Anonymity (civil service)
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Last updated 22 Mar 2021
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.
Some civil servants who have been named include Collette Bowe, who released a private letter criticising Michael Heseltine during the Westland affair in 1986; Bernard Ingham, press secretary to Margaret Thatcher, known for his ‘off the record’ briefings, as was Alistair Campbell who did the same job for Tony Blair; Derek Lewis, who was sacked in 1994 as head of the Prisons Agency by Michael Howard (but not before one of the most excruciating political interviews ever by Jeremy Paxman).