Would a career in public service suit me?

Would a career in public service suit me?
Find out about the public service ethos, the key skills employers in this area look for and the kind of work/life balance you could expect.

Do you want to work to support the well-being of the general public? This is going to be crucial to your job satisfaction in a career in the public sector, whether you’re a housing officer for a local authority or an intelligence officer for MI5. It’s a quality that employees working in this area tend to share, however different their roles are. Other qualities are important too: given the current restraint on spending on public services, commercial awareness is important, as is a focus on delivering services as efficiently as possible.

With so many career options in local and central government and government agencies, there are roles suitable for job applicants with all kinds of skills, strengths, backgrounds and qualifications. There are opportunities for both school leavers and graduates, with a variety of structured training programmes available for both. There are also vacancies suitable for graduates of all degree subjects, though some specialisms require a background in science, maths or technology.

Whether your strength is your language skills, numeracy and administration, or the ability to use programming skills to solve problems, there’s a public service role that would be a good fit. There are also opportunities in intelligence for applicants who have a knack for building relationships with people and are curious about their beliefs.

The key skills that public service recruiters typically look for are the same as those sought in the private sector: communication, organisation and time management, teamwork, innovative thinking and problem solving, and leadership. You can find out more about these key skills, also sometimes referred to as competencies, from our advice on the top ten skills that will get you hired.

Your lifestyle and a career in public service

Public service employers are typically committed to supporting their employees’ work/life balance and willing to take a flexible approach. They may offer flexitime, part-time working and job sharing arrangements to employees, which might not be an advantage to you at the beginning of your career but could be useful in the long term. Terms and conditions are generally good and pay is broadly comparable to the private sector, though if you have highly sought-after professional or technical skills you’re likely to be able to earn more in the private sector.

Although many jobs working for central government are based in London, there are also plenty of opportunities elsewhere.

There may be a conflict between a career in public service and being politically active, for example by campaigning for a particular candidate in a general election or commenting on political matters in public. Some Civil Service employees are not allowed to take part in political activities as it is part of their code of conduct that they should be impartial. If you have strong political views or commitments, it is worth bearing this in mind and looking into any restrictions you might come up against, depending on the public service employer and career path you choose.

If you want to work in a sensitive area such as intelligence you’ll need to be discreet about your career from the outset. For example, MI5, the Security Service, warns you not to talk about your application to anyone other than your partner or a close family member, providing they are British. You’ll also need to go through security vetting as part of the recruitment process for the intelligence services. Security checks vary depending on the nature of the role you’re applying for, but can involve checks both on your background and on other people in your life such as your partner and family members. You may also be asked to disclose information about your finances.

Make sure you check what individual employers are looking for

With such a range of roles available, it’s essential to do your research and familiarise yourself with the skills required for employers, jobs or training schemes that particularly interest you, so you can see if you’d be a good match.

For example, the key competencies for the Civil Service are grouped together as follows:

  • Setting direction: seeing the big picture, changing and improving, making effective decisions.
  • Engaging people: leading and communicating, collaborating and partnering, building capability for all.
  • Delivering results: achieving commercial outcomes, delivering value for money, managing a quality service, delivery at pace.

What is the public service ethos?

You’ll sometimes hear the public service ethos referred to in discussions about the values and culture of public service organisations. Broadly speaking, this is the desire to make a difference and to work for the benefit of society. While this may be an important part of your motivation, the recruitment process is more likely to focus on the skills that will enable you to act on it effectively.

Search for...

Degree Explorer

The Degree Explorer helps you plan for your future! Match your interests to university subjects and explore each recommendation to find out what suits you.

Get started

Teacher or parent?

Join our mailing list to receive monthly newsletters from our TARGETcareers and Inspiring Futures teams to help you support your school leavers in their career and university decision making.