Back in the mid-2010s, I spent some time working on a project in the Government Digital Service GDS. The project is lost in history, but part of what I needed to do at the time was to create a taxonomy to help understand the otherwise very nebulous concept of “Government”.

For some time it’s been clear to me that the idea of “Government” is about as helpful as the idea of “Business”. On the surface, a helpful divide is so broad a term that it becomes meaningless in practice. Making assumptions that all things that are government are the same as one another is mistaken, but we don’t seem to have accepted or widely understood subdivisions like industry sectors that apply in the for-profit world.

As I start working with government clients again, it’s an excellent opportunity to dust down that work for a quick refresher…

Public Bodies and Departments

The first segmentation that is useful to understand is a functional differentiation that exists between different types of government organisation.

Departments are the bodies responsible for putting government policy into practice. They are led by a Secretary of State, a senior politician, and then managed by a combination of politician ministers and Civil Servants.

Non-ministerial departments are headed by Civil Servants with a line of accountability to a relevant Secretary of State. They usually have some sort of regulatory function and so require a level of independence from the political structure. HMRC is the biggest of these non-ministerial departments.

There are then four general types of “arms-length bodies” (ALBs) that report into Departments, known as “Non-departmental public bodies”(NDPBs)…

Executive NDPBs execute particular areas of the policies of the sponsoring department. So, for example, The Met Office is the Executive NDPB that is responsible for weather forecasting as part of the remit of the work of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

Advisory NDPBs provide advice and guidance on a particular theme, for example the Low Pay Commission providing advice on income policy to BEIS.

Tribunal NDPBs provide arbitration and are a part of the judicial system, with a focus on a particular area of law. The Copyright Tribunal, for example, which again reports into BEIS.

Finally, Independent Monitoring Boards are bodies that provide oversight in a particular area. For example, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons provides oversight of the penal system, accountable to the Home Office.

There are then some other categories – for example, Public Corporations like the BBC.


Government organisations massively vary in size. When I did the analysis half a dozen years ago, there were 10 government bodies that were in excess of 10,000 employees – the Ministry of Defence, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Ministry of Justice, HMRC, the National Offender Management Service (now Her Majesty’s Prison & Probation Service), the Home Office, the Department for Transport, Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunal Service, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (now the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office) and the Environment Agency.

There are then dozens of bodies in the range of 1,000-10,000 employees, and even more in the range of 100-1,000 staff.

This range of size of an organisation has a big impact when thinking about technology provision. The bigger organisations have huge teams devoted to providing technology services. The smaller ones either rely heavily on their parent organisations, or (where they have a need to have independence) can sometimes struggle to have the necessary resources to run services at a scale that is appropriate to their operations, but also that meets with the expectations of being a public body.

Put simply, a government body that is a couple of hundred people can’t run its IT in the ways in which would be appropriate for a similar-sized private business.


Another way to segment government bodies is to think about what they do. It’s a bit like the categorisation of NDPBs, but the reality is that many bodies aren’t as neatly defined as the NDPBs would infer.

Policy making is a central function of many government bodies. It seems to operate at a couple of levels: there are the pronouncements that are made by politicians and captured in acts of parliament and then there is the work necessary to convert the political policy into strategies created by Civil Servants that can then be operationalised by the lower-level government bodies.

Most policy-making happens in the ministerial departments, but not exclusively so.

Regulating is a common activity for many government organisations. Some bodies are exclusively there to regulate a particular sector or type of activity – OFCOM or OFWAT for example. But regulation also forms a part of the activities of some bodies – for example the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency or the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.

Providing services also forms a core part of many bodies’ purpose. The terminology could be a bit clearer, but the basic idea that an organisation is there to provide some sort of productive service to somebody I think makes sense. From the Passport Office producing passports to the National Gallery providing art to the nation, the breadth of activities that happen within service providing parts of government is huge.

Diplomacy is a final type of activity, particularly around representing the country and its interests overseas with other governments and industries.

Why is thinking about activities like this of use? Well, because when looking at providing technology services my hunch is that government bodies that provide similar types of service might well have greater commonalities with one another irrespective of their parent body. For example, OFSTED (the schools’ inspectorate, part of the Department for Education) and OFCOM (the regulator for the communications industries, part of the DCMS) might have more needs in common with one another than they might with other government bodies that just happen to have the same parent organisation.

Target audience

The final dimension that came into play was that of to whom it is that a body delivers its services: to citizens, to organisations or to government itself (or other countries’ governments).

This is very akin to the split between business to consumer and business to business which is reasonably well understood in the private sector.

When I originally did this work, I pulled together a fair amount of information from public sources into this spreadsheet. Unfortunately, over time, the data is now quite out of date, but it still gives the ability to see the sorts of bodies and get a feel for size, activity and target audience.

One thought on “Understanding Government

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