“There had never been anything to do…”

There’s a great piece in last week’s New Scientist which may have some baring on the decision of 11 out of 20 Junior Ministers to offer not simply to resign but to have their posts made redundant. It’s built around the experience of a retired officer from the British Army, whose wartime experience led him to believe that much of what passes for work in a bureaucracy is not useful work at all. Back in 1944…

…somewhere in England, Major Parkinson must oil the administrative wheels of the fight against Nazi Germany. The stream of vital paperwork from on high is more like a flood, perpetually threatening to engulf him.

Then disaster strikes. The chief of the base, the air vice-marshal, goes on leave. His deputy, an army colonel, falls sick. The colonel’s deputy, an air force wing commander, is called away on urgent business. Major Parkinson is left to soldier on alone.

At that point, an odd thing happens – nothing at all. The paper flood ceases; the war goes on regardless. As Major Parkinson later mused: “There had never been anything to do. We’d just been making work for each other.”

But Parkinson’s work took him way beyond such glib analyses. For instance he asked:

How many members can a committee have and still be effective? Parkinson’s own guess was based on the 700-year history of England’s highest council of state- in its modern incarnation, the UK cabinet. Five times in succession between 1257 and 1955, this council grew from small beginnings to a membership of just over 20. Each time it reached that point, it was replaced by a new, smaller body, which began growing again. This was no coincidence, Parkinson argued: beyond about 20 members, groups become structurally unable to come to consensus.

Not that Irish Junior Ministers are ever required to act in concert. But in considering the Assembly review committee, and the possibility of reducing the number of Departments. Best not to settle on leaving eight members in the Executive Committee. Seven, yes. Nine, yes. But not eight. Why?

In the computer simulations, there is a particular number of decision-makers that stands out from the trend as being truly, spectacularly bad, tending with alarmingly high probability to lead to deadlock: eight.

Where this effect comes from is unclear. But once again, Parkinson had anticipated it, noting in 1955 that no nation had a cabinet of eight members. Intriguingly, the same is true today, and other committees charged with making momentous decisions tend to fall either side of the bedevilled number: the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee, for example, has nine; the US National Security Council has six.

So perhaps we all subliminally know the kind of things that Parkinson highlighted and the computer simulations have confirmed. As Parkinson noted, we ignore them at our peril. Charles I was the only British monarch who favoured a council of state of eight members. His decision-making was so notoriously bad that he lost his head.

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  • Dave

    The UK, often dismissed as the quango capital of Europe has 541 quangos. Ireland, on the other hand, has 807 quangos. Yes, you read that correctly – Ireland, 15 times smaller than the UK, has 266 more quangos than the UK. What is actually needed is for elected ministers to make the decisions that we elected them to make rather than to delegate those decisions to unelected bureaucrats. In other words, for power to be restored to the democratic process and for those who exercise that power to be directly accountable to the public. We need to cut the number of workers in the public sector and to do it now and to do it ruthlessly. Tokenism won’t have any effect and seems designed to obscure what really needs to be done.

  • … led him to believe that much of what passes for work in a bureaucracy is not useful work at all …

    Working as I do in the public sector I wholeheartedly agree with this. I have long been of the opinion that much of the public sector is ‘value detracting’ activity. As Major Parkinson put it, we just make work for each other. The more I do, the more other people are required to respond to it. Then I respond to their responses, copying a dozen other people each time, of course, and on it goes.

    It is said that the British Empire, at its height, was ‘ruled’ by a Foreign Office (or equivalent) of fewer than 200 people. Now the local council leisure service employs more than that.

    On the other hand (as all good civil servants are wont to say), there is no longer the real need for so many ‘productive’ workers – all industry and agriculture can be done by about a quarter of the workforce, and we just don’t need more ‘things’. So the underworked civil servants are just being kept busy to keep them off the streets. The irony is that they are now paid considerably more than workers in productive sectors, but I suppose this is what creates the demand for all the ‘things.

  • wild turkey

    ‘Ireland, on the other hand, has 807 quangos’

    Dave, any idea what the total membership is, even approximately, of the 807 quangos.

    Also how many of the UK quangos are exclusively or substantially NI focused? Also, any sense of the total membership of NI quangos?

    any pointers to info on the above points greatly appreciated….

    I’m curious if NI quango membership measured on a per capita basis of the population (be it total pop, working age, voting age, whatever) approximates the similar measure for GB or RoI.

  • Dave,

    The UK, often dismissed as the quango capital of Europe has 541 quangos. Ireland, on the other hand, has 807 quangos.

    As Wikipedia puts it, “This article or section needs sources or references that appear in reliable, third-party publications.

    I personally loath the corruption of democracy, and the cronyism, that quangos represent. I have been looking for some time now for a source of information on the numbers, compositions, roles, and costs, of quangos north and south. It seems, from your very precise numbers, that you have some of the informtion, but where did you get it from?

  • wild turkey

    ‘The more I do, the more other people are required to respond to it. Then I respond to their responses, copying a dozen other people each time, of course, and on it goes. ‘


    Horseman, words like nail on the head come to mind. There are a number of reasons I left the, uh, public service.

    * drafting responses for those higher up the food chain while at the same time having to approve, and often re-draft, responses for those who worked with me. Ofcourse, I had to write, subject to approval, responses to correspondance received by me.

    * having meetings about meetings and on some truly machievellian occassions meetings about meetings about meetings.

    * the final cruncher though was an email sent to me on an relatively minor/mundane issue which was Cc’d to over 20, yup 20, others including the organisations CEO.

    How to bring Occams razor to bear on all less than ‘useful’ activity? I know, lets have a major consultation and listening exercise.

    anyway, good luck and CYA.

  • Nice to see, not for once neglected on my shelf, Parkinson’s Law. Originally from The Economist in 1955, and seemingly still in print.

    All bloggers (like me) should take note of the opening paragraph. It is predicated to the principle that work expands to fill the time available for its completion. This is exemplified by

    the elderly lady of leisure who can spend the entire day in writing and dispatching a postcard to her niece in Bognor Regis. An hour will be spent in finding the post-card, another in hunting for spectacles, half an hour in 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.

    Hmm… just like any day of my retired lifestyle, in fact.

    It was only years after first encountering the air-base story that I appreciated the other version, one which is exploited by every successful manager. Trivial matters are referred upwards, while things of importance are tackled on the hoof. Thus the higher echelons are obsessed by details of political correctness or protocol, and are therefore precluded from making decisions by their incessant consultation and dissent. The underling who invents the weekly essential acronym or (better still) some convincing three-word terms (which go back to the New Testament, I am assured: St Luke pulling a fast one?) can tie them up for days. Self-regulating atrophy, anyone? Sir Humphrey Appleby had that one bang to rights. wild turkey @ 06:05 PM has obviously been there, too.

    In colleges, schools and other places of eddication, all the real decisions are made by the school secretary and the caretaker. Do not, under any circumstances, annoy either. I am assured that doctor’s surgeries and hospital clinics work on similar lines. Sir Alan Sugar’s long-time secretary (“Joyce” became the name of the operating system on Amstrads, as I recall) was reputedly the most frightening and decisive person in his organisation.

  • What went missing in my previous post was a meditation on the subject of Manserghes, a practical example of power in action.

    Nicholas Mansergh (father) determined the orthodoxy on Anglo-Irish relations and post-imperial British history for several generations of students. His views and opinions are therefore still of weight, in both jurisdictions.

    Martin (son), as a backstairs civil servant, was the fulcrum of North-South policy for Dublin governments for a quarter of a century. He was also the glue in some unsticking coalitions. Then he went public, and became a TD. Now he wants out of office. Instructive that. It’ll be interesting to see if he is retained on Comhairle Stáit (which, after all, is the body of last resort).

  • The Raven

    “We need to cut the number of workers in the public sector and to do it now and to do it ruthlessly.”

    Not yet. What you really need to ruthlessly do is have a look at the diaspora of nonsense that created them in the first place.

    A few bits from the piece on Digby Jones on the Beeb’s website:

    “Lord Jones said he applauded the practice of bringing outside specialists into government by making them peers and called it “an excellent idea”.”

    Really, Digby? Here, we also bring in outsiders to help government, though not at peer level. We call them consultants, and every year there’s a NIAO report into how much is spent on them, and every year there are cries of “how much????!!!??”.

    “He described the civil service as “honest, stuffed full of decent people who work hard”. But he added: “Frankly the job could be done with half as many, it could be more productive, more efficient…..”I was amazed, quite frankly, at how many people deserved the sack and yet that was the one threat that they never ever worked under, because it doesn’t exist.” ”

    Really? So it’s stuffed full of hard working people, but we have to sack half of them? Could someone explain then how they are hard working and sackable at the same time? And no civil servant has ever had the sack? Are you sure about that, my fat friend?

    Frankly the above, and indeed, most responses to this sort of thread on Slugger and elsewhere are laughable.

    We need to open up the civil service and local government so that more “outsiders” are in a position to apply and get into positions where they can make a difference. This needs to start, for example, by doing away with “must have degree in ultra-specific subject which only some internal joe who’s degree we paid for, can apply”. The Service needs to actively search for, and recruit, by means other than open advertisement and selection, people who are not “from within”.

    We need to let the youngsters through. Government is stuffed with young people who would genuinely like to make a difference with their jobs – but can’t as some 50 year old is sitting above them ensuring that their arse acts as a nice ceiling to stop any boat from rocking from some young turk.

    We need to seriously pare back the Public Accounts Committee, Local Government Auditors, and such like. How is any risk-taking or new initiative meant to happen with the threat of John Dallat getting the opportunity to grandstand at your expense?

    MLAs need to stop fucking about with stupid Assembly questions. “Could the Minister inform the House about how much was spent by the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure on public art in the Castlederg area in 2002-2008, and could the Minister….” blah blah blah. Meantime, about 20 people have to stop work to get an answer that the twat asking the question already knows.

    Who brought in consultations and listening exercises? Not the civil service. In fact, given half a chance, they would get rid of most of them. But would you like to see them all gone? Think about that.

    We need to give people the autonomy to make decisions within the public sector. Is it that so hard to do?

    Seriously though. Someone mentioned Council Leisure Services employing lots of people. Who put the legislation in place dictating how many attendants have to be working at any given time in, for example, the pool? Who decided that Leisure Centres should be open from 9am til 10pm, needing two shifts of people?

    One of course realises that without something like Leisure Services, run by (in Northern Ireland anyway), very underfunded and understaffed (with a couple of notable exceptions) Councils, that community centres, art classes, courses for the elderly, physical exercise classes, pool/park/sports provision, local festivals and entertainment, etc etc etc, just wouldn’t happen. Is that acceptable? I only ask the question, and leave the answers to you.

    My point is really this. Many people on here are very, very quick to have a pop at the public service. Many of them are very quick to call for mass sackings. I just wonder where the blame for public sector expense really lies, and if people – when the chop comes – are prepared to do without the services that their tax pays for…?

    Now the glib bit. Meetings about meetings, ye say? I took a leaf out of Mr Easyjet’s book, for the brief period I was actually working in government – I took the meeting table and chairs out of the office. Surprising how many meetings took less than ten minutes.

  • wild turkey

    ‘I took the meeting table and chairs out of the office. ‘

    Nice on Raven. I considered removing chairs etc from the corporate boardroom (where most meetings were held). on second thought I realised, in an organisation where some were threatened with disciplinary action for addressing the head of the table by their first names, this would probably be a career limiting move.

    on a serious note, I don’t think many here are badmouthing the public sector per se. Far from it. What is wasteful, and contrary to an ethos of genuine public service, is the time energy and resources (creative, intellectual, financial, material, etc.etc.) often directed towards massaging the egos at the top of the food chain.

  • aquifer

    With the internet we could know everything that goes on in the public sector, and should. A lot of craft and energy now goes into spinning information or hiding the truth.

  • Harry Flashman

    “It is said that the British Empire, at its height, was ‘ruled’ by a Foreign Office (or equivalent) of fewer than 200 people.”

    I think famously it was also said that the only public official a British citizen would expect to encounter daily was the postman. That was a time when the British administered a quarter of the world’s land surface, currently I believe the Royal Navy has more admirals than it has ships.

    Maggie Thatcher is always condemned for “slashing” public spending, she did nothing of the kind, she oversaw a massive increase in government employment, it’s just that the government workers stopped making useful things like cars (well some of them anyway) and started filling out forms.

    In fairness it would be wrong to say that such overmanning is restricted to the public sector, many of the big private sector businesses have equally large numbers of pen pushers who don’t seem to actually do anything (think of “The Office”), the one thing about them of course is a) they aren’t paid for out of my income and b) they can actually be sacked.

  • The Raven

    See what I mean?

    Aquifer, I would deign to say that a good 60% of it comes from their masters.

  • Digby Jones didn’t say “peers” he said “steers” because they produce bullsh!t. Right?

  • Dave

    Horseman, the source is Paula Clancy, director of Tasc. They also have information on NI quangos, but I haven’t looked at those.