September 05, 2022

Parkinson's law applied to the digitalisation of public services

Digital services available. 2nd floor, on the right. 

Bucharest 2nd district (Veranda mall, 2nd floor) just implemented a ancient-old law forbidding public servants to ask citizens to provide copies of documents they already own.

Now, they only ask for the originals.

Then, they copy these originals, using a xerox machine down the hall. Which they sign, stamp, and file.

Digitalization at best.

But hear me out: this is a great exemplification of Parkinson's Law, on how bureaucratic organizations function and grow.

Parkinson was a historian. He studied the functioning of the British government for decades. He even wrote a book about it.

In short, he says (these are excerpts from some seminars I gave at an Erasmus master program at KU Leuven), that work expands so as to fill the time available.

This law is true for both private and public organizations;

He exemplified with case studies from the UK Ministry of Naval Forces and the UK Colonial Office.

The staff of the UK Ministry of Naval Forces rose by 5%, and UK Colonial Office’s staff rose 7% per year - regardless of any variation in the amount of work (if any) to be done.

Because, you know, the UK ministry of Naval Forces lost all their ships in ’45, and the UK lost all its colonies after ’45. The ministry for colonies practically disappeared. BUT their staff continued to augment.

Parkinson says that the driving forces were:

* An official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals.

* Officials work for each other.


Parkinson noticed that the number of people employed by the British navy increased continuously, regardless of activity. It was also a magic number, like a 5% growth constant. What intrigued him was that the growth rate was the same even though the British navy declined dramatically after 1945. Due to the economic crisis after the war, the British scrapped most of its war fleet. But it kept and even increased the number of employees !

Intrigued, Parkinson started to study the phenomenon systematically. The most interesting case was the Ministry of Colonies. He studied the evolution of the number of its employees over a period of several decades, from 1918 to the 1950s.

After 1918 Britain gained a lot of new colonies (from the Germans). But of course, after 1945, it lost all its colonies, one by one. The Ministry of Colonies therefore lost its purpose. Finally, it was ended, being reduced to the level of a department within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Well, quite surprisingly, although it no longer had a purpose, its team not only did not diminish, but continued to grow at the same rate as in the interwar period.

After studying this phenomenon thoroughly, Parkinson summarized that it had 2 causes:

1. An official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals. The effect is that an official would never employ only one public servant. Because he/she would become his colleague, thus diminishing his responsibilities. Instead, he/she would  hire 2 people - so that they become a team, and he/she would becomes their boss.

2. Officials make work for each other. The effect is the creation of procedures and processes. There will always be a need for an extra stamp, an approval, a commission, a review.

The phenomenon of comitology is quite interesting on this topc. The European Commission even has a procedure that explains how commissions and committees should work. That's what it's called: comitology. PM me for details.

The phenomenon is also well documented in private companies. Businesses are also marred by departments without purpose. Monsters that appeared once upon a time, initially had a clear purpose, but over time evolved independently, turned into absolutely useless, but increasingly larger departments.


I developed a theory of my own about the drivers that limit the growth of bureaucracy. Because bureaucracy has limits. There is a set of reverse forces that work against Parkinson's law.

The pressure to limit the number of employees and unnecessary processes is always top-down, strategic, political.

In the private sector, the driver pushing down on bureaucracy: is competition. If a company becomes too fat, too bureaucratic, then it is no longer competitive, and it dies or is restructure. We’ve seen the phenomenon in huge companies, such as HP or Intel. When these have a bad financial year, their board of directors, under the pressure of the shareholders, decides to change the managers and fire ~10k employees. Regardless of their duties or processes. They’re out. 

In the public sector, the only driver for pushing down on bureaucracy: is elections. In a functioning democracy, elected officials must demonstrate value to voters. So an elected official should have a program to eliminate bureacracy.

But this needs a functional democracy. E.g. elections “by list” negate this driver - because the elected are not accountable to the voters, but to the party.

If the political system is not democratic, then the reverse factor is only revolutions or coups d'├ętat. These force a top-down reset to the entire bureaucratic system.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Don't win any contest

Some competitions are not worth winning, or participating. You shouldn't compete in lower categories; winning would disgrace you. You kn...