How does UK Government work and what do policymakers look for?

To know where your research and expertise is most relevant, it is useful to understand the different types of government in the UK.

UK Government

The UK’s central government (sometimes referred to as Whitehall) is made up of different thematic government departments, such as Health and Social Care, Transport, and Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. The UK Government also includes a central department called the Cabinet Office. This ministerial department liaises with the different thematic departments on key government priorities and is closely linked to the Prime Minister. For an introduction to the structure of UK Government, visit UK Government: How government works. You can also access the full list of government departments, agencies and public bodies.

Areas of Research Interest

The UK Government is looking to engage more with academics and researchers. To help researchers understand what their research needs are, a number of departments have created documents outlining their Areas of Research Interest (ARIs). These documents provide a list of the research questions that the department is currently looking at. You can see the published Areas of Research Interest (ARIs) for the UK Parliament here and the Areas of Research Interest for POST (Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology) are here.

Overton and the ESRC also have an excellent resource for searching ARI's by research interest area. Visit the website here

If you would like to discuss engagement with the ARIs before e-mailing the relevant department, please get in contact with the Policy Engagement Team at [email protected].

There are a number of other types of government organisation in the UK which are worth being aware of: 

Devolved administrations

The United Kingdom is made up of four nations: England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Each of these nations have a devolved government and a devolved parliament or assembly. The governments have specific responsibilities on issues different to the UK Government.

Local Government

The local government system is divided into a two tier system (where localities have a county council covering a large area and a district council covering a smaller area); and a one tier system (where only one type of council operates in that area). Within this system you can find 5 types of local government: county councils, district councils, unitary authorities, metropolitan districts and London boroughs (linked by the Greater London Assembly). Local Government Explainer
This explainer provides an overview of the different types of local government and what they are responsible for.

The services that local governments cover differs depending on the type of local government they are. However, typically they cover local service delivery and management issues including: education; environment; leisure and recreation; local taxation; and planning.

UK Arms Length Bodies

Arms Length Bodies are organisations which deliver public services, manage public services, provide advice to government and develop regulation. They are linked to specific departments of the UK Government. The three main types of ALB are: Executive Agencies, Non-Departmental Public Bodies and Non-Ministerial Departments.

For the most relevant information on the number and work of the ALBs, please see the Cabinet Office’s report: 2018-19 Public Bodies

Please see the full list of Arms Length Bodies, organised by the responsible department.

Executive agencies

As of 2018, there are 37 executive agencies. Executive agencies they are designated units of a central government department. They are closely linked to the department: the Chief Executive of these agencies are appointed by the department’s Ministers and they are accountable to the Minister for delivery and to the relevant department’s Permanent Secretary (head of the civil service in the department) for their budget. For further details on how the executive agencies work, please see Executive Agencies: A Guide for Departments.

Examples of executive agencies are: the UK Space Agency, linked to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy or the Standards and Testing Agency, linked to the Department for Education.

Non-Departmental Public Bodies

As of 2018, there are 242 Non-Departmental Public Bodies in the UK. These organisations operate quasi-independently from the government departments. They have more independence than executive agencies and non-ministerial departments. There are four types of NDPB: executive, advisory, tribunal and independent monitoring boards.

Executive NDPBs often focus on delivering a particular public service. They are often directed by a Board rather than directly by a Minister.

Advisory NDPBs are often made up of Boards of experts. They provide advice to Ministers and often have a small secretariat to support them.

Tribunal NDPBs are part of the judiciary in the UK. Examples of tribunal NDPBs include the Employment Tribunal and the Gender Recognition Panel.

Independent Monitoring Boards work exclusively to monitor UK prisons and immigration removal centres.

Non-Ministerial Departments

A non-ministerial department is a government department, but does not have its own minister. Examples of non-ministerial departments are the Forestry Commission and Office of Rail and Road.