Danger of running afoul of Parkinson’s Law

Those in search of Parkinson’s Law in action need look no further than Woolwich Township, where Cyril Northcote Parkinson’s classic dictum is clearly in evidence. What is Parkinson’s Law? Even if you don’t know the term, you’re undoubtedly familiar with the sentiment behind it: Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. First postulated in 1955 and expanded into the 1958 book Parkinson’s Law: The Pursuit of Progress, the theory came from the writer’s experience with the British civil service. With mathematical precision – and a large dollop of humour – he dissected the actions of bureaucrats, discovering that bureaucracies expand over time, whether they’re needed or, in most cases, not.

In a notable example, he showed that the British Colonial Office continued to grow even as the empire shrunk precipitously. In fact, the department had its largest-ever staff after it was folded into the Foreign Office because there were no longer any colonies to administer.

Two forces are at work in explaining the growth of needless bureaucracies and the costs thereof: “An official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals” (the Law of Multiplication of Subordinates) and “Officials make work for each other” (the Law of Multiplication of Work). He notes in particular that the total of those employed inside a bureaucracy rose by five to seven per cent per year “irrespective of any variation in the amount of work (if any) to be done.”

Managers wish to appear busy, so they increase their workload by creating paper and rules, filling out evaluations and forms, and filing them. Then they hire more assistants, who in turn require more managerial time for supervision. Moreover, many bureaucratic budgets rely on the “use it or lose it” principle, meaning the current year’s expenditures determine the following year’s budget. This provides a deep incentive to spend (even waste) as much money as possible to guarantee an ever-increasing budget. Parkinson’s views remain consistent with those of conflict theorists, who hold that bureaucratic growth serves only the managers, who in turn use their increasing power to control the workers.

All of this usually adds up to little in the way of productive outcomes, either in government or the private sector (Parkinson’s Law applies to all bureaucracies, but examples are most egregious in the public sector because there’s no offsetting pressure from competitors, shareholders and the like).

What we end up with, then, is much ado about nothing – the size of the bureaucracy and the amount of paperwork don’t necessarily bear any resemblance to the actual work done.

“Granted that work (and especially paper work) is thus elastic in its demands on time, 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,” Parkinson argues in his original essay.

“Politicians and taxpayers have assumed (with occasional phases of doubt) that a rising total in the number of civil servants must reflect a growing volume of work to be done. Cynics, in questioning this belief, have imagined that the multiplication of officials must have left some of them idle or all of them able to work for shorter hours. But this is a matter in which faith and doubt seem equally misplaced. The fact is that the number of the officials and the quantity of the work to be done are not related to each other at all. The rise in the total of those employed is governed by Parkinson’s Law, and would be much the same whether the volume of the work were to increase, diminish or even disappear.”

What Parkinson outlines is prevalent at all levels of government, growing worse from local to federal.

While Woolwich has largely avoided the worst of the law’s impacts – there has, however, been an entrenched deference to bureaucrats on the part of council members, but that’s just part of the problem – we’re starting to see more of it here.

First off, the size of the staff has been creeping upwards, most notably with the opening of the WMC. Some of the jobs have proven unnecessary, even on the frontlines, though changes have been slow. The situation is much worse at the middle-management level. Then there’s the issue of paperwork, as Parkinson sagely warned of: we’ve seen a lot more consultants and host of over-bureaucratized report writing even for what were once simple functions, from tenders to ersatz attempts at business development projects.

Worse still, as the current budget talks have shown, the township is prone to the Law of Triviality, another Parkinson revelation whereby “the time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum involved.”

By that he means just what we’re seeing today: some long discussions of minor budget items, leading at time to easy cutting around the edges, but little regard for the bigger items, which are glossed over quickly.
Woolwich council is not as profligate as the provincial and federal governments. It also has another advantage when it comes to reducing its size: it has no deficits to contend with, which means its cuts will translate into immediate tax savings rather than going to pay down the results of past spending decisions.

As Parkinson and other scholars following up his work have noted, there’s an inherent resistance to downsizing within bureaucracies. When cuts do come, they typically involve frontline staff, not management and other entrenched bureaucrats. Those affected tend to get lower pay while doing the actual work that is of value to the public. In that light, cuts don’t save as much money as they could, hurt services to the people paying the freight and maintain management layers that provide little if any value.

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