The Civil Service, Not the “Public” Service

The Center of the Civil Service of Canada

As part of my series on the true nature of responsible government and Crown prerogative, I will now turn my attention to another part of the government that derives its authority from the Crown: Her Majesty’s Civil Service. The civil service originated as and theoretically functions like the civilian equivalent of the Armed Forces: both derive their authorities from the Crown, both serve the Ministers of the Crown (i.e., the properly elected civilians who receive commission from the Sovereign or Governor General) and not Parliament or the public, and both operate under a clear, hierarchical chain of command. Contrary to popular belief, Parliament does not control the Civil Service; Parliament can hold only the responsible Minister to account. The Library of Parliament and the Officers of Parliament report to Parliament, but the Civil Service does not.

The official rebranding of the Civil Service of Canada as the “Public” Service of Canada has lent itself to the blurring of the constitutional lines of accountability and severing the chain of command: civil servants may “attend to the public good”, but they do not “serve” the public[1], because the latter term implies lines of authority and accountability. Civil servants serve the responsible Ministers of the Crown, who take responsibility and accountability for the civil service in Parliament.

Of the main Commonwealth Realms, only the United Kingdom has preserved the correct and proper name of “Her Majesty’s Civil Service”. Australia, Canada, and New Zealand have all changed theirs to some variant of the “Public Service”. But when “public servants” believe that they serve the public rather than the Crown through their responsible Ministers of the Crown, they may feel obliged to become insubordinate and not only break, but entirely invert, the chain of command: instead of going up through the hierarchy of director, director general, assistant deputy minister, deputy minister, and Minister of the Crown, they might feel compelled to go outside the service and directly to the public. The Civil Service’s ranks mirror those of the Armed Forces and roughly correspond to the following:[2]  Director is Lieutenant, Senior Director is Captain, Director General is Major, Assistant Deputy Ministers are Lieutenant-Colonels and Colonels, Deputy Ministers are Brigadier Generals, the Clerk of the Privy Council is a Major-General, the Prime Minister and Ministers of the Crown are Lieutenant-Generals, and the Governor-General or Sovereign as Commander-in-Chief is a full General. The non-commissioned officers likewise correspond to the non-executive civil servants; a manager is like a Chief Warrant Officer, and so on.

In principle, civil servants may express disagreement with their superiors in private under some circumstances, but never in public or amongst the organization as a whole. To do otherwise is to commit insubordination. This chain of command ensures that the responsible Ministers are accountable to Parliament and that the Civil Service is controlled by Cabinet. Members of the Armed Forces and Civil Service thus “serve their country” (i.e., the Crown), but they do not “serve the public.”


According to the Ottawa Citizen, six public-sector unions have contributed to a campaign that inaccurately labelled itself “Professionals Serving Canadians” in order to protest the government’s policies.[1] Civil servants serve the Crown by carrying out the policies and priorities that the government determines. They may interact with Canadians and attend to the public good, but they do not “serve” the public.

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[1] Philippe Lagassé, conversation with author, 3 March 2012.
I’m using Army rather than naval ranks.
[3] Kathryn May, “Public service unions abandon neutrality to challenge expected Conservative cuts,” Ottawa Citizen, 21 March 2012.


About J.W.J. Bowden

My area of academic expertise lies in Canadian political institutions, especially the Crown, political executive, and conventions of Responsible Government; since 2011, I have made a valuable contribution to the scholarship by having been published and cited extensively. I’m also a contributing editor to the Dorchester Review and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law.
This entry was posted in Reaffirmation of, Responsible Government and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Civil Service, Not the “Public” Service

  1. Pingback: The Prime Minister Does Not “Represent All Canadians” – the House of Commons Does | James W.J. Bowden's Blog

  2. B. Thomas Hall says:

    The U.K. civil service is partly composed of departments and officers who are created and appointed by the royal prerogative, while all of the Canadian departments of government and almost all officials are appointed by the governor in council under legislation. This doesn’t, of course, change the important point you’re making, but it’s something I’ve found interesting.


  3. Pingback: The Prime Minister Does Not “Represent All Canadians” – the House of Commons Does | By James W.J. Bowden

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