The Government of the United Kingdom exercises its executive authority through a number of government departments or departments of state. A department is composed of employed officials, known as civil servants, and is politically accountable through a minister. Most major departments are headed by a secretary of state, who sits in the cabinet, and typically supported by a team of junior ministers.
There are also a number of non-ministerial departments. These are headed by senior civil servants, but are linked to a ministerial department through whose ministers they are accountable to Parliament. Departments serve to implement the policies of Her Majesty's Government, regardless of the government's political composition. As a consequence, officials within government departments are generally required to adhere to varying levels of political impartiality and neutrality.
There are two types of government departments.
Ministerial departments are led politically by a government minister, normally a member of the cabinet and cover matters that require direct political oversight. For most departments, the government minister in question is known as a secretary of state. He or she is generally supported by a team of junior ministers. The administrative management of a department is led by a senior civil servant, known as a permanent secretary. Subordinate to these ministerial departments are executive agencies. An executive agency has a degree of autonomy to perform an operational function and report to one or more specific government departments, which will set the funding and strategic policy for the agency. At "arm's length" from a parent or sponsor department there can be a number of non-departmental public bodies (NDPBs), known colloquially as quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations (Quangos).
Non-ministerial departments generally cover matters for which direct political oversight is judged unnecessary or inappropriate. They are headed by senior civil servants. Some fulfil a regulatory or inspection function, and their status is therefore intended to protect them from political interference. Some are headed by Permanent Secretaries or Second Permanent Secretaries.