A Quick Look at Parkinson’s Law

Why do we have so many people in our offices, most especially in the public sector? What do they do from morning till evening? How come some top officials don’t like employing “fit and proper” people into positions? Why is it that few people work so hard while others simply lazy about in those offices?

Parkinson’s Law gives us some clues into these and other questions you may have about office bureaucracies and politics.

This “Law” was propounded by Cyril Northcote Parkinson in a rather humorous essay that was published in The Economist in 1955. It says that “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Cyril came up with this idea as a result of his long experience in the British Civil Service.

Later in 1958, Cyril’s article of 1955 together with other essays became the contents of a book titled Parkinson’s Law: The Pursuit of Progress (London, John Murray, 1958). This book has been described variously as:

  • “The famous book that has made the world laugh…and think!
  • “A book to make the ordinary downtrodden citizen hug himself with pleasure”
  • “A devilish book. No business man should let it fall into the hands of his staff.”

As Stepcase Lifehack clearly puts it:

  • “Work expands to fill the time available for its completion (Parkinson’s Law) means that if you give yourself a week to complete a two hour task, then (psychologically speaking) the task will increase in complexity and become more daunting so as to fill that week…”

Parkinson’s Law is not restricted to Britain. It can be seen everywhere around the world. When in 1986 Alessandro Natta complained about the swelling bureaucracy in Italy, Mikhail Gorbachev of Russia responded that “Parkinson’s Law works everywhere”.

Today, the adage “work expands to fill the time available for its completion” is being extended to other areas of life. That’s why one now hears statements such as:

  • “Expenditure rise to meet income” in reference to money issues; and
  • Data expands to fill the space available for storage” or “Storage requirements will increase to meet storage capacity;” in relation to computers. 

I’m not sure if this book is still in circulation, but thank God I have a copy. Reading it again recently, I came to realize that its arguments are still much relevant till today. 

If you have a good heart for laughter, and your mind has a space for some pondering, let’s explore a few paragraphs of the first chapter of the book together (reading the author’s own words): 

“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. General recognition of this fact is shown in the proverbial phrase ‘It is the busiest man who has time to spare.’ Thus, an elderly lady of leisure can spend the entire day writing and dispatching a postcard to her niece at Bognor Regis. 

“An hour will be spent in finding the postcard, another in hunting for spectacles, half an hour in a search for the address, an hour and a quarter in composition, and twenty minutes in deciding whether or not to take an umbrella when going to the pillar box in the next street. The total effort that would occupy a busy man for three minutes all told may in this fashion leave another person prostrate after a day of doubt, anxiety, and toil. 

“…Of more interest to the general reader is the explanation of the factors underlying the general tendency to which this law gives definition. Omitting technicalities (which are numerous) we may distinguish at the outset two motive forces. They can be represented for the present purpose by two almost axiomatic statements, thus: 

  1. ‘An official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals’
  2. ‘Officials make work for each other.’ 

“To comprehend Factor 1, we must picture a civil servant, called A, who finds himself overworked. Whether this overwork is real or imaginary is immaterial, but we should observe, in passing, that A’s sensation (or illusion might easily result from his own decreasing energy: a normal symptom of middle age. 

“For this real or imagined overwork there are broadly speaking, three possible remedies. He may resign; he may ask to halve the work with a colleague called B; he may demand the assistance of two subordinates, to be called C and D. There is probably no instance, however, in history of A choosing any but the third alternative. 

“By resignation he would lose his pension rights. By having B appointed, on his own level in the hierarchy, he would merely bring in a rival for promotion to W’s vacancy when W (at long last) retires. So A would rather have C and D, junior men, below him. They will add to his consequence and, by dividing the work into two categories, as between C and D, he will have the merit of being the only man who comprehends them both. 

“It is essential to realize at this point that C and D are, as it were, inseparable. To appoint C alone would have been impossible. Why? Because C, if by himself, would divide the work with A and so assume almost the equal status that has been refused in the first instance to B; a status the more emphasized if C is A’s only possible successor. 

“Subordinates must thus number two or more, each being thus kept in order by fear of the other’s promotion. When C complains in turn of being overworked (as he certainly will), A will, with the consequence of C, advise the appointment of two assistants to help C. 

“But he can then avert internal friction only by advising appointment of two more assistants to help D, whose position is much the same. With this recruitment of E, F, G, and H the promotion of A is now particularly certain. 

“Seven officials are now doing what one did before. This is where Factor 2 comes into operation. For these seven make so much work for each other that all are fully occupied and A is actually working harder than ever. 

“An incoming document may well come before each of them in turn. Official 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 domestic troubles. 

“Then there is the business of F’s special increment of salary for the period of the 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 a 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 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 to 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 and begins the return journey to Ealing. 

“The last of the office lights are being turned off in the gathering dusk that marks the end of another day’s administrative toil. Among the last to leave, A reflects with bowed shoulders and a wry smile that late hours, like grey hairs, are among the penalties of success. 

“From this description of factors at work the student of political science will recognize that administrators are more or less bound to multiply. Nothing has yet been said, however, about the period of time likely to elapse between the date of A’s appointment and the date from which we can calculate pensionable service of H. Vast masses of statistical evidence have been collected and it is from a study of this data that Parkinson’s Law has been deduced…” 

That was in 1955. How about today? Can you see any similarities between the example given above and what we see in our offices today? Can you then understand why some top officials will never appoint “fit and proper” people into positions? I’m sure you can also detect why only a few number of employees do the actual work in many of our offices. Well, I needn’t say a word about why some old staff won’t want to retire. Mr. A’s situation explains it all. 

Thanks to Cyril Northcote Parkinson for his thought provoking Law.

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