Parkinson's Law: An Introduction

Parkinson's Law: An Introduction

I have borrowed this wonderful article from The University of Minnesota's article on their legislature's productivity, efficiency, useful output, and growth.

You may as well take a look at the original article "Parkinson's Law" by C. Northcote Parkinson, who is Raffles Professor of History at the University of Singapore. This article first appeared in The Economist in November 1955. It's a delightful read. Let's face it, he is a comedian after all.

In 1957, C. Northcote Parkinson, a noted British historian and humorist, wrote a series of essays around the central premise of what he (unmodestly) called "Parkinson's Law." In its most basic form, this law states, "Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion." To offer further elucidation to this fact Parkinson wrote:

"Granted that work (and especially paperwork) is this 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. A lack of real activity does not, of necessity, result in leisure. A lack of occupation is not necessarily revealed by manifest idelness. The thing to be done swells in importance and complexity in a direct ratio with the time to be spent ... 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."

To further explain, Parkinson was particularily interested in the odd fact that even though the British navy was in decline, as an adminstrative bureacracy it was still expanding in complexity and staff. Using his law as a backdrop, Parkinson especially wondered why the British navy continued to add more staff. He came up with two "axiomatic" statements:

  • 1. An official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals,
  • and,

  • 2. Officials make work for each other.
  • In other words, let's say there is a person that feels overworked. He or she has three options:

  • Alternative 1. he can resign;
  • Alternative 2. she can decide to share her work with another person;
  • or,

  • Alternative 3. he can request to have two subordinates to help with the work.
  • Parkinson rightly states, "There is probably no instance in history, however, of [the person] choosing any but the third alternative."

    Why? It would do no good for the person to resign, and sharing the work with another person would be too competitive and bring on board an unwelcome rival. What does this have to do with the British Navy? Parkinson offers these (Corrected from "this," which would have been correct for a single data point which is a "datum.") stunning data:

    YearShips in commissionOfficers and men in the R.N.Dockyard workersDockyard officials and clerksAdmiralty officials
    Increase or Decrease-68%-32%+10%+40%+78%

    As you can see from the data, even though both the number of ships and the number of officers (and "men") decreased in the Royal Navy, the number of dockyard workers and officials, and the number of admiralty officials, increased, and sometimes increased dramatically. For what reason? Based on the fact that the navy was losing ships and officers, you would think that the work of the navy would also decrease. For some reason, however, the work increased so much that, as far as admiraly officials go, it was necessary to increase that staff by as much as 78%. Again, "Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion."

    Where am I going with this? Even though Parkinson's Law was written to be humorous and show some of the foibles of modern bureaucracy, it still makes you think: what are some examples of this in my own environment? And what better example is there than our very own...