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March 6, 2005

Parkinson's Law: an introduction

In 1957, C. Northcote Parkinson, a noted British historian and humorist, wrote a series of essays around the central premise of what he (unmodestly) called "Parkinson's Law." In its most basic form, this law states, "Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion." To offer further elucidation to this fact Parkinson wrote:

"Granted that work (and especially paperwork) is this elastic in its demands on time, it is manifest that there need be little or no relationship between the work to be done and the size of the staff to which it may be assigned. A lack of real activity does not, of necessity, result in leisure. A lack of occupation is not necessarily revealed by manifest idelness. The thing to be done swells in importance and complexity in a direct ratio with the time to be spent ... Politicians and taxpayers have assumed (with occasional phases of doubt) that a rising total in the number of civil servants must reflect a growing volume of work to be done."

To further explain, Parkinson was particularily interested in the odd fact that even though the British navy was in decline, as an adminstrative bureacracy it was still expanding in complexity and staff. Using his law as a backdrop, Parkinson especially wondered why the British navy continued to add more staff. He came up with two "axiomatic" statements: 1) An official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals and 2) Officials make work for each other. In other words, let's say there is a person that feels overworked. He or she has three options: he can resign; she can decide to share her work with another person; or he can request to have two subordinates to help with the work. Parkinson rightly states, "There is probably no instance in history, however, of [the person] choosing any but the third alternative."

Why? It would do no good for the person to resign, and sharing the work with another person would be too competitive and bring on board an unwelcome rival. What does this have to do with the British Navy? Parkinson offers this stunning data:

YearShips in commissionOfficers and men in the R.N.Dockyard workersDockyard officials and clerksAdmiralty officials
Increase or Decrease-68%-32%+10%+40%+78%

As you can see from the data, even though both the number of ships and the number of officers (and "men") decreased in the Royal Navy, the number of dockyard workers and officials, and the number of admiralty officials, increased, and sometimes increased dramatically. For what reason? Based on the fact that the navy was losing ships and officers, you would think that the work of the navy would also decrease. For some reason, however, the work increased so much that, as far as admiraly officials go, it was necessary to increase that staff by as much as 78%. Again, "Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion."

Where am I going with this? Even though Parkinson's Law was written to be humorous and show some of the foibles of modern bureaucracy, it still makes you think: what are some examples of this in my own environment? And what better example is there than our very own Minnesota Legislature? Now, this kind of makes me laugh because the example I'm about to demonstrate is weak at best, but in the end I'm really just trying to have fun with this. Oh, and of course to prove, as usual, that the legislature is a bunch of idiots.

What ultimately is the job of the Minnesota legislature? Off the top of my head I would say that their job is to pass laws. They are in the business of making laws that better our state. So, I decided to look back into the history of the legislature to find out if there was ever a time when our governing body was at it's utmost efficiency.

YearNo. of legislatorsNo. of bills intro.No. of bills passedAvg. per yearNo. special sessions

From 1861-1866 our legislature had an average of 66 members total in both the House and Senate. During that time they introduced 4864 bills and passed 2393 for an efficiency rate of 49%. Now keep in mind that most of these legislators were probably farmers who rode a horse and buggy to St. Paul, wrote and typed their own bills, and had a staff of maybe 1 or 2. They introduced only the bills that they thought were important and they passed over half of them (with only one special session necessary). A model of efficiency? Compared with today I would have to say an unequivocal yes.

Today there are 201 legislators and all of them have a staff a great deal larger than their 1861-1871 counterparts (if someone can help me with that number I would greatly appreciate it). Since 1994 our legislators have introduced 41550 bills, while only passing 2302. That is an "efficiency" rate of 6%. Wow. And even with these increases in staff and actual legislators they still are unable to match the yearly average of bills passed of the 1861-1871 legislators. Furthermore, because they have had to deal with 41550 bills, 9 special sessions have been necessary to actually accomplish legislation of importance.

Interesting, heh? Even though 1861-1871 legislators and 1994-2004 legislators are passing on average the same number of bills per year, the 1861-1871 legislators were able to do that work with far less staff and actual legislators (not to mention less time in the form of special sessions). Does this suggest that our government could get by with less legislators today? Actually, I think it does. In fact, I would wager if we cut our legislature in half, about 210 bills would still pass per year, and they could be passed with at least half (or less) the special sessions necessary.

Well, if you made it this far let me say again that I merely write this all for my own entertainment. I'm sure both Parkinson's and my arguments could all be ripped to shreds. However, I still think a main point stands out: bureacracy grows and there is no stopping it. But it appears, even with all that growth, that the same amount of work gets done. And in the case of our legislature even less work gets done. Even though it is obvious our legislators are working harder and spending more time trying to get bills passed, they aren't actually producing any extra work. Is it time for a change? Would a unicameral legislature be more efficient and make more sense? Heck if I know, but I've had fun talking about it.

Posted by snackeru at March 6, 2005 3:33 PM | Life


Wow. That was one of the better posts you've had Shane. Very well done.

Posted by: Cheesehead Craig at March 7, 2005 8:24 AM

Thanks Cheesehead. Actually I thought you would have a good time shredding this post, so it makes me even more thrilled that you enjoyed it as is. I'll probably write more about Parkinson's Law later this week.

Posted by: Shane at March 7, 2005 10:33 AM

Well, I'm all for the unicameral legislature and this shows that it has a much better chance of working than believed.

Posted by: Cheesehead Craig at March 7, 2005 11:03 AM

Cheesehead Craig, my concern about a unicameral is that I don't see how it could provide enough voice to outstate MN while also fairly representing the metro area. How would seats be divvied up in a unicameral?

Posted by: Stacie at March 7, 2005 11:47 AM

Well Stacie, there will be no loss of voice by the rural areas as they will have one rep instead of two, just like every other area. There is no proportional decrease in representation. Also, there would be less inter-house conference committees whose dealings are always secretive. A bicameral system bogs down government, plain and simple.

Nebraska is the only state with a unicameral legislature, and they are just as rural, if not moreso than MN is. They noted that the first year they went unicameral, they saved $, passed more bills in a shorter amount of time than the old bicameral system.

If you add a term limit of 12 years to the unicameral house, you will have a true, representative, efficient government, IMO.

Posted by: Cheesehead Craig at March 7, 2005 12:30 PM


Well, like I said in the post, don't take this too seriously. Believe me, I recognized the flaws in my argument and almost didn't post this as a result. Having said that, I would like to add that my point is not to say we need more laws to prove that our legislators are pulling their weight. My point really is that it seems that no matter how many legislators we have it seems that given the time of the legislative session they always produce around 200-220 bills. So, why not cut the legislature in half? You get the same amount of work done with half the hassle, I would think.

And don't think that just because we live in the year 2005 our bills are suddenly more complex than the ones in say 1867. Those legislators were building a state from scratch and dealing with Native American insurgencies. I'm sure they had their plates full.

And I agree that the real problem is special interests and lobbyists, but the more legislators you have, the more special interests and lobbyists you have also. Chop one and you chop the other.

Finally, the issue of stadiums is a problem that needs to be solved in this state. And I'm sorry, as a legislator I'm not asking you to pick the problems you'd like to deal with. I'm asking you to solve the problems that are there. If a legislator doesn't like it, then he/she shouldn't run for office.


Posted by: Shane at March 7, 2005 3:36 PM

Since you mentioned stadiums in one of your responses Shane, how come the St. Paul editorial board seems to be the only entity (besides myself and you) that is actively and very publicly, trumpeting the merits of building a Twins ballpark? See this past Sunday's editorial page. Strike two Minneapolis.

Posted by: Jim in St. Paul at March 7, 2005 5:19 PM

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