27 January 2011

Parkinson's Law

Parkinson's Law is the adage first articulated by Cyril Northcote Parkinson as the first sentence of a humorous essay published in The Economist in 1955.

The rule (which is not a law at all but an insightful observation, like Murphy's Law or Clarke's Law) is that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

If you've ever been in an Army garrison you know how close to a law of physics that can be.

Parkinson arrived at his conclusion after working for the British Civil Service. Government jobs, man. Seriously, I travel by air about once a week, and I have long ago stopped to be amazed, but continue to be frustrated, by the sheer number of TSA personnel just standing around. It's monstrous!

Soldiers stand around a lot, too, but their job is different in many respects; for one, it is the military's job to be on standby in case of invasion.

Nevertheless, the Army could be doing a lot more with its idle time, but it is subject to Parkinson's Law, of which there are several offshoots equally applicable.

In a later book, Parkinson's Law: The Pursuit of Progress, he describes how bureaucracies expand over time. A humorous anecdote to support his idea is the reported fact that the British Colonial Office had more employees when the empire had its fewest colonies.

Two factors contribute to the phenomenon, according to Parkinson:

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

Now, what if we substitute the word, "officer" for "official?"

I knew I wouldn't need to say more.

To its credit, the military is the best federal institution that has done any meaningful downsizing. But at the unit levels, these laws are in full force. 

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