Monday, December 6, 2010

Parkinson's Law

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion

Some might know Parkinson’s Law as it has been quoted above, yet the implications of this law are rarely acknowledged.  In bureaucracy this is especially the case. I have witnessed it firsthand.  Ironic, since the ever-expanding British bureaucracy was the focus of Parkinson’s original 1955 article.

Parkinson’s work may have been seen as mere parody, yet his insights appear to be consistently proven over time.  This very blog post was achieved under pressure of time, utilising this Law to my advantage.  Had I allowed myself and hour it would have taken an hour.  Since I allowed myself just 30 minutes, with a 3pm deadline, magically, I expect it to take that long.

Parkinson’s explains the theory behind his law starting at a position best summarised by this passage:

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.

He finishes with this gem of a formula explaining the continuous growth in numbers of bureaucrats.

(Where k is the number of staff seeking promotion through the appointment of subordinates; p represents the difference between the ages of appointment and retirement; m is the number of man-hours devoted to answering minutes within the department; and n is the number of effective units being administered... and where y represents the total original staff)

Parkinson notes that this figure will invariably prove to be between 5.17 per cent and 6.56 per cent, irrespective of any variation in the amount of work (if any) to be done.

The figure for Australian States in the past decade was a measly 3.1% - still significantly faster than the rate of population growth.  Yes, government is outgrowing the country.

A further development of Parkinson’s ideas is his Law of Triviality, which suggests that organisations give disproportionate weight to trivial issues. Parkinson dramatizes his Law of Triviality with a committee's deliberations on a nuclear power plant, contrasting it to deliberation on a bicycle shed. A nuclear reactor is used because it is so vastly expensive and complicated that an average person cannot understand it, so they assume that those working on it understand it. Even those with strong opinions often withhold them for fear of being shown to be insufficiently informed. On the other hand, everyone understands a bicycle shed (or thinks he or she does), so building one can result in endless discussions because everyone involved wants to add his or her touch and show that they have contributed.

The Law of Triviality can be expanded to apply to the state of public debate surrounding important political decisions.  Debate over where to host the local Christmas carols often trumps the debate surrounding reform of the banking sector or our participation in wars in the Middle East.  Perhaps we simply prefer not to think about these big issues for fear of being overwhelmed.  

In all Parkinson's insights seem to be rarely used to our advantage.  


  1. in some crooked way this must relate to the "The Peter Principle Revisited" of IgNobel fame!

  2. Thank you Cameron, this has been most enlightening. Seriously funny actually.

  3. Is this why councils need rate increase beyond CPI so often? Should all special rate increases be denied from this theory?

    Is this part of the reason why energy bills go up so frequently? I have friends in the energy industry, and their rate of pay increases, simultaneous with their reductions in 'actual' work lead to effective pay rates increasing at an astounding rate.

    In terms of using this knowledge to our advantage, does a Thatcher need to come along every so often?

  4. A period clean out of any bureaucracy is probably a fantastic idea thefarmer.

    And yes, this is probably part of the reason for government services increasing greater than CPI. Another is that all levels of government are poor decision makers and there is often little incentive to invest wisely. Hence you end up with very expensive services, such as water supplies (think desalination at the Gold Coast), and, as you suggest, energy. Also, there is standard creep - for example where each new road, pipe or power line needs to be built to a better standard than the one it replaces.