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.

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