The Persistence of Parkinson’s Law

‘Work expands to fill the time available for its completion’.

First enunciated by C Northcote Parkinson in 1955, Parkinson’s Law was originally intended as a piece of pseudo-scientific fun. But Parkinson had tapped into a fundamental truth that is as evident now as it was then. As we retirees know only too well, what used to be doable in only a short time, now takes up an entire morning. We attribute this slowness to encroaching age, but Parkinson offers a simpler explanation. We simply have more time.

Parkinson showed that the law comes into its own in the analysis of bureaucracy. For if work expands to fill the time available for its completion, then, as he put it, ‘it is manifest that there need be little or no relationship between the work to be done and the size of the staff to which it may be assigned’.

Military bureaucracies, Parkinson observed, were particularly prone to this phenomenon. For example, the number of officials in the British admiralty bore an inverse relationship to the number of ships in the British navy. Much the same relationship was observed for civilian bureaucracies. At its height, Parkinson continued, the central administration for the entire British Empire consisted of a few hundred people in the Colonial Office. But as the Empire declined, more and more officials were needed to supervise it.

Is Parkinson’s Law still relevant today? Bureaucracies are not as pyramidal as in his time, but they are certainly subject to perverse behaviours. The tendency these days is not so much for the proliferation of lower ranks (ie people to whom work can be delegated), but rather for the numbers of those who monitor, manage and report upon the activities of the doers, to escalate. In this spirit, Parkinson would have been absolutely delighted by the Australian Defence Force. In 1989, the ratio of starred officers (of the rank of brigadier and above) to other ranks and junior officers was roughly one to 1000. By 1998 it was 1 to 492; by 2014, it was down to 1 to 284. As the fighting forces declined in size, it became necessary to appoint more and more senior officers, not so much to command the fighting men and women, as to drive desks at home.

The number of managers on the civilian side has also shown a tendency to expand. As with the military, this increase has not been achieved by increasing the number of people needing to be managed. The modern bureaucracy has gone one better. It now has fewer people actually being managed per manager.

This phenomenon afflicts, not just Defence, but the entire public service. Indeed, rather than being obviously pyramidal, the modern bureaucracy is increasingly diamond-shaped, with the base of the diamond almost narrowed to a point. The figures are startling. In 1983, the proportion of the lowest-ranking Australian Public Service employees to the total was 47%. Today, it is 3.7%. As the lower ranks have shrunk, the proportion of those in the middle ranks has continued to rise, with the largest increases in the ranks of those in middle management.

These figures suggest that Parkinson’s Law may need some revision. If subordinates are no longer multiplying, what is causing the change in the number of managers? Has the complexity and responsibility of the work changed sufficiently to justify the huge shift in the average classification? Or could it be that public servants are rewarding themselves more for much the same work?

Technological change is an obvious explanation for the shift. With the advent of personal computers from the 1980s onwards, there was no longer any need for typists, because everyone did his or her own word processing. Nor was there much call for photocopying. If the advent of electronic storage had not entirely brought in the paperless office, then at least there was far less photocopying to be done. So we could argue that the ‘average’ employee is more productive than in the past, and does more complex things.

Another development that might justify higher classifications is outsourcing. Many of the people doing the work are no longer in the public pyramid, but are working for consultancy firms that are engaged to undertake particular projects. So middle-level public servants are still managing, or at least trying to achieve results. It’s just that the people working with them are no longer ‘their’ people. Working with consultants is difficult (consultants would argue that working with public servants is difficult), but either way, the relationship requires negotiating skills of quite a high order. Even then, according to the public servants, they often find themselves laboriously re-writing the consultants’ reports.

In fact, a tour of the average department would reveal that most public servants are doing the same types of jobs as in the past – it’s just that they are being paid more to do them. So in this case, Parkinson’s Law would have to be adapted – in the modern bureaucracy, it is not the size of the staff that increases, but its average classification. We might say that classifications rise to absorb the budget available to pay for them.

Who was C Northcote Parkinson? Parkinson said of his early life that it was somewhat dull. He was born in 1909 in York and educated at Cambridge. After graduating, he lectured in, and wrote, naval history. But in a way that was not uncommon then, but would be impossible for academics today, he also pursued a diversified career as a writer. In addition to his academic work, he became a novelist, publishing a series of Hornblower-style books in the 1970s and 1980s. His war years, he was disappointed to recall, did not annoy the Germans very much. In fact, the most dangerous episode to which he was subjected in the entire period was his marriage. After the war, he decided to do something different by applying for, and accepting an academic job in what was then Malaya at what is now the University of Singapore. It was during this period of his life that he wrote the mock-serious essay, published by the Economist magazine, that began his career as a management guru, albeit one with tongue (more or less) in cheek. Once Parkinson’s Law came out as one of a collection of essays (Parkinson’s Law, or the Pursuit of Progress, published in 1958) he was in instant demand as a speaker.

By this stage, Parkinson had discovered a number of other laws, all of them worth remembering. My particular favourites are Parkinson’s Law of High Finance (the time spent on a decision costing ten million pounds is the same as that costing ten pounds) and Parkinson’s Law of Plans and Plants (the munificence of the building housing any particular institution is in inverse ratio to the health of the institution itself).

It is not difficult to find examples of these laws in operation. The law of High Finance must surely have been operating when the ACT Government, under the pump of media scrutiny and mounting public hysteria, decided, in the space of a few weeks, to spend hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayers money on demolishing every single ACT house that contained residual ‘Mr Fluffy’ asbestos, no matter how low the level of risk in relation to any particular dwelling. As for Plans and Plants, the building housing the Australian parliament is far bigger and more impressive than its modest predecessor, erected in 1927. But the debates, activities and culture of parliament in the old building were far stronger than in the new.

How did Parkinson come by Parkinson’s Law? Not surprisingly, he was never a manager at senior levels himself. Had he been, he would not have been able to be humorous about the subject, as he would have had to take it seriously enough to be promoted. But his wartime experiences in the War Office, and later, in universities, provided him with a rich source of material. He was a keen observer of the foibles of the powerful and the self-important, and he was not afraid of treading on toes. His remark that until 1945, the British Navy’s Singapore Base had had only one occupant – the Japanese – drew an indignant response. But the point was there.

Management has become such a serious subject, that it is difficult to be funny about it, let alone come up with aphoristic laws that have enough truth to be taken seriously, and enough humour to be remembered. Apart from Parkinson himself, I can think of only one other truly successful exponent of the genre, Laurence Peter, originator of the Peter Principle – ‘in a hierarchy, employees tend to rise to their level of incompetence’.

Some of the spirit of Parkinson, I think, migrated into Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, who wrote the Yes Minister series. Neither was, or even had been, a Whitehall insider. Like Parkinson himself, had they been, they would not have seen the humour in the public service/ministerial relationship. The series succeeded as much for the characters of Sir Humphrey and the hapless Jim Hacker as for the wit with which the foibles of their respective roles were portrayed. The absurdist element, taken just far enough, remains enduringly funny. Who can forget the hospital with no patients?

It would not be possible for an Australian Sir Humphrey to exist, because departmental secretaries in Australia do not work in sufficiently close geographical proximity to their Minister to have the necessary conversations. Even if they were to be constantly on hand, they would find themselves part of a large entourage of minders and media advisers, with access to the Minister controlled, not by a public servant performing liaison duties (as in Yes Minister), but by Ministerial staffers guarding the Minister’s time and media profile.

As public life has become more and more trivialised by the need to satisfy the media, it has become more, rather than less, difficult to be funny about it. The Hollowmen – Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner and Rob Sitch’s satire on ministerial staffers – cuts very close to the bone. Indeed I know people who could not bear to watch the show because they live the reality it satirises.

Public servants from the PM’s department visit the Hollowmen on a regular basis. They are earnest, a bit boys’ own, occasionally sporting bicycle helmets because they have ridden from their home department to the Parliament. They are the straight foils to the antics of those in the Policy Unit, who must come up with ‘policies’ that satisfy the politics, never the evidence (except the evidence of focus groups and polls). Politicians themselves rarely appear, the PM never. Yet it is the PM’s interests, all the more present for not being visible, that the team is there to protect.

All satirists of politics (or management) must walk the knife-edge between what is funny and what is over-the-top. Parkinson would have been entranced by The Hollowmen’s focus group, with one member drawn from each demographic (different kinds of voter). The group is asked what would make them want to join the military: you get study support, free health care and you can have a good time with your mates, is the response. The resulting advertising campaign does not mention anything remotely suggesting combat, and is quite successful – until the (older) political minders decide that more mention must be made of the ANZAC spirit.

I would hesitate to put forward any successor laws to those of Parkinson, but some general associations do hold true. In general, the more visible the department or agency, the more likely it is to be reviewed. When was the last time there was an inquiry into the performance of the Australian Treasury, or the Department of Finance or, heaven forbid, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet? Defence might appear to be a muscular entity but as one of the few federal departments that produces something identifiable, attracts an enormous degree of attention. Defence is beloved of the public sector auditor, the Australian National Audit Office. Audit officers seem permanently camped in the corridors of Russell Hill.

In the last ten years, there have been numerous reports into defence purchasing, sexual harassment in the military, and several generic management reviews. In 2010-2011 alone, there were no fewer than nine nominated reform initiatives and reviews, including my personal favourite, the Black Review. This review, headed by ethicist Rufous Black, was intended to improve accountability in Defence. Unfortunately, the team never quite got to grips with the meaning or application of the word. So the report flashes with gems such as ‘Decision-making is important’.

With all these exercises, the actual work is done by a team of hard-working underlings, who try to make sense of the job to be done, and do the best they can with the information that is available to them. There is one unwritten rule. Any given report must never ever look at what happened to the recommendations of the previous report.

This is unfortunate, because the usual response to any bureaucratic problem is to increase control over whatever it is that is deemed to be causing it. Most of the time, this makes the problem worse, because of the asymmetry of rewards that characterizes all bureaucracies. A failure is penalized far more heavily than a success is rewarded.

No one wants to make a decision, yet decisions still have to be made. To avoid failure, the departmental top brass check and re-check every initiative, devise ever-more complex structures and processes, create new committees and convene more and more meetings.

Parkinson divided committees into two types: those from which the individual member has something to gain, and those to which the individual member merely has something to contribute. Parkinson thought the former of far greater interest than the latter. But there is a third type of committee: the committee from which no one appears to gain anything at all. Such committees lack well-trained and assiduous secretaries to keep their members focused, and are overwhelmed by the organisation’s natural inertia. Decisions that should have been clear are mysteriously altered. The problem reappears at the next meeting, and the next, until the circumstances that produced it, have changed so much, that it is necessary to start all over again – or have another review.

Parkinson had a genial aversion to quantification. One wonders what he would have thought of the clanking hypotheses, plodding questionnaires and endless regression analyses that dominate so many contemporary academic management journals.

Let me give you a typical example, plucked from a journal devoted to the academic study of public management. It is a paper on ‘management instruments’, which sounds as though it ought to be vaguely related to what public managers do.

Management, it turns out, is about both knowing and doing. Who would have thought it? To help with the doing part, there are various techniques that are used (such as activity-based costing or the balanced scorecard approach). But applying these techniques is not straightforward. Indeed ‘public managers employ interpretive schemes to create provinces of meaning by providing behaviour and cognitive schemata necessary to understand the organizational world’.

I think this means that in practice techniques are used in ways that are shaped by the specific situation in which they are applied, and the way that situation is interpreted. Indeed, gleaming dully from amongst the great piles of verbiage are a few quotes from managers suggesting that this is precisely the case. Yet it takes the author well over 10,000 words and almost 100 references to say something that could just as well have been expressed in 500.

Were he writing today, Parkinson would surely have been struck by the horrors inflicted on our beautiful English language in the name of management. In 2003, in an essay published in Quadrant, I described what I called ‘The world of blah’, a sort of prefabricated language that saved everyone the trouble of thinking. Blah was everywhere, but particularly prevalent in management-talk. In 2003, I remember reliably, everyone was talking about ‘change management’. Now it is ‘performance’. When travelling to Sydney recently, I heard (I swear) two earnest gen Ys talking (without apparent humour) about an ‘over-arching framework for performance metrics’. On the other hand, some expressions, such as ‘strategic’ continue to be used, not because they mean anything, but because they denote a vague sort of importance without actually saying anything.

Don Watson in his Dictionary of weasel words, identified hundreds of expressions, like’ core, key, stakeholder, key, initiative, engage’, that have had the life squeezed out of them by management-speak. Sometimes, a word loses its bearings completely. Lucy Kellaway of the Financial Times, has noted that ‘delivery’ has disappeared as a description of a simple event. Services are no longer provided, they are delivered. They may even be ‘deliverables’.

Parkinson also wrote most perceptively about retirement. The optimum age to retire (from the point of view of the retiree) he wrote, was when you could still do the job better than anyone else, but before the Age of Obstruction set in (by which time any wisdom gathered along the way would have completely evaporated). Unfortunately, this point of maximum sagacity was almost always achieved too late from the firm’s point of view, because any successor to the would-be retiree would have long since succumbed to terminal frustration. Avoiding this unhappy circumstance, Parkinson noted, required a somewhat earlier departure – except of course, in relation to one’s own retirement, which because of a lack of suitable successors, was an entirely different matter.

These days, Parkinson’s retirement formula would have to be revised to include the VR, or voluntary redundancy, the means by which end-of-career people management in the public service (and beyond) is routinely carried out. The VR, despite its name, has little to do with redundancy, and its degree of voluntariness varies. It is usually offered (a) to those who don’t need it, or (b) to those who don’t want it. Those in group (a), with other options to explore, dream of a VR coming their way. Those in group (b) whether planning to retire or not, need to watch out: just a twitch of the arm when the subject comes up for discussion, may be interpreted as a sign of willingness to go.

Of course, much of Parkinson seems dated or labored now. Parkinson’s subjects are always ‘men’. Even when he is sending up his colleagues, there is a definite sense of tweed jackets and camaraderie. When, in one of his essays, Parkinson satirised the business practices of the Chinese, it was in ways which would not be considered appropriate today. As for women, they had not yet entered the professional workplace in sufficient numbers to make much of a difference.

Sensibly, Parkinson did not venture to discuss the next generation, but kept his focus on the people he knew. The generation of which he wrote is no more, and even the baby boomers who savoured his humour, at least as they matured, are slipping off into their own retirements. When Parkinson died, in 1993, the mysterious generation X had barely entered the corporate world, and the infuriating generation Y was still at school.

But whatever the era, he would have noted the persistence of the rituals of importance, and the lengths to which people will go to avoid having to think. It is always easier to label than to learn.

 This essay was first published in Quadrant, September 2015.

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