Public Service Anonymity

… a core term in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100


Public service anonymity is the convention that ministers answer to Parliament and to the public for government actions without naming the public servants who provided advice or who carried out the administrative action.

Lorne Sossin writes (reference below, p. 8), citing Geoffrey Marshall (reference below, p. 210):

“The constitutional convention of a politically neutral civil service is part of what is sometimes referred to in the public administration literature as the ‘iron triangle’ of conventions consisting of political neutrality, ministerial responsibility, and public service anonymity.’ The fact that these duties are not part of the written constitution does not detract from their centrality to Canada’s constitutional system.”

Describing the evolving situation in the United Kingdom, Paul Goldsmith (reference below) writes:

“The anonymity of the civil service is linked to two concepts: permanence and neutrality. Civil servants, many of whom remain in their jobs whilst serving numerous governments, are thus likely to have to give advice to governments of different political parties, who may have different attitudes to policy. The advice they give needs to be given to ministers both freely and also without fear of adverse public or political reactions and without fear of future career damage. This is tied into the concept of ministerial responsibility, whereby the convention is for the minister to accept responsibility for their actions and decisions and those of their departments.

“However, in recent years, civil service anonymity has begun to be eroded for a variety of reasons. The creation of Departmental Select Committees in 1979 to scrutinise the activities of government departments, mean that MPs frequently question civil servants about the advice they give to ministers. Increased media interest in government affairs means that individual senior civil servants tend to be identified. Ministers are also increasingly willing to “name and blame” their civil servants as opposed to accepting responsibility for their departments’ actions. There are also some executive agencies that have chief executives that are public figures.”

See also Ministerial Responsibility and Political Neutrality.

Atlas topic, subject, and course

Institutional Dynamics within Government (core topic) in Governance and Institutions and Atlas100 Governance and Institutions.


Lorne Sossin (2005), “Speaking Truth to Power? The Search for Bureaucratic Independence in Canada.” University of Toronto Law Journal 55(1): 1-59.

Geoffrey Marshall (1984), Constitutional Conventions: The Rules and Forms of Political Accountability (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Paul Goldsmith (2016), tutor2u, at, accessed 28 August 2016.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 28 August 2016.