Of the many problems discussed and solved in this work, it is proper that the question of retirement should be left to the last. It has been the subject of many commissions of inquiry but the evidence heard has always been hopelessly conflicting and the final recommendations muddled, inconclusive, and vague. Ages of compulsory retirement are fixed at points varying from 55 to 75, all being equally arbitrary and unscientific. Whatever age has been decreed by accident and custom can be defended by the same argument. Where the retirement age is fixed at 65 the defenders of this system will always have found, by experience, that the mental powers and energy show signs of flagging at the age of 62. This would be a most useful conclusion to have reached had not a different phenomenon been observed in organizations where the age of retirement has been fixed at 60. There, we are told, people are found to lose their grip, in some degree, at the age of 57. As against that, men whose retiring age is 55 are known to be past their best at 52. It would seem, in short, that efficiency declines at the age of R minus 3, irrespective of the age at which R has been fixed. This is an interesting fact in itself but not directly helpful when it comes to deciding what the R age is to be.
C. Northcote Parkinson, “Pension Point, Or The Age Of Retirement”, Parkinson’s Law (and other studies in administration), 1957.
August 17, 2014
August 3, 2014
The life cycle of the committee is so basic to our knowledge of current affairs that it is surprising more attention has not been paid to the science of comitology. The first and most elementary principle of this science is that a committee is organic rather than mechanical in its nature: it is not a structure but a plant. It takes root and grows, it flowers, wilts, and dies, scattering the seed from which other committees will bloom in their turn. Only those who bear this principle in mind can make real headway in understanding the structure and history of modern government. Committees, it is nowadays accepted, fall broadly into two categories, those (a) from which the individual member has something to gain; and those (b) to which the individual member merely has something to contribute. Examples of the B group, however, are relatively unimportant for our purpose; indeed some people doubt whether they are committees at all. It is from the more robust A group that we can learn most readily the principles which are common (with modifications) to all. Of the A group the most deeply rooted and luxuriant committees are those which confer the most power and prestige upon their members. In most parts of the world these committees are called “cabinets.” This chapter is based on an extensive study of national cabinets, over space and time.
When first examined under the microscope, the cabinet council usually appears — to comitologists, historians, and even to the people who appoint cabinets — to consist ideally of five. With that number the plant is viable, allowing for two members to be absent or sick at any one time. 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.
Whatever the apparent convenience might be of restricting the membership to five, however, we discover by observation that the total number soon rises to seven or nine. The usual excuse given for this increase, which is almost invariable (exceptions being found, however, in Luxembourg and Honduras), is the need for special knowledge on more than four topics. In fact, however, there is another and more potent reason for adding to the team. For in a cabinet of nine it will be found that policy is made by three, information supplied by two, and financial warning uttered by one. With the neutral chairman, that accounts for seven, the other two appearing at first glance to be merely ornamental. This allocation of duties was first noted in Britain in about 1639, but there can be no doubt that the folly of including more than three able and talkative men in one committee had been discovered long before then. We know little as yet about the function of the two silent members but we have good reason to believe that a cabinet, in this second stage of development, might be unworkable without them.
C. Northcote Parkinson, “Directors And Councils, Or Coefficient Of Inefficiency”, Parkinson’s Law (and other studies in administration), 1957.
July 24, 2014
People who understand high finance are of two kinds: those who have vast fortunes of their own and those who have nothing at all. To the actual millionaire a million dollars is something real and comprehensible. To the applied mathematician and the lecturer in economics (assuming both to be practically starving) a million dollars is at least as real as a thousand, they having never possessed either sum. But the world is full of people who fall between these two categories, knowing nothing of millions but well accustomed to think in thousands, and it is of these that finance committees are mostly comprised. The result is a phenomenon that has often been observed but never yet investigated. It might be termed the Law of Triviality. Briefly stated, it means that the time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum involved.
C. Northcote Parkinson, “High Finance, Or The Point Of Vanishing Interest”, Parkinson’s Law (and other studies in administration), 1957.
July 9, 2014
A problem constantly before the modern administration, whether in government or business, is that of personnel selection. The inexorable working of Parkinson’s Law ensures that appointments have constantly to be made and the question is always how to choose the right candidate from all who present themselves. In ascertaining the principles upon which the choice should be made, we may properly consider, under separate heads, the methods used in the past and the methods used at the present day.
Past methods, not entirely disused, fall into two main categories, the British and the Chinese. Both deserve careful consideration, if only for the reason that they were obviously more successful than any method now considered fashionable. The British method (old pattern) depended upon an interview in which the candidate had to establish his identity. He would be confronted by elderly gentlemen seated round a mahogany table who would presently ask him his name. Let us suppose that the candidate replied, “John Seymour.” One of the gentlemen would then say, “Any relation of the Duke of Somerset?” To this the candidate would say, quite possibly, “No, sir.” Then another gentleman would say, “Perhaps you are related, in that case, to the Bishop of Watminster?” If he said “No, sir” again, a third would ask in despair, “To whom then are you related?” In the event of the candidate’s saying, “Well, my father is a fishmonger in Cheapside,” the interview was virtually over. The members of the Board would exchange significant glances, one would press a bell and another tell the footman, “Throw this person out.” One name could be crossed off the list without further discussion. Supposing the next candidate was Henry Molyneux and a nephew of the Earl of Sefton, his chances remained fair up to the moment when George Howard arrived and proved to be a grandson of the Duke of Norfolk. The Board encountered no serious difficulty until they had to compare the claims of the third son of a baronet with the second but illegitimate son of a viscount. Even then they could refer to a Book of Precedence. So their choice was made and often with the best results.
The Admiralty version of this British method (old pattern) was different only in its more restricted scope. The Board of Admirals were unimpressed by titled relatives as such. What they sought to establish was a service connection. The ideal candidate would reply to the second question, “Yes, Admiral Parker is my uncle. My father is Captain Foley, my grandfather Commodore Foley. My mother’s father was Admiral Hardy. Commander Hardy is my uncle. My eldest brother is a Lieutenant in the Royal Marines, my next brother is a cadet at Dartmouth and my younger brother wears a sailor suit.” “Ah!” the senior Admiral would say. “And what made you think of joining the Navy?” The answer to this question, however, would scarcely matter, the clerk present having already noted the candidate as acceptable. Given a choice between two candidates, both equally acceptable by birth, a member of the Board would ask suddenly, “What was the number of the taxi you came in?” The candidate who said “I came by bus” was then thrown out. The candidate who said, truthfully, “I don’t know,” was rejected, and the candidate who said “Number 2351″ (lying) was promptly admitted to the service as a boy with initiative. This method often produced excellent results.
C. Northcote Parkinson, “The Short List, Or Principles Of Selection”, Parkinson’s Law (and other studies in administration), 1957.
June 19, 2014
The heart is (or to be exact, appears to be) on the left side of the body. In the more primitive form of warfare some form of shield is therefore used to protect the left side, leaving the offensive weapon to be held in the right hand. The normal offensive weapon was the sword, worn in a scabbard or sheath. If the sword was to be wielded in the right hand, the scabbard would have to be worn on the left side. With a scabbard worn on the left, it became physically impossible to mount a horse on the off side unless intending to face the tail — which was not the normal practice. But if you mount on the near side, you will want to have your horse on the left of the road, so that you are clear of the traffic while mounting. It therefore becomes natural and proper to keep to the left, the contrary practice (as adopted in some backward countries) being totally opposed to all the deepest historical instincts. Free of arbitrary traffic rules the normal human being swings to the left.
C. Northcote Parkinson, “Personality Screen, Or The Cocktail Formula”, Parkinson’s Law (and other studies in administration), 1957.
June 13, 2014
Dealing with the problem of pure staff accumulation, all our researches so far completed point to an average increase of 5.75 per cent per year. This fact established, it now becomes possible to state Parkinson’s Law in mathematical form: In any public administrative department not actually at war, the staff increase may be expected to follow this formula —
x=(2km + l) / n
k is the number of staff seeking promotion through the appointment of subordinates; l 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. x will be the number of new staff required each year. Mathematicians will realize, of course, that to find the percentage increase they must multiply x by 100 and divide by the total of the previous year, thus:
100 (2km + l) / y n %
where y represents the total original staff. 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 discovery of this formula and of the general principles upon which it is based has, of course, no political value. No attempt has been made to inquire whether departments ought to grow in size. Those who hold that this growth is essential to gain full employment are fully entitled to their opinion. Those who doubt the stability of an economy based upon reading each other’s minutes are equally entitled to theirs. It would probably be premature to attempt at this stage any inquiry into the quantitative ratio that should exist between the administrators and the administered. Granted, however, that a maximum ratio exists, it should soon be possible to ascertain by formula how many years will elapse before that ratio, in any given community, will be reached. The forecasting of such a result will again have no political value. Nor can it be sufficiently emphasized that Parkinson’s Law is a purely scientific discovery, inapplicable except in theory to the politics of the day. It is not the business of the botanist to eradicate the weeds. Enough for him if he can tell us just how fast they grow.
C. Northcote Parkinson, “Parkinson’s Law, or the rising pyramid”, Parkinson’s Law (and other studies in administration), 1957.
June 3, 2014
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 in 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 mailbox 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.
C. Northcote Parkinson, “Parkinson’s Law, or the rising pyramid”, Parkinson’s Law (and other studies in administration), 1957.
May 29, 2014
Every student of human institutions is familiar with the standard test by which the importance of the individual may be assessed. The number of doors to be passed, the number of his personal assistants, the number of his telephone receivers — these three figures, taken with the depth of his carpet in centimeters, have given us a simple formula that is reliable for most parts of the world.
C. Northcote Parkinson, “Plans And Plants, or the Administration Block”, Parkinson’s Law (and other studies in administration), 1957.
February 14, 2014
Readers who are all too familiar with popular works on anthropology may be interested to learn that some recent investigations have involved a completely novel approach. The ordinary anthropologist is one who spends six weeks or six months (or even sometimes six years) among, say, the Boreyu tribe at their settlement on the Upper Teedyas River, Darndreeryland. He then returns to civilization with his photographs, tape recorders, and notebooks, eager to write his book about sex life and superstition. For tribes such as the Boreyu, life is made intolerable by all this peering and prying. They often become converts to Presbyterianism in the belief that they will thereupon cease to be of interest to anthropologists; nor in fact has this device been known to fail. But enough primitive people remain for the purposes of science. Books continue to multiply, and when the last tribe has resorted to the singing of hymns in self-defense, there are still the poor of the backstreets. These are perpetually pursued by questionnaire, camera, and phonograph; and the written results are familiar to us all.
C. Northcote Parkinson, “Palm Thatch To Packard Or A Formula For Success”, Parkinson’s Law (and other studies in administration), 1957.
January 6, 2014
To the very young, to schoolteachers, as also to those who compile textbooks about constitutional history, politics, and current affairs, the world is a more or less rational place. They visualize the election of representatives, freely chosen from among those the people trust. They picture the process by which the wisest and best of these become ministers of state. They imagine how captains of industry, freely elected by shareholders, choose for managerial responsibility those who have proved their ability in a humbler role. Books exist in which assumptions such as these are boldly stated or tacitly implied. To those, on the other hand, with any experience of affairs, these assumptions are merely ludicrous. Solemn conclaves of the wise and good are mere figments of the teacher’s mind. It is salutary, therefore, if an occasional warning is uttered on this subject. Heaven forbid that students should cease to read books on the science of public or business administration — provided only that these works are classified as fiction. Placed between the novels of Rider Haggard and H.G. Wells, intermingled with volumes about ape men and space ships, these textbooks could harm no one. Placed elsewhere, among works of reference, they can do more damage than might at first sight seem possible.
C. Northcote Parkinson, “Preface”, Parkinson’s Law (and other studies in administration), 1957.
January 5, 2014
Publishers have a strong tendency, as we know, to live in a state of chaotic squalor. The visitor who applies at the obvious entrance is led outside and around the block, down an alley and up three flights of stairs. A research establishment is similarly housed, as a rule, on the ground floor of what was once a private house, a crazy wooden corridor leading thence to a corrugated iron hut in what was once the garden. Are we not all familiar, moreover, with the layout of an international airport? As we emerge from the aircraft, we see (over to our right or left) a lofty structure wrapped in scaffolding. Then the air hostess leads us into a hut with an asbestos roof. Nor do we suppose for a moment that it will ever be otherwise. By the time the permanent building is complete the airfield will have been moved to another site.
The institutions already mentioned — lively and productive as they may be — flourish in such shabby and makeshift surroundings that we might turn with relief to an institution clothed from the outset with convenience and dignity. The outer door, in bronze and glass, is placed centrally in a symmetrical facade. Polished shoes glide quietly over shining rubber to the glittering and silent elevator. The overpoweringly cultured receptionist will murmur with carmine lips into an ice-blue receiver. She will wave you into a chromium armchair, consoling you with a dazzling smile for any slight but inevitable delay. Looking up from a glossy magazine, you will observe how the wide corridors radiate toward departments A, B, and C. From behind closed doors will come the subdued noise of an ordered activity. A minute later and you are ankle deep in the director’s carpet, plodding sturdily toward his distant, tidy desk. Hypnotized by the chief’s unwavering stare, cowed by the Matisse hung upon his wall, you will feel that you have found real efficiency at last.
In point of fact you will have discovered nothing of the kind. It is now known that a perfection of planned layout is achieved only by institutions on the point of collapse. This apparently paradoxical conclusion is based upon a wealth of archaeological and historical research, with the more esoteric details of which we need not concern ourselves. In general principle, however, the method pursued has been to select and date the buildings which appear to have been perfectly designed for their purpose. A study and comparison of these has tended to prove that perfection of planning is a symptom of decay. During a period of exciting discovery or progress there is no time to plan the perfect headquarters. The time for that comes later, when all the important work has been done. Perfection, we know, is finality; and finality is death.
C. Northcote Parkinson, “Plans And Plants, or the Administration Block”, Parkinson’s Law (and other studies in administration), 1957.
January 3, 2013
Alexandra Swann notes that the great C. Northcote Parkinson predicted the EU’s decision-making mechanics with great accuracy:
If we listen to Daniel Guéguen, Professor of European Political and Administrative studies at the College of Europe, the Europhile madrassa, the equation spells the downfall of the European Union.
Guéguen has worked as a Brussels lobbyist for 35 years; he is a full time federast and one of the remaining true believers in the EU. Given his commitment to the EU project, when he deems its system of governance, comitology, “an infernal system” perhaps it’s time to listen.
The concept of Comitology was invented by the incomparable Professor C Northcote-Parkinson in his seminal work Parkinson’s law of 1958. It was meant as a satire but, like many of the best jokes, they either get elected or, in this case, embedded in the bureaucracy. Here is the Professor explaining the comitology and his equation:
Where m = the average number of members actually present; o = the number of members influenced by outside pressure groups; a = the average age of the members; d = the distance in centimetres between the two members who are seated farthest from each other; y = the number of years since the cabinet or committee was first formed; p = the patience of the chairman, as measured on the Peabody scale; b = the average blood pressure of the three oldest members, taken shortly before the time of meeting. Then x = the number of members effectively present at the moment when the efficient working of the cabinet or other committee has become manifestly impossible. This is the coefficient of inefficiency and it is found to lie between 19.9 and 22.4. (The decimals represent partial attendance; those absent for a part of the meeting.)
This beautifully encapsulates the terrifying silliness of what is going on in the tubular steel and stripped Swedish pine chairs of Brussels, and for anyone with an interest in transparency or good governance, it is a serious concern. After all, under various estimates upwards of 75 per cent of our laws, the laws that govern the minutiae of our lives are made in the sterile Committee rooms of the Breydel, Berlyamont, Justis Lupsius and other buildings in the EU quarter of Brussels. That this cosmic joke now governs our lives is just a factor of the brobdingnagian reality of our membership of the EU.
August 13, 2010
In a desperate search for economies in the army, Royal Navy, and Royal Air Force, Liam Fox announced a good first step:
The number of senior military officers could be cut in an attempt to curb spending in the Ministry of Defence, the defence secretary, Liam Fox, said today.
In a speech setting out his vision for the future of the MoD, Fox said the reforms were intended to make the department leaner, less centralised and more effective.
He said military chiefs would be given greater control over the armed services as he attempted to sweeten what he described as “difficult and painful” cuts he blamed on the “dangerous deficit” left by the Labour government.
Fox said it was a “ghastly truth” that Labour had left the department with a £37bn “unfunded liability” over the next 10 years. However, he made no specific commitments on cuts, which are not expected to be announced until October.
It’s probably a safe bet that you could reduce the number of generals and admirals by half without in any measurable way decreasing the effectiveness of the armed forces — this is true in almost any nation’s armed forces, not just in Britain. Above the rank of Brigadier/Commodore, there are very few combat posts to be filled, but lots of administrative ones. When a senior officer transitions to being an administrator, their focus shifts from supporting the combat mission of the service to building their bureaucratic empire. It’s startling to see that an army of 100,000 troops “needs” 85,000 civil service workers to support it. (I’ve touched on this before.)
Each of the services has been starved of capital improvements so that any reduction in funding at this point will be very detrimental to long-term defence capabilities. The Royal Navy is starting to look more and more like a coastal defence force than a blue water navy . . . and getting rid of one or both of the new aircraft carriers would end Britain’s pretensions to be able to do any force projection at all (but Argentina would be happy to see it). The RAF had hoped to be next in line for shiny new aircraft to replace their current lot. The army has been wearing down their armoured vehicles at a steady pace and were also hoping for new, improved models in the immediate future.
In spite of the statements of the new coalition government, I don’t see why they’re bothering to replace Trident: you’ve already admitted that you can’t support the current force levels — which are clearly inadequate to meet the challenges of today, never mind those of tomorrow. Forcing the Trident replacement into the military budget could almost literally mean scrapping the rest of the RN just to retain those few nuclear submarines and their support structures.
October 8, 2009
It would be too glib of me to suggest that the Ministry’s preferred way to respond to the Conservative opposition’s call “to cut MoD costs by 25%” would be to abandon the Royal Navy (or ground the Royal Air Force), but it’s hard to imagine them voluntarily cutting their own numbers:
Shadow defence secretary Liam Fox is expected to tell the party’s conference: “Some things will have to change and believe me, they will.”
The BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg said Mr Fox had asked for savings in bureaucracy – the MoD has 85,000 civil servants.
The Tories have pledged to cut overall Whitehall budgets by a third.
In his speech to party members in Manchester, Dr Fox will accuse Labour of having creating “a black hole” in defence budgets, which are affecting the war in Afghanistan and threatening to create an “on-going defence crisis for years to come”.
Of course, there’s nothing new about the administrative “tail” of the armed forces growing . . . C. Northcote Parkinson documented the phenomenon (PDF) back in 1955:
The accompanying table is derived from Admiralty statistics for 1914 and 1928. The criticism voiced at the time centered on the comparison between the sharp fall in numbers of those available for fighting and the sharp rise in those available only for administration, the creation, it was said, of “a magnificent Navy on land.” But that
comparison is not to the present purpose. What we have to note is that the 2,000 Admiralty officials of 1914 had become the 3,569 of 1928; and that this growth was unrelated to any possible increase in their work. The Navy during that period had diminished, in point of fact, by a third in men and two-thirds in ships. Nor, from 1922 onwards, was its strength even expected to increase, for its total of ships (unlike its total of officials) was limited by the Washington Naval Agreement of that year. Yet in these circumstances we had a 78.45 percent increase in Admiralty officials over a period of fourteen years; an average increase of 5.6 percent a year on the earlier total. In fact, as we shall see, the rate of increase was not as regular as that. All we have to consider, at this stage, is the percentage rise over a given period.