Breaking Parkinson’s Law

British historian Cyril Parkinson observed in a 1955 article in The Economist that government bureaucracies tend to grow themselves regardless of need. Using as an example his own experience in the British civil service, Parkinson pointed out that the Colonial Office had its greatest number of employees at the point when it was dissolved because of a lack of colonies to administer.

Parkinson explains the trend by pointing to the natural incentives of public officials to multiply subordinates and thereby increase their own power within the organization, along with the tendency of public officials to make work for each other. Others have since generalized and restated the principle as: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

At the end of his piece, Parkinson states: “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.” So the difficult task falls to the rest of us to contain or reverse the trend, if possible.

If Parkinson’s Law is in fact a law of economics, does that make it an immutable component of the human condition? Is there an institutional way to shift incentives away from growing one’s sphere of influence in an agency through bloated budgets and unnecessary hiring?


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