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Reversing Parkinson’s Law

Summary:
C. Northcote Parkinson was 49, and a history professor at the University of Malaya, when the Economist published his “law” that work expands to fill the time available. The Sydney opera house was supposed to take four years to build, it took 14. But the version the government needs to consider is his Law IV: "The number of people in a working group grows regardless of the amount of work to be done." There were about 384K UK civil servants in 2016 and there are 508K today. The work, now we are through Brexit, has not substantially changed.  Indeed, removing the time spent dealing with Brussels and our EU partners should have substantially reduced it. Law IV was based on Parkinson’s experience in the armed forces in WW2. When work is novel and hard to specify, resources seem unlimited and

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C. Northcote Parkinson was 49, and a history professor at the University of Malaya, when the Economist published his “law” that work expands to fill the time available. The Sydney opera house was supposed to take four years to build, it took 14. But the version the government needs to consider is his Law IV: "The number of people in a working group grows regardless of the amount of work to be done." There were about 384K UK civil servants in 2016 and there are 508K today. The work, now we are through Brexit, has not substantially changed.  Indeed, removing the time spent dealing with Brussels and our EU partners should have substantially reduced it. 

Law IV was based on Parkinson’s experience in the armed forces in WW2. When work is novel and hard to specify, resources seem unlimited and the more people you have under your command, the more you get paid, Law IV will seem unstoppable. 

Here is the cure: the CEO has to summon the head of the department needing the treatment and inform him that the Chairman was told by someone he was playing bridge with at the club that his equivalent department only needed many fewer staff.  The number should be the largest credible, maybe 50%, maybe 90%. “Can’t give you names, old boy.  This was at his club. What we need to do now is to see what your team is doing now and would not be able to do in future if we chopped the numbers likewise.  We need to list all the things. And we need the effects on completion dates.” 

The full picture is needed because otherwise the junior will suggest eliminating, or delaying, the CEO’s favourite items. 

What happens next depends on the relationship between the two parties. When it is a new CEO who arrived as part of a hostile take-over, the junior will be in fear of his or her own job and miracles will be achieved. Conversely, if it is all too cosy and the CEO is just going through the motions, nothing will happen.  

The difficulty in the civil service is that, even if the ministers decide radically to prune their departmental headcount, the permanent secretary probably will not agree and there may be nothing the ministers can do. Permanent secretaries may answer to their ministers but they are not directly managed by them. Permanent secretaries are line managed by the Head of the Civil Service, usually the Cabinet Secretary. What that means in practice is that the Prime Minister and Head of the Civil Service need to agree that the current 508K headcount must be cut to 400K and that all permanent secretaries must agree their contributions with their ministers.  Not doing so would be a sackable offence, possibly impacting pension rights.  That should get their attention. 

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Tim Ambler
Tim Ambler (born 1937) is a British organizational theorist, author and academic on the field of Marketing effectiveness. Ambler featured on Marketing's list of the 100 most powerful figures in the industry. He is cited by the Chartered Institute of Marketing as one of the top 50 marketing experts in the world

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