What Is Civil Service? Definition and Examples

Police Officers in Civil Service
Police Officers in Civil Service.

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Civil service is the group of government officials who are employed in occupations that serve the citizens. Civil servants are people employed in the public sector by a government department or agency for public sector undertakings. Civil servants work for central, state, and local governments, and answer to the government, not a political party. Career civil servants are hired based on professional merit rather than being appointed or elected. Their job tenure typically survives changes in political leadership.

Key Takeaways: Civil service

  • Civil service is the group of government officials who are employed in occupations that serve the citizens.
  • Civil servants work for central, state, and local governments.
  • Civil servants answer to the government, not political parties or politicians.
  • Career civil servants are hired based on professional merit rather than being appointed or elected.
  • Civil servants work to benefit the general public. Professionals in civil service positions protect, educate, provide for, and assist their fellow citizens. 
  • In the United States, the Hatch Act prohibits civil servants from engaging in political activities while performing their duties.

Civil Service Through History

From its origins in ancient China, civil service has been based on the concept of “meritocracy”—a system in which political power is vested in individual people based on merit and ability, rather than wealth or social class. One of the oldest examples of a civil service based on meritocracy is the Imperial bureaucracy of ancient China, which can be traced as far back as the Qin dynasty of 221–207 BCE. Based strictly on merit, the Imperial literary exam was used to select the best administrative officials to work in the country’s administrative bureaucracy. This system had a huge influence on both society and culture in Imperial China and was directly responsible for the creation of a class of career scholar-bureaucrats regardless of their family pedigrees or social class.

While the Chinese imperial examination system was often admired by European observers from the 16th century onward, it was far from universally favored by all Europeans who knew of it. 

During the 18th century, however, the bureaucratic institutions British Empire greatly expanded. Though each had its own system, staff were still generally appointed through patronage or outright purchase. By the 19th century, it became increasingly clear that these arrangements were no longer adequate. In 1806, the British East India Company established a college near London to train and examine administrators of the company's territories in India. Examinations for the Indian "civil service"—a term coined by the Company—were introduced in 1829. 

By 1855, the bureaucratic chaos during the Crimean War resulted in the implementation of a permanent, unified, and politically neutral civil service introduced as Her Majesty's Civil Service. A Civil Service Commission was also set up to oversee open recruitment and end patronage. The Commission operated on four principles that endure today: recruitment should be based on merit determined through competitive examination, candidates should have a solid general education to enable inter-departmental transfers, recruits should be graded into a hierarchy, and promotion should be through achievement, rather than “preferment, patronage or purchase.”

In the United States, the federal civil service was established in 1871. By law, the U.S. Civil Service is defined as "all appointive positions in the executive, judicial, and legislative branches of the Government of the United States, except positions in the uniformed services."

In the early 19th century, all federal civil service government jobs were held at the pleasure of the President of the United States, and the incumbents could be fired at any time. This “spoils system” meant that civil service jobs were used to support the political parties. This was changed in slow stages by the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883 and subsequent laws. The Pendleton Act provided that federal government jobs be awarded based on merit and that government employees be selected through competitive exams. The act also made it unlawful to fire or demote for political reasons employees who were covered by the law. By 1909, almost two-thirds of the U.S. federal workforce was appointed based on merit, that is, qualifications measured by tests. U.S. state and local government entities often have competitive civil service hiring systems that are modeled on the federal system, in varying degrees.

What Do Civil Servants Do? 

As of January 2022, the federal government, excluding the Postal Service, employed about 2.1 million civilian workers, making it the nation's single largest employer. Civil servants work to benefit the general public. Professionals in civil service positions protect, educate, provide for, and assist their fellow citizens. 

Civil servants work in a diverse menu of government activities ranging from artificially “seeding clouds” to induce rainfall, to operating schools, or administrating programs for the increasing number of aged people. In between, civil servants, as in ancient times, continue to collect taxes and perform government functions that cannot be trusted to, or done by, voluntary or private market institutions. These various activities can be grouped under the following headings: shaping and implementing public policy decisions; providing services to individuals, groups, and organizations; and administrating regulatory schemes in areas such as aviation, drugs, and election financing.

Civil servants can work in their local communities, in state offices, or in Washington D.C. Each branch and department of the government hires employees, handles personnel, and determines employee policies independently. 

Civil servants at work
Civil servants at work.

Ted Horowitz / Getty Images

Civil service jobs are diverse in salary, job requirements, and responsibilities. Here are some examples of the most common civil service jobs: Teachers who teach in public schools are considered civil servants. Their salaries are paid by taxpayers, and they serve the public sector by educating children. Civil engineers build and maintain public roadways, bridges, and railways. Some specialize in working with sewage systems, water treatments, or dams. Civil engineers can work for the local, state, or federal levels of government. Social workers help individuals handle issues like drug addiction, child abuse, loss of housing, unemployment, and health problems. Public health social workers are professionals who provide support to those suffering from illness or substance abuse. Police officers protect the public and keep the peace by apprehending criminals. They investigate crimes, take criminals into custody, and testify in criminal trials.

In addition to these specialized jobs, it is also possible to hold a typical job title but serve in a civil service capacity. For example, civil servants can be IT technicians or accountants for local governments. They could also serve as security guards, receptionists, or facilities managers at government buildings.

The U.S. civil service includes the competitive service and the excepted service. The majority of civil service appointments in the U.S. are made under the competitive service, but the Foreign Service, the FBI, and other National Security positions are made under the excepted service. Excepted service positions are any federal or civil service positions which are not in the competitive service or the Senior Executive Service. Excepted service agencies set their own qualification requirements.

The posts that fall under the rules of the U.S. merit system are not grouped into a small number of general classes but have individual job specifications and entry qualifications. Although designed to select entrants with special knowledge or skills for individual posts, this system has been criticized for failing to make the best use of the talent available to the government. In 1978 the Senior Executive Service was created to achieve more effective promotion and deployment.

The main structural entities for carrying out these activities could be divided roughly into the regular civil service departments and agencies, those responsible for the generic governmental functions; the special statutory agencies, authorities, commissions, etc.—responsible for specific tasks removed from the regular civil service, such as the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission; and government corporations entrusted with running utilities and other commercial enterprises regarded as natural monopolies or in some other way related to national interests, such as postal services, public broadcasting, electricity companies, and regional development projects. The combinations of the various types of activities and the different structures reflect the myriad and ever-changing scope of federal civil service responsibilities.

Many civil servants pursue careers in public administration, the field of determining the policies and programs of governments. Specifically, the planning, organizing, directing, coordinating, and controlling of government operations—the most visible day-to-day interface between the government and the citizens. Both the study and practice of the field of public administration consist of several sub-fields. Six of the most easily recognized of these are organizational theory, ethics, policy analysis, public budgeting and financing, urban planning, and human resource management.

As public administration became more complex in the 20th century, specialized categories of civil servants were created to bring into the service doctors, scientists, architects, naval constructors, statisticians, lawyers, and so on.

Rules and Regulations 

For centuries, civil servants were part of the king’s household, they were literally the monarch’s personal servants. As the powers of monarchs declined and as, in some countries, their sovereignty was denied them, the appointment of civil servants became a matter of personal choice by ministers and department heads. The influence senior civil servants may wield over policy and the need for them to work in close harmony with ministers induce all governments to insist on complete freedom of choice in appointments. In some countries, such as the United States, senior advisers are usually replaced whenever a new presidential administration takes office.

In 19th-century Europe, civil service appointment and promotion frequently depended on personal or political favor. Dependency on a superior’s favor led civil servants to ally themselves with liberal public opinion, which was critical of the waste and corruption involved in political patronage. Pressure for reform led to official formulations of basic qualifications for different posts; appointments and promotions boards were established within each department to prevent or obstruct overt political favoritism and nepotism, and salary scales were introduced for different grades to provide a civil servant with increments for good service while still holding the same post.

All countries base civil service appointments on some kind of competition. To uphold the integrity of civil service positions, many civil service careers require applicants to take a civil service exam. This exam ensures that candidates are serious about pursuing employment and keeps employers from hiring unqualified professionals. Most jobs within local, state, and federal government require passing a civil service exam. Although there are many different positions available within civil service, most require some type of civil service exam.

Conduct of Civil Servants

As members of the royal household, the forerunners of civil servants had many duties but few rights. The first attempts to formalize methods of appointment and conditions of service were among the administrative innovations introduced in the 18th century. However, these attempts were often frustrated by political and public objections. Increased formal regulation of conditions of service came about when civil servants organized themselves into professional groups similar to trade unions.

The standards of conduct placed upon civil servants are partly those to be expected of any loyal, competent, and obedient employee and partly those incumbent upon public employees—employees answerable to taxpayers. As such, civil servants should be above any suspicion of partiality and should not let personal sympathies, loyalties, or interests affect the performance of their duties. For example, civil servants are required to be circumspect in private financial dealings. As a general rule, civil servants are not allowed to engage directly or indirectly in any trade or business and may engage in social or charitable organizations only if these have no connection with their official duties. There are strict limits on a civil servant’s right to lend or borrow money and they are generally prohibited from accepting gifts.

Particularly in the United States, the conduct and discipline of civil servants are regulated by administrative law and codes promulgated by executive order after discussion and inquiry.

Civil Servants and Politics

There are two predominant opinions about the extent to which civil servants may engage in political activities. One view is that civil servants enjoy the same constitutional rights as other citizens and that it is therefore unconstitutional to attempt to limit those rights other than by statutory law. The opposing view is that, since civil servants are engaged in the unique function of a national government, their integrity and loyalty to political leaders might be affected by active participation in political affairs, and public confidence in their impartiality could be shaken.

Generally, countries expect civil servants to behave with complete impartiality and to conform to a ministerial policy with energy and goodwill, whether they agree with the policy or not, expect all civil servants to behave with caution in political affairs. The United Kingdom, for example, has a total ban on its senior civil servants’ engaging in any form of political activity.

In the United States, the Hatch Act of 1939 prohibits civil servants from engaging in political activities while performing their duties. The Hatch Act restricts the political activity of all appointed executive branch employees of the federal government, the District of Columbia government, and some state and local employees whose salaries are paid partially or entirely with federal money.

The courts have held that the Hatch Act is not an unconstitutional infringement on employees’ First Amendment right to freedom of speech because it specifically provides that employees retain the right to speak out on political issues and candidates. 

Civil Servants and Unions

The fact that civil servants are agents of public power, providing services on which law, order, and public health depend, has raised the question of whether they should be permitted to strike; if they cannot lawfully strike, they are deprived of the main weapon in pressing for improvements in their conditions of service.

Traditionally, governments have been hostile toward civil service unions, and in the past repressive laws made strike action unlawful. Until after World War II, the commonly accepted view on civil service unions in the United States was that expressed by President Calvin Coolidge: “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, at any time.”

Until the 1950s, labor unions generally bypassed civil service employees because they were controlled mostly by the patronage system used by the political parties. In 1958, however, New York mayor Robert Wagner, Jr. issued an executive order, called "the little Wagner Act," giving city employees certain bargaining rights and allowing their unions exclusive representation, meaning the unions alone were legally authorized to speak for all city workers, regardless of whether or not some workers were union members. Management complained but the unions now had power in city politics.

The first U.S. state to permit collective bargaining by public employees was Wisconsin, in 1959. Collective bargaining is now permitted in three-fourths of U.S. states. By the 1960s and 1970s public-sector unions expanded rapidly to cover teachers, clerks, firemen, police, prison guards, and others. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy issued Executive Order 10988, upgrading the status of unions of federal workers.

In 2009, the U.S. membership of public sector unions surpassed membership of private sector unions for the first time, at 7.9 million and 7.4 million respectively.

Although federal employees are still forbidden to strike, a rule illustrated by President Ronald Reagan’s dismissal of 11,359 striking air traffic controllers in 1981, consultation has increased, and in many federal departments, appeals committees comprising departmental heads and one or more members of the Merit Systems Protection Board may now hear appeals from civil servants against decisions adversely affecting their careers.


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  • Foulke, W. D. “Fighting the spoilsmen: reminiscences of the civil service reform movement.” Forgotten Books; October 11, 2017; ISBN-10: ‎0265180015.
  • "The Federal Civil Service". U.S. Department of the Interior; https://web.archive.org/web/20091018051808/http://www.doi.gov/hrm/pmanager/st6.html.
  • “Domestic/Civil Service.” US Department of State; https://careers.state.gov/career-paths/domestic-civil-service/.
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Longley, Robert. "What Is Civil Service? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Jan. 9, 2023, thoughtco.com/what-is-civil-service-definition-and-examples-7069012. Longley, Robert. (2023, January 9). What Is Civil Service? Definition and Examples. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-civil-service-definition-and-examples-7069012 Longley, Robert. "What Is Civil Service? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-civil-service-definition-and-examples-7069012 (accessed June 1, 2023).