UK civil service tops global league table

Latest Oxford University ranking sees Whitehall rise to global top spot from fourth-best

Cause for cheer: Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill

By Jim.Dunton

25 Apr 2019

Credit: CSW

The UK civil service is often described as the best in the world, but now it’s official: the latest global ranking of public administration effectiveness has seen Whitehall rise from fourth place two years ago to top spot today.

Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government and the Institute for Government’s International Civil Service Effectiveness Index (InCiSE) draws together a series of data and performance indicators for a host of government administrative functions to create a league-table. 

When the inaugural ranking was published in 2017, the UK trailed Canada, New Zealand and Australia on metrics that included performance in tax administration, inclusiveness, capability, openness, integrity, risk management, fiscal and financial management, digital service and policymaking.


But the survey’s second instalment has seen the UK race ahead, with New Zealand now taking second place, Canada third, Finland fourth and Australia fifth. Although they are ranked differently, the top five nations remain the same as in 2017, however.

While the UK’s rankings rise will be flagged as evidence of Whitehall’s ability to drive improvement at the same time as dealing with the unprecedented demands of Brexit, the 2019 InCisSE is not all comfortable reading for top officals. Although the InCiSE report authors confirm that the UK performs “relatively highly for most indicators, regulation is the only core function where Whitehall is top of all surveyed nations.

The UK is in the top five country rankings for policymaking, fiscal and financial management, HR management, and procurement. However digital services is an area where it performs “below average” – and is in the bottom third of surveyed nations. Estonia tops the 2019 digital category, as it did in 2017.

The report authors also remarked that the UK’s index scores related to integrity were subject to variation. “The UK’s inclusiveness score is less strong relative to other countries, most notably on the metric assessing the proportion of women in senior roles in central government,” they said. The UK does not appear in the InCiSE top five for inclusiveness.

Cabinet Secretary and civil service head Sir Mark Sedwill said there was much to applaud in the findings, but accepted there was no cause for complacency about areas for improvement.

“Every UK civil servant should be proud of our being ranked the overall top-performing civil service in the new InCiSE Index,” he said.

“It’s a tribute to the professionalism and effective teamwork that produces real impact in public services.

“But we can be even better by spreading our own best practice and by learning from other countries in areas they are ahead. We will make that our common endeavour.”

Cabinet Office minister David Lidington said the InCiSE findings were a vote of confidence in staff “at a time when Brexit has thrown up new challenges”.

The 2019 InCiSE Index top 10
1  United Kingdom
2  New Zealand
3  Canada
4  Finland
5  Australia 
6  Denmark
7  Norway
8  Netherlands
9  South Korea
10 Sweden

Although the survey is international, it does not include all nations. The 2017 study crunched performance data on 31 nations, the latest ranking has increased the pool to 38. The new additions are: Bulgaria, Croatia, Iceland, Israel, Latvia, Lithuania and Romania. 

Hungary is the lowest-ranked nation in 2019. The report said that the main core function indicators where Hungary’s performance was weak were digital services and fiscal and financial management. The report said inclusiveness and openness were other problem areas. Hungary was second from last in 2017, ahead of Slovakia. The latest rankings put Slovakia in 33rd place.

The report authors said the methodology  and approach for InCiSE 2019 had been “refined” in comparison to 2017’s index, while the volume of metrics had increased. 

A new core function of “procurement” has been added: the UK ranks third out of 38 in the category, but the report authors said the “social security administration” indicator had been dropped in 2019 because of “data reliability issues”. The UK had topped that category in 2017.

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