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 Civil Service is a major employer and employment opportunities are found at many levels. It is one of the largest graduate recruiters in the country and its principal graduate recruitment scheme is called the Civil Service Fast Stream. Alongside the Fast Stream, some departments and services run their own graduate entry schemes whilst many graduates will secure ‘direct entry’ to a specific job in a particular department or agency organisation.

Similarly, graduates entering public service with local authorities can choose to apply to the Local Government Association’s (LGA) National Graduate Development Programme (NGDP). Every year, about 50 different local authorities will offer positions on two to three year graduate schemes through the NGDP. Separately, local authorities will also recruit direct to posts, including any authorities not participating in the NGDP.

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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.

There are some 420,000 civil servants in the UK: half are women and only 1 in 5 works in London. In summary, the UK Civil Service comprises:

  • 45 departments (there are 25 Ministerial and 20 non-Ministerial departments), which broadly speaking work with government to formulate policy.
  • 405 Executive Agencies and Public Bodies, 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. Examples of public bodies include the Environment Agency, Low Pay Commission and Pensions Ombudsman.
  • In addition to the departments and agencies there are also non-departmental public bodies (NDPBs).

See a complete list and web-links to all these bodies via the Government’s Organisations webpage.

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 range of jobs within the Civil Service is enormous. It embraces administrative roles with arts councils and embassy posts with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO),  intelligence roles, legal services with the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and policy work across Whitehall departments.

The Civil Service employs people across many functions, 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 as well as policy related roles on areas such as policing, housing and educations, and operational management and delivery of services. Graduates can seek out and be recruited directly to specific positions as well as the option to apply for a place within the NGDP.

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

The Fast Stream

The flagship development programmes of the Civil Service are grouped within the Fast Stream. These offer early responsibility (e.g. policy, operations, and corporate services) and a fast-track to leadership roles. Anyone can apply, including serving civil servants, and many graduates who enter the civil service as a direct hire will choose to apply (or re-apply) to the fast-stream in subsequent years.

There are 15 different ‘streams’ split between two broad categories: the Corporate Schemes and the Analytical Schemes.

The Corporate Scheme options:

  • Generalist
  • Diplomatic Service
  • Houses of Parliament
  • Science & Engineering
  • Commercial
  • Finance
  • Human Resources (HR)
  • Government Communications Service
  • Digital, Data and Technology
  • Project Delivery
  • Diplomatic Service Economics

Analytical Scheme options:

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

Whether a generalist role or a technically specialised one, all schemes offer rotations through developmental roles and will be 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.

Each academic year, expect applications for all the fast stream schemes to open in late September for only 4 weeks (closing on the last Thursday in October at 12:00noon).  The Summer Diversity Internship Programme (SDIP) has the same early application window as the full-time graduate programmes, whilst applications to the 1-week Early Diversity Internship Programme (EDIP) (for first year students and second year students on 4-year degree) tends to have a deadline in mid-November.

Competition for places is high, and candidates can apply to up to four different streams. This allows you to target both the most popular options alongside larger, main-stream programmes. However, it is worth noting that the ratio of applicants to available places can vary considerably, as outlined by the most recent published information (2017):

  • The Generalist scheme was the largest scheme, with more than 450 positions available and 6500 ‘first-choice’ applications.
  • For 60 positions within the Diplomatic Service (FCO), there were twice as many applications, equating to a 20-fold increase in competition.
  • Tougher still, the Houses of Parliament scheme has only 4 places available each year, but attracts more than 2000 applications: a success ratio of only 1:500.
  • Of the technical fast streams, the Government Economic Service was the largest, offering 250 places, and most others offered 40-100 places for new entrants.

The number of available appointments for 2022 starts is not yet know, but the intake in 2021 was considerably reduced, perhaps due to uncertainties due to Covid19. A September 2020 paper announced numbers for all 14 streams open for 2021 starts, with "more than 800 posts being advertised" overall (compared to 1233 appointment in 2017). There were only 244 Generalist positions and 100 in the Government Economic Fast Stream, whilst the FCO Diplomatic Fast Stream advertised only 10 places compared with 52 appointment in 2017.

For general information we recommend:

  • Using the Civil Service Fast Stream website and Fast Stream Brochure 2019-20 which both provide comprehensive details of all the different options and the application processes.
  • Reading about the Fast Stream schemes and engage with on social media, including using the FS Social Wall to follow and catch up on the latest information.

Departmental positions

Graduates can be employed directly by individual Departments. There are three main routes:

  • Departments, cross-government services and agencies that run independent graduate recruitment schemes, including: the HM Treasury OfficeFinancial Conduct Authority; Government Legal Profession;National Audit Office; Valuation Office, Government Operational Research (GORS) and HMRC Graduate Programme (Tax Professional). Many of these organisations will also offer summer internship programmes, such as those run by the Government’s Economic Service; Legal Service; GORS; and Social Research Service, which tend to be advertised in February or March each year.
  • Departments can offer direct-entry routes to individuals completing the Fast Stream Assessment Centre, who do not secure a Fast Stream offer. This system for placing ‘near miss’ fast stream candidates is analogous to an Oxbridge College offering a place to candidates from the ‘pool’ if they narrowly missed their offer grades.
  • Direct entry to positions advertised by individual Departments, most typically at EO (Executive Officer) and HEO (Higher Executive Officer) for new graduates, but also a SEO (Senior Executive Officer) and Team leader levels for students with more substantial experience.

We recommend attending some of the Oxford Careers Fairs to meet current civil servants, and learn about other other public sector careers. For example, the Oxford Careers Fair early in of Michaelmas Term includes a public sector panel discussion, and stands from some of the hiring Dearptments and representatives for graduate leadership programmes in the public sector, including the NHS, social work, prison service and teaching professions. Similarly, the Science, Engineering and Technology Fair attracts a cluster of public sector oriented organisations keen to recruit STEM candidates, including GORS and Statistical Service; the Intellectual Property Office; the UK Atomic Energy Authority; and the Defence Science and Technology Laboratories (Dstl).

If you have a specific focus or strong interest in particular Department or Agency, check websites regularly because schemes may only open for a short application window: for example, in 2017 one summer vacation was announced  only  one week before its 48 hour application window closed. In addition, register for email alerts and follow recruitment programmes on social media to keep in touch.

GCHQ and Intelligence Services

The intelligence services recruit graduates in many disciplines. Some core programmes, such as graduate  leadership schemes, intelligence officers (analysts) or project management programmes will be open to graduates from all subjects. In addition, there will be other roles that require specialist skills, such as IT Security and IT/Software Engineering, higher level mathematical modelling for code-breaking, and opportunities for language students.

The different branches  of the security service (Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ); The Security Service (MI5); The Secret Intelligence Service (MI6)) will run their own programmes, and these are advertised at different times of the year.

A note on Security Clearance and Vetting Processes

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. 

We have heard that some positions and sensitive work locations require vetting under counter terrorism measures, which requires new hires to have resided within the UK for the past 5 years. Most positions will not be affected by this requirement, but it may be an additional complication for some students receiving offers who have taken a year abroad as part of their studies. Whether a fast-stream offer-holder of direct entry candidate, if you think this may apply to you, we suggest you seek advice from an Oxford careers adviser or raise this with the recruiting officer at the point you accept the offer. This makes sense because it is possible the team handling your placement will not be fully aware of these issues, and it will be helpful if they look into this question early in the placement process.

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.

Since the start of 2019, the Civil Service has recruited against its Success Profiles Framework. This extends the range and type of criteria that will be considered in recruitment beyond a specific ‘competency’ based model of recruitment. The additional criteria that may be considered include your Strengths and Abilities, as well as Technical Skills and Experience relevant to a position. For example, you can expect to have your technical knowledge assessed in the final selection stages for specialist roles, such as statisticians, research roles and economics related careers.

That said, the new Behaviours outlined in the Success Profiles are modelled on the previous Civil Service Competency Framework. These will continue to be the most important aspect of the recruitment process for graduate entry positions, and we recommend thorough preparation for competency-type questions based on the behaviours outlined at the appropriate grades/levels of seniority in the civil service. To understand how the Behaviours relate to Fast Stream candidates, review the statements that refer to the HEO/SEO level: direct entry positions will usually be at the EO or HEO grade.

The earlier competency framework clustered ten competencies into three core fields of expertise, which are still a valid and useful summary guide, and can be summarised as follows.

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. Competencies Incorporated: Seeing the Big Picture; Changing and Improving; Making Effective Decisions.

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. Competencies Incorporated: Leading and Communicating; Collaborating and Partnering; Building Capability for All. 

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. Competencies Incorporated: Achieving Commercial Outcomes;  Delivering Value for Money; Managing a Quality Service; Delivering at Pace.

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). Look for more information on the website for the NGDP, and once you have made an application use the relevant pages on the careers pages for those local authorities you have applied for in order to understand any specific elements in their expectations and culture above and beyond the content outlined above.

Getting experience

Comparatively few formal opportunities exist for working in the government services 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 Graduate Internship. Graduates and graduating students can apply for the 9-10 month long Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) graduate internship. This offers an in-depth insight into the work of the host FCO department and plenty of opportunity to learn more about, and experience, the wider FCO. In the past, successful participants have received a ‘fast pass’ to the Fast Stream Assessment Centre and/or direct entry positions at the FCO or another department on completion of the programme.  Anticipate applications being open from late February to early March.
  • Maths Summer Students (GCHQ) offer a 9-12 week placement practising 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.

Similarly, look for temporary work with or work experience/internships with 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.

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, such as Teach First, Front Line, Unlocked Graduates, 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. Applications will open in the last week of September and close four weeks later, usually at 12:00 noon on the final Thursday in October for both full-time Fast Stream and the SDIP.

In the last 2 years, candidates who apply and have completed the online stages early and been invited for the Fast Stream Assessment Centre (FSAC) before the end of Michaelmas Term, and may receive offers before Christmas. However, please note that there can be a delay of some weeks between completing FSAC and attending a final round assessment centres for the more technical streams that use this additional stage to evaluate candidates’ technical abilities and knowledge, so for a few candidates the process can run well into the new year.

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 on which to secure a place.

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. If you anticipate being too busy to commit to successive rounds of preparation and on-line testing at the end of October and start of November, you can consider an early application in order to complete some stages before Michaelmas term begins.

Once you begin your 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 before taking this test.
    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 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 most it involves either 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)

Science and Engineering

This stream is aimed at those with a doctorate or Masters degree in biological, physical, computational or mathematical science. Roles will often 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, and GCHQ also recruits direct entrants. Recruitment is at different times of the year.

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. At the end of the programme the vast majority of NGDP participants successfully transition into permanent positions, most usually within their existing authority, with about 10% in each cohort securing a position at a different local authority.

Trainees are given a broad understanding of different aspects of local government in strategy, front-line service and support. They undertake a number of placements in key areas within a council, for example, in education; social services; planning and strategy roles. There may also be options to take a secondment into other authorities and external public sector graduate schemes with participating partner organisations like Teach First and NHS Direct.

Please check on their website or follow twitter @ngdp_LGA for confirmation of their recruitment timetable, but this may not open until October or November.


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


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:

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.

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