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Parkinson's Law
July 31, 2009 9:56 PM   Subscribe

Why bureaucracy, like gas, fills up all available space. From the archive of The Economist, 1955 [via ArchiveDigger.]
posted by digaman (11 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
That book had about 8 such articles in it, and each of them was equally witty and perspicacious.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:08 PM on July 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


It's not really a hard concept.

The people you have in such an organization, especially the leaders, generally want the work to be as easy as possible and to do as good of a job as they can. The ratio fluctuates, with more idealistic groups wanting to do a better job, and less idealistic ones caring more about ease, but it's generally true. Now, allocating more money and personnel helps with both goals and the budget is generally considered Somebody Else's Problem. So they'll keep asking for more. Even the most idealistic ones, the ones who do consider the budget, will usually believe their mission is important enough that it needs more money.
posted by Mitrovarr at 10:31 PM on July 31, 2009


...and the budget is generally considered Somebody Else's Problem. So they'll keep asking for more.

Plus, a lot of times things are set up such that if you don't spend all your budgeted money, you lose the difference in next year's budget, which gives groups a powerful incentive to be inefficient. Why trim the fat if it's going to leave you at a disadvantage?
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 11:11 PM on July 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


C. Northcote Parkinson is one of the Oxford DNB's featured Lives of the Week this week. It'll disappear back behind a paywall in a day or two's time, so grab it while you can.

Originating in an anonymous light-hearted article in the Economist in November 1955, Parkinson's 'recently discovered law' was based on the premise that 'work expands to fill the time available for its compilation' and specified that 'administrators are more or less bound to multiply' since 'an official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals' and 'officials make work for each other'. Pseudo-mathematical formulae and 'scientific proofs' gleaned from Admiralty and Colonial Office statistics showed the numbers of officials spiralling as ships and colonies dwindled.

(I was reminded of this the other day when reading an article about the Church of England which showed how the number of bishops had increased while the number of church attenders had collapsed.)

Unfortunately the rest of Parkinson's life isn't quite so amusing:

In old age Parkinson waxed ever more provocative and outspoken about his prejudices, notably government extravagance, punitive taxation, and modern feminism .. he often claimed there was little place for women outside the home except as biddable industrial employees who would not strike
posted by verstegan at 11:15 PM on July 31, 2009


Maybe true in the 50's.. At the micro level, yes some bureaucracies have grown but I believe on the macro level quite a number have shrank.

My job wasn't really around then, but a man at my level in the corporate hierarchy would have access to secretaries, all kinds of clerks to do files, mailing, phone calls, order taking, and sales. In some respects all those functions have been replaced by the PC/Internet/Word Processing/cheap toll-free phone calls and email. At times I used to get/send around 60-100 email a day - just imagine if I had to dictate all that correspondence and have it typed or get those people on the phone. Most information workers these days have no subordinates.

The Total Quality Management philosophy, and other factors meant that a hell of a lot of middle managers disappeared in the 80's (the echo effect of the energy crisis?). So that falls flat too. When I started in banking (in the late 90's) I could name six people who could be considered my boss who worked in the same building - now four layers above me is the CEO, and the boss I report to works in a different city.

The number of people who are unemployed is roughly the same in the 1950's as it is now and we seem to produce a lot less real goods and value so there is no way I can say that bureaucracy hasn't grown in some areas - perhaps the effect of consumer culture and maybe moving away from the gold standard. I've seen some organizations completely smothered by layers of people totally unwilling to make decisions and delivering almost nothing. I believe that organization was a throwback and will be unrecognizable in a few years. This recent recession wiped out a few people (and I mean just a few, there are plenty of innocent victims) who deserved to be wiped out, like every recession does. Some won't be back - this is the 21st century now.

That said, anytime I find someone railing against "bureaucrats" I start looking for the coded message being used to attack progressive political policy... but good movements on the left care about outcomes and don't focus on blue ribbon panels, committees, white papers, consulting reports, and industry studies - something I think younger progressives understand this much better than their boomer counterparts. I suspect you'll see politics in the next few years take on a much more radical tone. There will be bureaucrats, but they'll need to deliver.

That's a bunch of thoughts I really can't tie together.... I guess I am just saying that there are all kinds of checks and balances on the growth of bureaucracy - technology, globalization, and culture change can do that... they can grow to a certain point, then explode... and you get what happened after Lehman brothers collapsed.
posted by Deep Dish at 11:31 PM on July 31, 2009 [6 favorites]


verstegan: (I was reminded of this the other day when reading an article about the Church of England which showed how the number of bishops had increased while the number of church attenders had collapsed.)

This reminds me of the nonsense where they cut the funding of schools that fail a certain average score via standardized testing. The idea is to punish schools that could be better, but if the school was already doing as well as it could (and was failing due to external factors) you just make it worse, and also make it less likely it'll ever pass and get it's funding back. In reality to improve such a school would require giving it more money, if the external factors can't be addressed.

I guess the point I'm going at with this is that trying to reward or punish an organization by adjusting resources is never a good idea. You need to have experts in the field take a realistic look at the costs of the objectives you intend to complete and fund it in accordance with that. Blindly cutting funding usually just results in failure, and blindly raising it either results in excess, graft, or mission bloat.
posted by Mitrovarr at 11:55 PM on July 31, 2009 [5 favorites]


Yes, but as recently linked on MeFi (and everywhere else), we also know that most people are incapable of telling the difference between an expert and a cocksure hack, even (especially) when the object of analysis is themselves.

The bottom line is that humans as a group of primates are too emotional and gullible to actually do what we've convinced ourselves we can, i.e. manage. We're like monkeys who, having experienced the sensation of falling from a tree, are holding seminars about how to fly through the air sideways or up, and reading case studies about "jumping" whose authors claim the results of which should be generalizable to flights of unlimited length if we get our troop structure just right.
posted by No-sword at 2:31 AM on August 1, 2009 [6 favorites]


It has been my experience as an involved citizen that, in government at least, Factor II (Officials make work for each other) has a much more direct impact on the growth of bureaucracy.
When a commission is first formed, it'll usually consist of a few departments and citizens that are directly involved in whatever is being addressed.
However, over time, other departments and citizen groups are invited to "provide input" or "gather a new perspective" or even "just to run it by you".
Before you know, the commission has grown by 150% or more, the meetings have gone from 1 hour to a whole afternoon, and mission creep has set in.
Each of the new people have had to brought up to date, sometimes once every meeting, which means a review of the past work, agendas, etc. They'll invariably want to discuss past completed work or change the scope of the commission in some way and likely want to invite Joe from Department X "just so we are all on the same page"

Now each of these people probably has a valid reason for being there(mostly, sometime it's just a CYA invite), are conscientious people and have good ideas, but the effect is just as described in the article. More people need to sign off on the product, meetings take twice as long to schedule because of number of people, the commission's charge gets watered down or expaned beyond all recognition.

And honestly, at the end of the day, it's the 4 or 5 people that originally started with the process that do all the work of coordinating, processing and presenting.
posted by madajb at 3:54 AM on August 1, 2009


Wonderful. I had no idea that Parkinson's Law had an actual mathematical formula. Thanks for a great start to the day.
posted by nax at 5:01 AM on August 1, 2009


"In old age Parkinson waxed ever more provocative and outspoken about his prejudices, notably government extravagance, punitive taxation, and modern feminism .. he often claimed there was little place for women outside the home except as biddable industrial employees who would not strike"....

The rest of this sentence reads: "..., in practice he was more harmonious, constructive, and supportive in his relationship with female colleagues and subordinates than with their male counterparts. And he appreciated intelligent wives."

I appreciate the point you're trying to make, but people are frequently a strange mixture of black and white. Better perhaps his way than what I commonly see now - public lip service to women and minorities in the workplace combined with serious backstabbing and roadblocking in practice.

(NB, he also wrote a biography of Jeeves, of Horatio Hornblower, and a series of Napoleonic swashbuckler novels. Minor stuff, but his own.)
posted by IndigoJones at 5:18 PM on August 1, 2009


From verstegen's link: The articles stimulated favourable correspondence, other than from the director of public relations at the War Office, who pointed to a 2000 per cent statistical error. But what a wonderfully written article.
posted by YouRebelScum at 2:39 PM on August 2, 2009


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