Sunday, October 24, 2021

Is it ok to report a neighbor anonymously?

Should we report our neighbors who violate city-mandated bans on watering our yards?

I’ve received variations on that question over the years as various parts of the country face water shortages and try to limit water usage. About a year ago a reader wondered if the town was responsible for following up on such mandates by citing residents who violated the ban. My answer was “yes.” If a municipality wants a ban to have real effect, it should enforce the ban. Otherwise, it should simply issue an advisory and leave it up to residents to decide whether to be compliant.

More recently, an email arrived from a reader we’re calling Barry. Barry lives in northern California where he writes that they are under a strict rule imposed by the city to conserve water. These rules include “no waste in irrigating our yards,” Barry writes. “Well, one of our neighbors is just ignoring this dictate and there is water covering the sidewalk and going down the storm drains almost every morning.”

Barry wants to report his neighbor to the city but doesn’t want to attach his name to the complaint.

“Should I ask the city to allow anonymous tips?” Barry asks. “I don’t want to cause trouble, I just want all of us who do conserve water to get a fair shake from those who waste it.”

Barry’s desire that all of his neighbors adhere to the watering ban seems valid. The goal of conserving water during a drought might be a bit of a better reason than making sure that if Barry has to do it everyone should, but a desire for fairness doesn’t seem a bad motivation either.

In many cases, I’m not a huge fan of anonymity, but there are times when it seems perfectly acceptable. If Barry’s neighbor is indeed violating the terms of the lawn-watering ban, it seems fine for him to want to have the town address the issue without attaching his name to the complaint. Ideally, the town would monitor neighborhoods to ensure residents are complying, but that doesn’t seem to be happening, likely because the town doesn’t have the resources to do so.

In Boston, we have access to a 311 app that allows residents to report everything from missed trash pickup and potholes to cars blocking driveways and sloppy snow removal. The 311 app allows a user to check off “anonymous” as an option.

If Barry’s hometown doesn’t have a similar app, it seems reasonable for him to call either town hall or the water department to inquire whether it is possible to make an anonymous report about someone appearing to violate the lawn-watering ban. If town officials are serious about the efforts to conserve water, they should follow-up on all such reports, even if they are anonymous.

The right thing, of course, is for Barry’s neighbor to adhere to the town ordinance unless it turns out that he has a private well he’s using that isn’t covered by the town’s regulation. If the neighbor isn’t doing the right thing, then Barry has every right to alert the authorities.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need to have answered? Send them to

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin.


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