“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.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty