summer opportunities includes separate programmes in Maths and Cryptography; Cyber skills; Technology (Research, Engineering, Computer Network Operations); and a Language Talent Programme for final year students. Similarly, there are summer programmes with MI5, the security service.

There are also some specific bursary schemes that students can apply for, which include training or work experience in the summer vacation. Check the selection and eligibility criteria for individual schemes that you are interested in. For example, engineering students with an interest in a career with the Ministry of Defence (MOD) are eligible for the DESG Sponsorship Scheme (DESG). This provides paid summer work placements (within MOD establishments) and sponsorship of at least £3000 each year of study.

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) has in the past run the FCO Graduate Internship. Available to finalists and recent graduates, this programme offered 9-18 months full-time experience, providing an in-depth insight into the work of the department. This programme has not run since 2020, first because of Covid and then due to a hiring freeze following the merger of FCO and DFID, but may return: look for information from the beginning of the calendar year, and anticipate applications opening in February or early March.

To receive job alerts and apply for roles in the Civil Service go to the Civil Service jobs portal.

Students may also be able to obtain vacation/temporary work in departments and agencies by contacting local offices directly. For example, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) deliver frontline services through a national network of local offices, which can provide an insight into aspects of their work. Other options include:

  • Using the Work for MP portal, which is funded by the House of Commons in order to provide career development opportunities for those looking for a job with an MP or in other areas of political activity
  • Look for temporary work or work experience/internships with local authorities, and it is well worth exploring this possibility with the local authority in your home region
  • Registering for government work with a temping agency, for example in Westminster (London) or your home area.

Will I get paid?

Internships and summer jobs are governed in the UK by National Minimum Wage law, which means that if you are carrying out activities that class you as a “worker” by the employer, then you should be paid. Full details of Employment Rights and Pay for Interns are published by the government.

If you are undertaking a learning and development opportunity such as a micro-internship, or volunteering for a charity or statutory body, or shadowing or observing, then you may not be eligible for the National Minimum Wage. The organisation may reimburse you for your travel and/or lunch expenses, but they aren’t obliged to do so.

The Careers Service Jobs website enables you to search all jobs in the Civil Service and central government organisations by organisation, location, job grade level and/or salary. There is also a separate Civil Service Careers website, which carries details of positions and provides information a useful variety of tools to help research your interests, including:

  • Career Matcher: a quick quiz format tool examining your transferable skills that can make you a good fit for working in the Civil Service, and will links to the top 3 Professions pages that match your choices 
  • Discover Departments and Discover our Professions to support your research and understanding
  • An interactive map showing vacancies around the country.


The level of competition for all entry level development programmes will be high, and will include internal candidates seeking to boost their career development alongside students and recent graduates.

Different graduate programmes are likely to have their own recruitment processes, however, many of these mirror or reflect elements of the Fast Stream recruitment. For this reason, we have retained the following advice on the Fast Stream processes as a proxy and an example of what candidates are likely to face during most public sector applications. More detailed information is still available on the Fast Stream website, and includes a lot of specific detail through the Fast Stream FAQs. 

Fast Stream: Selecting your Options

Fast Stream applications do not require a CV, cover letter of application statements: there is simple registration process seeking a few details to enable evaluation of the recruitment process, but which are not assessed. Candidates can apply to up to four different streams (of the 15 offered) when they register. In contrast, many direct entry routes do retain a formal, assessed application stage that usually includes short written responses on motivation questions and examples that demonstrate of specific behaviours (competencies).

Your performance in the recruitment process up to and including the Fast Stream Assessment Centre (FSAC) is used to evaluate your candidacy in each stream independently. As we understand it, the order in which you place your choices has no impact on your applications unless you are successful for more than one Fast Stream, in which case you will receive only one offer - for the highest placed Fast Stream that you are being offered.

Some Fast Streams have particularly high levels of competition as they are both highly popular and have relatively few vacancies (eg, the Diplomatic Service FS and Parliamentary FS). For this reason, 'pass-marks' are likely to be higher than the other schemes and we recommend that you put these as your first choice in case you are successful in more than one application process.

Candidates who apply early may be invited to the Fast Stream Assessment Centre (FSAC) before the end of Michaelmas term. FSAC is the final hurdle for four streams (Generalist; HR; Digital, Data and Technology & Cyber; and Finance) and offers may be made soon after your FSAC attendance, or sometime in February once the pass mark is confirmed. Candidates for other Fast Streams will face a final selection board (FSB) or assessment centre specific to each stream, in part aimed at evaluating candidates’ technical abilities and knowledge. There can be a long wait between FSAC and this final round, or a delay between FSB and hearing the outcome as the recruitment teams for each individual stream will want to evaluate all candidates before making final decisions. This can mean that candidates who applied in September are still waiting for a final result as late as May. 

Fast Stream Application stages

Once you register your candidacy, you will be invited to start the assessment process. To reach the Fast Stream Assessment Centre (FSAC), you must first pass two  separate online assessment stages. 

Confirmation of your application, and subsequent success in each round, will also include your invitation to the next assessment stage. The invitation will confirm which elements of the Success Profiles you will be assessed against at that next stage and you can use this information to guide your preparation. You have 5 days to take each online assessment. Students who anticipate being too busy to commit to successive rounds of preparation and on-line testing at the end of October and early November should consider an early application in order to complete some stages before Oxford's Michaelmas term begins. 

Use the Fast Stream: How to Apply webpage to understand the assessments processes. Note the following:

  • If successful in the early online stages, many streams require you to provide Additional Information: take time to draft and re-draft your answers as this Additional Information is formally assessed and you need to 'pass' this stage as well. 
  • Comprehensive guidance and advice on the FSAC is linked in the FAQs page to the question: What do I need to know about the Fast Stream Assessment Centre? 
  • Depending on the scheme you have applied for, the final selection board (FSB) may be relatively light touch. Most however provide a significant test of your technical knowledge and your ability to work under pressure through further written assessment, a presentation and/or some kind of a Final Selection Board (panel interview).

Oxford students and alumni can use our online advice on Psychometric Tests, and access free practice resources as available. To attend online skill sessions for psychometric tests or the Group Discussion workshop we run in November, book a place through the Events calendar on CareerConnect.

Sector information and insight

For an accessible and helpful commentary that examines the duties, responsibilities and working practices of officials, we recommend Understanding the Civil Service, one of a number of sites created by a retired senior civil servant, Martin Stanley: you can also follow Martin on Twitter @ukcivilservant. Martin's other related sites are:

Sector vacancies 

  • Prospects – Graduate careers website
  • TARGETjobs – Graduate careers website
  • Civil Service Jobs  – Comprehensive job search tool across the whole civil service
  • Work for MP  – an information and jobs site funded by the House of Commons to provide career development opportunities for those looking for a job with an MP or in other areas of political activity
  • Jobs Go Public – jobs in the public sector
  • The National Archive – public records archive

Transform Alliance and Public Sector graduate programmes

Departments and Agencies

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

Recruiters are keen to have a diverse workforce, and many will have policies and processes that are proactive in recruiting students and graduates from diverse backgrounds. An increasing number of recruiters are offering traineeships, internships and insight events that are aimed at specific groups and many are being recognised for their approach to being inclusive employers.

Try the following to discover more about the policies and attitudes of the recruiters that you are interested in:

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 Early Diversity Internship Programme (EDIP) and Summer Diversity Internship Programme (SDIP), offering undergraduates with a disability and those from BAME and lower socio-economic backgrounds the opportunity to gain experience of working for the Civil Service and life on the Fast Stream.

The UK Equality Act 2010 has a number of protected characteristics to prevent discrimination due to your age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or beliefs, sex or sexual orientation. For further information visit the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s webpage on the Equality Act  and the Government’s webpages on discrimination.

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