All three main parties are planning to cut the size of civil service - but how big is it at the moment?
By Hannah Goff
BBC News Online politics staff
More than half a million people working in 21 government departments and agencies make up Britain's civil service.
Not all civil servants are like the bowler-hatted Sir Humphrey
These "servants of the crown" are tasked with helping the British government, and its devolved Welsh and Scottish cousins, carry out decisions and administer the public services for which the Chancellor provides about £488bn yearly.
Northern Ireland has its own civil service which is not included in these figures.
According to the Cabinet Office, on April 1 2003, there were some 512,410 permanent civil servants of which 491,300 were non-industrial staff (white collar) and 21,110 industrial staff (blue collar).
Over the following year the number of permanent staff increased by 22,160 or 4.5%. Over the past decade the number of part-time staff has doubled to 16.4% of the total in April 2003.
Civil servants are just one section of the public sector and are not to be confused with so-called "frontline staff" like nurses and teachers, or local government workers, though many of them work on the frontline.
Jobs in the civil service range from coastguards to Customs officers, from people processing driving licence applications and winter fuel allowances to ministerial special advisers.
As you would expect salaries vary enormously, with a full time junior worker in the Department of Work and Pensions pulling in £10,000 a year, and the
head of department earning ten times that.
About half of all civil servants provide services directly to the public.
These include running employment services, staffing prisons, issuing driving licences and providing services to industry and agriculture.
And about one in five are employed in the Ministry of Defence and its agencies.
The rest are divided between central administrative and policy duties, support services and other services that are largely financially self-supporting like the Royal Mint.
Even though the media often refers to "Whitehall jobs", not all civil servants are based in Westminster.
In fact fewer than one fifth of all permanent civil servants work in London.
Just over 70% work outside London and the South East, but the number of civil servants working in these areas has risen by 10,140 in the 6 years to April 2003.
Many are based in non-departmental government bodies scattered around the country like the Benefits Agency or the Driving Standards Agency.
On 1 April 2003 there were 86 executive agencies in the Home Civil Service.
HM Customs and Excise, Crown Prosecution Service, Inland Revenue and Serious Fraud Office operate on similar lines. Some 71.7% of civil servants work in these organisations.
The departments and agencies for which they work vary greatly in size.
For example the three smallest departments have fewer than 40 staff, while the four largest departments together (including their agencies) account for almost 66% of all civil servants.
Civil servants formed about 2% of the total working population and about 10% of public sector employees in June 2003.