Same same, but different: The Indian and UK Civil Services
Helen Creighton
August 24, 2019

In January 2019 I swapped a role in the UK civil service for Samagra. For the last 8 months I have worked in the Chief Minister’s Good Governance Associates Programme Team, an engagement which has allowed me to work closely with multiple departments in the Haryana government. In each department people tell me how similar the Indian civil service is to the British system – ‘after all, you created it didn’t you!’ But having worked in both systems, the significant differences in human resource management really stand out. The differences result in vastly different incentives and career paths for bureaucrats. An open dialogue between the two nations’ bureaucracies could result in fruitful reforms for both sides.


When people talk to me about the civil service in India they are usually referring to the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), with the thousands of other public sector staff kept aside. The UK does not make such a stark distinction and does not have a direct equivalent for the IAS. True, there is a cadre of officers who populate the most senior roles – helpfully named Senior Civil Servants (SCS) – but such positions are not generally as prestigious as being an IAS officer. There are around 5,000 SCS in the UK, compared to a population of 6.6 crores. While in India, there are also around 5,000 IAS but in a population of 134 crores.


To become an IAS officer you must decide at the start of your career that this is the path you want to pursue and then prepare for the gruelling UPSC exams. These exams cover World History & Geography, Polity & Constitution, Economy & Current Affairs, and Ethics. Only a select few clear these exams and the next step in the process is facing an interview panel chaired by a member of the UPSC and four bureaucrats and academics. Every year, just 100 are chosen to enter the ranks of the IAS from over a million applicants. 

Contrastingly, in the UK there are a multiple different routes to becoming an SCS. Generally, people start their career as a Junior Civil Servant and work their way up to the SCS through promotion. 

Promotions to the SCS are based solely on merit, not tenure. To climb the ladder will require a series of good annual performance evaluations and multiple job interviews for every posting. Performance is rigorously tested against the detailed civil service competencies. There is no set time period for becoming an SCS but typically it might take 10-15 years. Lateral entry to the SCS is possible, but as a rule lateral entrants are few in number and have significant experience in either the private sector or as political advisers.

Entry to the junior civil service can be through the Fast Stream programme, or through open recruitment for externally advertised jobs. 

The Fast Stream programme has some similarities to IAS admissions, although the preparations required are less extensive. Applicants sifted through English and Maths tests and a psychometric evaluation followed by the dreaded ‘E-Tray’ exercise. This simulates what it is like to be a civil servant by giving access to a mock email account where candidates are sent a series of urgent emails and briefing requests to which they must respond. Finally there is a day of assessments where candidates take part in a written policy exam, a 1-1 interview, group discussions and a leadership exercise – watched over by psychologist. 

However, despite being one of the UK’s most popular graduate schemes the success rate far higher than that for the IAS in India. There are only around 30,000 applicants fighting for 1000 posts.


Transfers happen regularly within the IAS. A senior Indian bureaucrat with 30 years experience recently told me he had had over 50 different postings during his career. Similarly, a District Commissioner told me that even though he is passionate about urban governance he has had several transfers to rural settings or unrelated departments.

In the UK, rather than transfers, civil servants apply for new positions or promotions. Civil servants apply and interview for the jobs they are interested in, which will expand their skill set, or which are in a part of the country they want to live in. Of course there are situations where SCSs are forced into new roles at short notice, or where portfolios in a department shift because of the preferences of senior politicians, but these cases remain the exception rather than the norm. 


These differences in the management of civil servants could seem insignificant, but they result in vastly different career paths for senior bureaucrats. In the UK SCSs will typically spend a large amount of their time in London, Edinburgh or another major city, focused on policy, strategy and large scale implementation. Their work is likely to focus on a relatively narrow range issues, based on the small number of departments they choose to work for. 

In contrast, in India, an IAS officer will work at all levels of government on all possible topics. A bureaucrat’s posting will range from on-ground public-facing roles within a small rural district to high level strategic postings at the national level. Over the course of his or her career, an IAS officer will work on a mind boggling array of issues, touching on almost every part of government functioning. 

While there are pros and cons to both experiences, both sides might benefit from incorporating more of each others’ breadth and depth.