The science of bureaucracy
Or why Parkinson's Law means there will always be more admirals than ships.
IN THE 1950S, Cyril Northcote Parkinson argued that the lack of any relationship between the work to be done and the size of the staff to which it may be assigned meant the growth of bureaucracies was inexorable and unavoidable. The law that takes his name is just as relevant today.
The escalating cost of local authority rates got me thinking about the rising cost of bureaucracy and the inevitable upward spiral in numbers of administrators. A major downside of democracy is that it breeds bureaucracy. Ostensibly, bureaucracies are structures set up to ensure the fair apportionment of services and resources for the common good of the body politic. Fair enough on the face of it.
Most large organisations, including government departments, corporations, political parties, armies, churches and trade unions, are essentially bureaucratic. And probably have been since the time of ancient Egypt, when eunuchs surrounding a pharaoh would have extolled his divinity as they managed the royal granaries, exhorting the populace to build pyramids in return for getting a regular food supply. A little simplistic, you say? But how else is the stability of a political system maintained, except by reward in return for allegiance?
But bureaucratic structures are inevitably hierarchical, fostering rules, rigid operating procedures, and impersonal relationships, with initiatives and policy directions blown in by the political wind. Inputs and outputs are measured – rather than insights and outcomes. In the government or local authority sectors, there are few profit-and-loss assessments, only budget allocations.
In many cases the budgets are determined by arbitrary logic or political expediency. If scant economic evaluation takes place, politics invades to fill the vacuum. And gallingly, in politics, failure is often an indicator of success. Failure identifies where heroic intervention can be focused for political gain. Often, the worse a bureaucracy performs, the more money it tends to receive.
Or, as Parkinson’s Law suggests: Social problems will be found so as to occupy the number of aspiring social workers.
In 1955, the aforementioned Parkinson, a British civil servant- cum-university doncum-naval historian, wrote a tongue-in- cheek commentary in The Economist magazine, following the release of a report from the Royal Commission on the Civil Service. He later expounded on his theory in the book Parkinson’s Law: The Pursuit of Progress.
He argued that in the same way that work expands to fill the time available for its completion, so “the number of officials and the quantity of work to be done are not related to each other at all”.
Parkinson studied British naval history between 1914 and 1954 and found that numbers of Admiralty workers expanded exponentially as the number of ships in service shrank. A staff of 2000 at the beginning of the WW1 in 1914 had ballooned to 33,788 by 1954, even as the number of sailors fell dramatically.
He concluded that eventually there might be more admirals than ships.
Parkinson also proved by mathematical and scientific calculation and justification how, within two years, seven bureaucrats will inevitably be required to do the task that originally took one.
Take the bureaucrat labouring under a heavy workload – real or (likely) imagined – and requiring support. (Let’s say he/she is working for the Department of Housing and has identified a problem with a growing number of homeless, left-handed, toe-tappers.) He or she won’t ask for someone to share the load, as that someone might become a rival. So the request will be for two subordinates. These subordinates, equally diligent and conscientious, will also be appalled at the growing problem and within a short space of time convince their superiors to be equally concerned at the plight of this burgeoning number of homeless, left-handed, toe-tappers. They will require research to establish the scale and breadth of the issue.
Being university trained, they will write erudite papers establishing the extent, social cost and urgency of the situation and their need to travel internationally to scope the problem, consult with experts and observe best practice.
This in-depth research will obviously require them to hire two more subordinates each. As there are no profit and loss assessments – only social cost vs social investment assumptions – seven taxpayer-funded bureaucrats will end up doing what should have taken one.