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Parkinson’s LawProf. Cyril Northcote Parkinson




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This proverb aptly illustrates how a busy person is likely to have more time available than one with more leisure; enough that operations which for the latter take hours can be accomplished in minutes for the former. We see this exemplified when an elderly lady without pressing commitments may spend an entire day writing and sending a postcard – finding it, locating her glasses, hunting down an address, composing the message, and deciding whether or not to bring an umbrella on her trip to mail it – when a person occupied with other tasks could do the same within three minutes. This contrast between the two shows just how different time can feel depending on our circumstances.

It is well-known that work – and particularly paperwork – can be elastic in its demand of time, so there is rarely any correlation between the workload and the size of staff assigned to it. So, while a lack of real activity doesn’t necessarily mean leisure, it also does not always translate into a visible idleness. Instead, the requirement of the task increases with according to the time available. This has been widely acknowledged, but less attention has been paid to its wider implications, especially in public administration. Politicians and taxpayers usually assume (albeit with intermittent doubt) that an increase in civil servants would correspond to more work being done. However, this belief is incorrect as both the number of officials and the volume of work is unaffected by Parkinson’s Law – demonstrating growth controlled by factors other than those assumed.

The validity of this newly discovered law must largely be supported by statistical evidence that will be provided at a later point. A more captivating element for the average reader is comprehending the driving forces behind the uniform propensity depicted by this law. Despite the complex technicalities (which cannot be avoided), two basic propositions can sum up its purpose: (1) ‘An executive wants to raise workers, not competitors’ and (2) ‘Authorities manufacture assignments for their peers.’

To understand Factor One, visualize a civil servant named A who is feeling overwhelmed with work. Whether or not the pressure he is feeling is realistic does not matter; it may be due to his natural decreasing energy levels associated with middle age. To remedy this situation, there are largely three options: he can resign, share the workload with someone else of equal standing (namely B) or recruit two subordinates (C and D). But in all likelihood, A would opt for the latter alternative, in order to maintain his benefits and avoid bringing forward a potential competitor for W’s soon-to-be-vacant position. Thus C and D must remain inseparable from one another as appointing just one would lead to an equal level of power between them what was denied to B at first. When C begins to complain of too much work, A will then recommend that two more helpers join him -E and F – while the same should happen for D by bringing in G and H. In this way, A increases their chances of gaining promotion even further.

For any incoming document, seven officials now share the workload. This is where Factor Two comes into play. All of them are kept busy and A is actually working more strenuously than before. After E makes a determination that it falls within F’s jurisdiction, C makes drastic changes to the draft reply provided by F, which is then submitted to D for approval. When G goes on leave at this point, H takes over and drafts a minute signed by D and returned to C for further revision before A reviews it.

A, with all the other matters on his mind, such as deciding who to replace him when he takes over W’s role next year and whether H should go on leave due to their health issues, plus domestic worries, could have easily signed C’s draft without reading it. But A is a conscientious man; he can’t bring himself to shirk his duty despite all the problems caused by his colleagues. He reads through C’s draft thoroughly, deleting any extra sections written in by C and H; restoring F’s original version. Not only that but he corrects the grammar too. It’s evening before A leaves his office having spent the day tirelessly producing the same outcome that others would have taken a lot longer for. As he leaves in the fading light, A sadly reflects that success brings its own difficulties like long hours and grey hairs.

C. Northcote Parkinson, Parkinson’s Law: The Pursuit of Progress, London, John Murray (1958)

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