July 02, 2002

Still the Frontier of Research into Real-World Bureaucracies

C. Northcote Parkinson (1957), Parkinson's Law, and Other Studies in Administration (Cambridge: Riverside Press: 1568490151).

I have been rereading Parkinson's Law. Once again, I am very impressed. Quite possibly the best--the very best--the absolute best serious scholarly study of bureaucracies and their functioning ever written.

A few of the absolutely choice bits:

p. 2: "Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.... Granted that work (and especially paperwork) 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. A lack of real activity does not, of necessity, result in leisure. A lack of occupation is not necessarily revealed by a manifest idleness..."

pp. 5-6: "Seven officials are now doing what one did before.... [T]hese seven make so much work for each other that all are fully occupied, and A is actually working harder than ever. An incoming document... [o]ffical E decides that it falls within the province of F, who places a draft reply before C, who amends it drastically before consulting D, who asks G to deal with it. But G goes on leave at this point, handing the file over to H, who drafts a minute that is signed by D and returned to C, who revises his draft accordingly and lays the new version before A. What does A do? He would have every excuse for signing the thing unread, for he has many other matters on his mind. Knowing now tha the is to succeed W next year, he has to decide whether C or D should succeed to his own office. He had to agree to G's going on leave even if not yet strictly entitled to it. He is worried whether H should not have gone instead, for reasons of health. He has looked pale recently--partly but not solely because of his special troubles. Then there is the business of F's special increment of salary for the period of conference and E's application for transfer to the Ministry of Pensions. A has heard that D is in love with a married typist and that G and F are no longer on speaking terms--no one seems to know why. So A might be tempted to sign C's drarft and have done with it. But A is a conscientious man. Beset as he is with problems created by his colleagues for themselves and for him--created by the mere fact of these officials' existence--he is not the man to shirk his duty. He reads through the draft with care, deletes the fussy paragraphs added by C and H, and restores the thing back to the form preferred in the first instance by the able (if quarrelsome) F. He corrects the English--none of these young men can write grammatically--and finally produces the same reply he would have written if officials C through H had never been born. Far more people have taken far longer to produce the same result. No one has been idle. All have done their best. And it is late in the evening before A finally quits his office..."

p. 17: "...the center block is all important. This bloc essentially comprises the following elements: a. Those who have failed to master any one of the memoranda written in advance and showered weeks before on all those who are expected to be present. b. Those who are too stupid to follow the proceedings.... c. Those who are deaf.... d. Those who were dead drunk in the small hours.... e. The senile.... f. The feeble, who have weakly promised to support both sides..."

p. 34: "When first examined... the cabinet council usually appears... to consist... of five. With that number the plant is viable, allowing for two members to be absent or sick.... Five members are easy to collect and, when collected, can act with competence, secrecy, and speed. Of these original members four may well be versed, respectively, in finance, foreign policy, defense, and law. The fifth, who has failed to master any of these subjects, usually becomes the chairman or prime minister..."

p. 50: "Since it is impracticable to decide whether one man is better in geology than another man in physics, it is at least convenient to be able to rule them both out as useless. When all candidates allike have to write Greek or Latin verse, it is relatively easy to decide which verse is the best.... While it would be totally wrong to describe this system as a failure.... There was no guarantee, to begin with, that th eman with the highest marks might not turn out to be off his head.... Then again the writing of Greek verse might prove to be the sole accomplishment that some candidates had.... On accasion, a successful applicant may even have been impersonated at the examination by someone else, subsequently proving unable to write Greek verse when the occasion arose..."

p. 56: "An administration equipped with movie cameras, television apparatus, radio networks, and X-ray machines would not appear to be in a worse (or better) position than one employing magic wands, crystal balls, wishing wells, and cloaks of invisibility..."

p. 81: "He dare not say, 'Mr. Asterisk is too able', so he says, 'Asterisk? Clever perhaps--but is he sound? I incline to prefer Mr. Cypher'. He dare not say, 'Mr. Asterisk makes me feel small', so he says, 'Mr. Cypher appears to me to have the better judgment'. Judgment is an interesting word that signifies in this context the opposite of intelligence; it means, in fact, doing what was done last time. So Mr. Cypher is promoted and Mr. Asterisk goes elsewhere.... If the head of the organization is second-rate, he will see to it that his immediate staff are all third-rate; and they will, in turn, see ot it that their subordinates are fourth-rate. There will soon be an actual competition in stupidity, people pretending to be even more brainless than they are..."

C. Northcote Parkinson (1957), Parkinson's Law, and Other Studies in Administration (Cambridge: Riverside Press).

p. 2: "Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.... Granted that work (and especially paperwork) 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. A lack of real activity does not, of necessity, result in leisure. A lack of occupation is not necessarily revealed by a manifest idleness..."

pp. 5-6: "Seven officials are now doing what one did before.... [T]hese seven make so much work for each other that all are fully occupied, and A is actually working harder than ever. An incoming document... [o]ffical E decides that it falls within the province of F, who places a draft reply before C, who amends it drastically before consulting D, who asks G to deal with it. But G goes on leave at this point, handing the file over to H, who drafts a minute that is signed by D and returned to C, who revises his draft accordingly and lays the new version before A. What does A do? He would have every excuse for signing the thing unread, for he has many other matters on his mind. Knowing now that he is to succeed W next year, he has to decide whether C or D should succeed to his own office. He had to agree to G's going on leave even if not yet strictly entitled to it. He is worried whether H should not have gone instead, for reasons of health. He has looked pale recently--partly but not solely because of his special troubles. Then there is the business of F's special increment of salary for the period of conference and E's application for transfer to the Ministry of Pensions. A has heard that D is in love with a married typist and that G and F are no longer on speaking terms--no one seems to know why. So A might be tempted to sign C's draft and have done with it. But A is a conscientious man. Beset as he is with problems created by his colleagues for themselves and for him--created by the mere fact of these officials' existence--he is not the man to shirk his duty. He reads through the draft with care, deletes the fussy paragraphs added by C and H, and restores the thing back to the form preferred in the first instance by the able (if quarrelsome) F. He corrects the English--none of these young men can write grammatically--and finally produces the same reply he would have written if officials C through H had never been born. Far more people have taken far longer to produce the same result. No one has been idle. All have done their best. And it is late in the evening before A finally quits his office..."

p. 17: "...the center block is all important. This bloc essentially comprises the following elements: a. Those who have failed to master any one of the memoranda written in advance and showered weeks before on all those who are expected to be present. b. Those who are too stupid to follow the proceedings.... c. Those who are deaf.... d. Those who were dead drunk in the small hours.... e. The senile.... f. The feeble, who have weakly promised to support both sides..."

p. 34: "When first examined... the cabinet council usually appears... to consist... of five. With that number the plant is viable, allowing for two members to be absent or sick.... Five members are easy to collect and, when collected, can act with competence, secrecy, and speed. Of these original members four may well be versed, respectively, in finance, foreign policy, defense, and law. The fifth, who has failed to master any of these subjects, usually becomes the chairman or prime minister..."

p. 50: "Since it is impracticable to decide whether one man is better in geology than another man in physics, it is at least convenient to be able to rule them both out as useless. When all candidates alike have to write Greek or Latin verse, it is relatively easy to decide which verse is the best.... While it would be totally wrong to describe this system as a failure.... There was no guarantee, to begin with, that the man with the highest marks might not turn out to be off his head.... Then again the writing of Greek verse might prove to be the sole accomplishment that some candidates had.... On occasion, a successful applicant may even have been impersonated at the examination by someone else, subsequently proving unable to write Greek verse when the occasion arose..."

p. 56: "An administration equipped with movie cameras, television apparatus, radio networks, and X-ray machines would not appear to be in a worse (or better) position than one employing magic wands, crystal balls, wishing wells, and cloaks of invisibility..."

p. 81: "He dare not say, 'Mr. Asterisk is too able', so he says, 'Asterisk? Clever perhaps--but is he sound? I incline to prefer Mr. Cypher'. He dare not say, 'Mr. Asterisk makes me feel small', so he says, 'Mr. Cypher appears to me to have the better judgment'. Judgment is an interesting word that signifies in this context the opposite of intelligence; it means, in fact, doing what was done last time. So Mr. Cypher is promoted and Mr. Asterisk goes elsewhere.... If the head of the organization is second-rate, he will see to it that his immediate staff are all third-rate; and they will, in turn, see to it that their subordinates are fourth-rate. There will soon be an actual competition in stupidity, people pretending to be even more brainless than they are..."

Posted by DeLong at July 2, 2002 02:04 PM | TrackBack

Comments

Hi,

I -- of course -- share your

admiration of Parkinson.

What I do not and can't imagine

ever understanding is how anyone

who agrees with Parkinson's view

of bureaucracy is willing (eager?)

to entrust more functions of our

society to government. It's

bad enough that one incompetent official

makes bad policy or writes a bad

memo. Isn't it worse when he

issues a bad ruling or writes

a bad regulation? It's bad enough

he hires two assistants when he

needs at most one. Isn't it more

unwise to allow him to hire

two -- each with a badge and a gun?

It is not surprising that Mayberry's

Sheriff Andy Taylor hired his cousin

Barney Fife ... the wonder and

genius of the man was he never put

ol' Drunk Otis on the county payroll

as an informant against bootleggers.

Tying this to other threads of your

(great, by the way) blog -- how much

of the real estate bubble in high

priced urban areas like New York or

San Francisco is due to bad law

(rent control) administered by too

many and too-incompetent municipal

bureaucrats? How much of the perceived

"unfairness" of the estate tax

results from middle-class retirees

who have no understanding of, and make

no plans to protect, the multi-million

dollar resale value of the homes they

bought decades before? Good news --

Finding out that grandma's 800 sq.ft.

bungalow is worth $3 Million. Bad

news -- after taxes, lawyers, and

court fees, your net inheritance is

a negative $1,345 (and twenty three cents...)

A phased dis-establishment of housing,

building and rent controls would, I

suspect, "ruin" the values and net

worth of many speculators yet return

some sanity to the markets, as well

as providing more, and more-affordable,

housing to many who greatly need it.

By and large, these sorts of controls

are municipal, and not federal. Yet

it seems to me that in aggregate the

impact is greater than many federal

initiatives and proposals you've discussed.

Could you be persuaded to offer your

thinking about, say, the difference

in the boom-bust-bubbles in Houston

versus Los Angeles? And, if local

gov't bureaucratic authorities _are_,

in your view, in economic error; would

some sort of federal action (making

rent-controls unconstitutional,

in the extreme hypothetical) be

appropriate?

Posted by: Melcher on July 3, 2002 08:48 AM

You can recognize the beneficial nature of gov't action and recognize Parkinson's Law because the Law applies to all bureaucracies, public, private, and quango. In other words, your question is as fair as my asking Jonah Goldberg if he believes in capitalism even though all corporate executives are obviously thieving crooks who exist to screw shareholders.

Further, some bureaucracies (like Social Security) are notably efficient, and some gov't oversight agencies (GAO) are pretty good at identifying blatant fraud.

Moreover, saying that you want more government in this or that sector is different from saying you want more government overall -- I'm pretty sure that Professor DeLong wants less spending on the military, as do I, and largely because of logic similar to Parkinson's Law.

Posted by: Paul on July 4, 2002 10:04 AM

I see I failed to make my question clear.

But, no matter. We are engaged in two

(2!) empirical studies to test whether --

using the same buildings and facilities,

the same employees, and serving the same

customers -- a private bureaucracy may

do so "better" than a gov't one, or

vice versa.

Here and there, public (gov't bureaucracy

run) schools are being handed over to

private, for-profit, enterprises such

as Edison. Same schools, same teachers,

same funding source, same students, same

customers (noting that the customer --

who pays for everything -- is distinct from

the student, who is presumed to be the

direct beneficiary...) and to great extent

the same teachers. Different administrators

and different administrative philosophy.

We'll see.

On the flip side, we have private

enterprises that are keeping buildings,

functions, customers, and employees, that

have been very recently re-organized under

a government (federal, actually) bureaucracy.

The airport security screeners. Will

they be "better" -- however that's measured?

We'll see.

No doubt after all the numbers are available

and well-analyzed, people of goodwill will

remain in dispute over the interpretation.

Posted by: melcher on July 7, 2002 05:56 AM
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