Public Servants vs Civil Servants: What’s the Difference?

   Civil and public servants perform their jobs on behalf of the government to ensure all citizens have access to basic services and needs. Together, they work towards making improvements to the country’s social environment and promoting the image of the city, state, and country to the outside world. The interlaced workings of the civil servant bureaucracy with the public servants working in the field can make it difficult to discern one from the other.

Civil servants versus public servants: what’s the difference? Civil servants are employees of the federal, state, and local governments that work in the various departments and agencies. Public servants are employed by the government through appointment or elected by the people to serve the public directly.

Civil servants are chosen based on their level of education and experience in the hierarchical power structure of the civil service system. The civil servant system consists of specialized tasks and extensive rules along with rigorous hiring and firing procedures, as compared to public service.

Public Servants vs Civil Servants: What’s the Difference?

Categories of Federal Civil Servants

The United States Government employs millions of civil servants who work for one of the fifteen executive departments or one of the approximately 137 independent executive agencies. The majority of the civil servant positions fall under the competitive service category. These employees are selected based on talent after passing through a competitive hiring process. The 600,000 Postal Service employees are an example of competitive civil servants.

People who apply to the competitive civil service are scrutinized by the Office of Personnel Management who regulates the nearly 700 examining units that screen applicants. Since 2010, the category rating process has been used to select the best applicant for the job. Agencies sort all of the candidates into two or more categories and select from the highest quality category rather than the old system of selecting from the top three overall candidates.

The Senior Executive Service (SES) is a classification of civil servants made up of non-competitive leadership positions that are filled by seniority ranking or by political appointment. The SES classification is equivalent to the Armed Forces ranks of a general officer or flag officer. The president’s Cabinet members are one example of this type of civil servant.

The final category of civil service is called excepted service. The majority of these jobs involve federal security and intelligence and include the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigations, and the State Department. Because of the high level of security involved with these positions, the agencies have their own merit-based hiring system and methods of performance evaluation.

Other excepted service members include the teachers and administrators of schools for the Department of Defense both at home and abroad. Patent examiners also fall under the category of excepted service. In addition, most of those individuals employed by the legislative branch of the federal government are part of the excepted service category of civil servants.

Public Servants vs Civil Servants: What’s the Difference?

A key difference between competitive and excepted service is the appeals process that occurs during disciplinary actions and terminations. Agencies in the excepted service category require swift actions for the sake of safety than other types of civil servant categories. That means excepted service members have fewer rights with regard to appealing decisions than members of the competitive service.

Civil Servants: Executive Department

The fifteen executive departments of the United States government are the key players of the government’s executive branch. Each department head serves as an advisor to the president in their field of expertise. The heads of the executive department earn the title of Secretary of their departments with the exception of the Attorney General, who is the head of the Justice Department and the PostMaster General who is head of the Postal Service.

Current Executive Departments of the Federal Government


  • The State Department is responsible for international relations and U.S. foreign policy. Duties of the State include advising the president, administering diplomatic missions, negotiating with foreign nations, and representing the United States at the United Nations


  • The Treasury Department manages the printing of money and minting of coins with the help of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and the U.S. Mint. They handle tax collection through the Internal Revenue Service and they handle all matters involving banking, lending, and any fiscal policies of the government.


  • The Department of Defense employs the most number of people with almost 1.3 million active-duty military personnel, more than 825,000 National Guard and Reservists, and an additional 732,000 civilian employees. Together, they serve as our nation’s line of defense and deterrent of war.


  • The Justice Department is responsible for enforcing laws and administering justice in the United States. The department oversees the Federal Bureau of Investigations, the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, & Tobacco, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the federal prison system.


  • The Department of the Interior manages the conservation of federal land and natural resources. It is also responsible for a number of programs for Native Americans, Native Hawaiians, and handles territorial affairs of the United States.


  • The Agriculture Department (USDA) takes on the responsibility of regulating farming, forestry, rural development, and food production. Eighty-percent of the department’s enormous budget funds the Food and Nutrition Service program, the bulk of which is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program


  • The Department of Commerce focuses its resources on creating jobs and promoting economic growth in sustainable manners. They gather information on demographics through the Census Bureau and combine it with economic data to maintain and improve industry standards.


  • The Department of Labor is in charge of regulating worker safety, employment standards regarding wages and hours, and ensure work-related rights and benefits. They oversee agencies like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and Veteran’s Employment Training Services (VETS).

Health and Human Services

  • The Health Department’s goal is to improve the health and safety of every American by providing vital services. The Surgeon General works with this department to address public health concerns.

Housing and Urban Development

  • The Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Department manage services that provide affordable housing opportunities and programs for the homeless community. They also oversee the Federal National Mortgage Association and the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation, commonly known as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.


  • The Department of Transportation (DOT) is made up of thirteen safety and regulatory administrations such as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. This group of civil servants is responsible for all aspects of every form of transportation in the United States.


  • The Department of Energy is in charge of policies and safe handling of nuclear matter including our nuclear weapons program, energy conservation, and research via the Human Genome Project. The department also runs a large system of laboratories for research and development all across the country on various topics of national security and management of resources.


  • The Department of Education primarily creates and enforces policies with regard to educational laws. They do not establish schools or universities, nor do they determine what is taught in schools or the educational standards of the schools. This is left up to the individual states to decide.

Veteran Affairs

  • The Department of Veterans Affairs manages the health care services offered to eligible veterans of the military. They also provide services for disability benefits, education assistance, and home loans.

Homeland Security

  • The Department of Homeland Security was created in response to the 9/11 attacks and is the newest cabinet department. The mission of Homeland Security involves anti-terrorism, securing borders, and immigration. Agencies under Homeland Security now include U.S. Customs Service, Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

State and Local Civil Servants

Public Servants vs Civil Servants: What’s the Difference?

In addition to the federal level civil service bureaucracy, each of the fifty states has its own system of civil servants to meet the needs of the population that mimics the federal system. Each state has created its own executive branch of administrations and agencies to handle the needs specific to the state. For example, every state employs its own Department of Transportation to handle the needs of the population that follows the guidelines of the federal department.

Beyond the common service departments, individual states create their own civil servant agencies to meet the unique needs of the state. In the state of Florida, there is a Department of Citrus that promotes knowledge about the orange and other citrus fruits. It brings together the expertise of growers from all over the state to teach and share their knowledge. The department’s website provides information, updates, and even recipes that endorse Florida’s produce.

What are Public Servants?

Developed countries like the United States offers its people public services like electricity, water, and waste removal. They offer people education, emergency services, and health care to meet the needs of the populace. These public services are performed by civil servants who are often called public servants to distinguish them from the rest of the civil service hierarchy. These are the civil servants who are employed by the government but work directly with people.

Public Servants vs Civil Servants: What’s the Difference?

Other civil servants more commonly referred to as public servants are teachers, police officers, and firefighters. Employees of utility companies, hospitals, and the courts are all civil servants who provide public services to the people. Anyone who’s paycheck comes from the government, whether it’s the federal, state, or local level is considered to be a civil servant.

Another definition of a public servant, according to, is a person who is employed by the government through an election. State judges and county sheriffs are two examples of public servants who have to win an election in order to get the job. When a job requires running for office it no longer fits the definition of a civil servant, thus making them public servants.

This definition of public servant applies to every local, state, and federal government position that is acquired through an election process. The federal government has a total of 542 elected public servants including the President, the Senate, and the Representatives of the people. Most state governments elect a Governor, a Lieutenant-Governor, in addition to state judges and an Attorney General.

At the local level, people vote for the mayor, city council members, and county commissioners who are entrusted to do what is best for the community. These elected officials are chosen by the people to provide the public with services needed to make civilization run smoothly. Government jobs related to public services that are acquired through an election are the prime definition of a public servant.

Wondering if civil servants have to identify themselves? Find out here:

Related Questions

Are the members of the United States military considered civil servants or public servants?

All enlisted service members are defined as public servants because they volunteered to join the armed services. The military consists of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, Space Force, and Coast Guard. The title of Commander-and-Chief falls on the president and policies are made with the aid of the Department of Defense and Homeland Security.

Do civil or public services ever become privatized in the United States?

One example of a civil service that has entered the private sector is the prison system. Along with the federal government, 28 states use private prisons to house criminals in addition to the federal and state-funded prisons. Only 8% of the total prison population is housed in privatized prisons because of the controversy involved with making a profit from incarcerations.

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Please note: This blog post is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Please consult a legal expert to address your specific needs.