Parkinson’s Law and the Neoliberal Theory of Bureaucracy


The main prescription of New Public Management (hereafter NPM)—that public administration should be operated similarly to a business—is the brunt of much criticism, while at the same time gaining many faithful adherents. Liberals such as Inwood (2004: 321, 389, 408, 410-1, 414) view NPM as little more than facile economism, and pine for a return to Keynesian policies. Nevertheless, such curt dismissal ought to be the cause of some suspicion: it may well be, after all, that Liberalism proceeds from such radically different premises than NPM that the former must necessarily oversimplify the latter in order to say anything about it at all. This, as will be shown below, is indeed the case. Through an examination of the policy area of human resource management, it will be argued that NPM policy possesses a sophisticated theory of subjectivity (as manifested in its capacity to deal with matters of knowledge management) which may prove flexible enough to supersede controversial issues such as affirmative action.

The most common view of the role NPM in human resource management is to identify redundant staff members and work practices which can be cut without damaging performance capacity. Yet, a strong reply to this is that the structure of bureaucracy may be more intricate than appears at first sight, relying on uncodified (and perhaps uncodifiable) practices—known as tacit knowledge—in order to implement whatever policy is important at a given time. According to a quantitative study of knowledge management in the workplace (quoted in Smith, 2001: 312), “99% of the work people do is knowledge-based” and furthermore, “90% of the knowledge in any organization is embedded and synthesized in people’s heads” (ibid., 311). This presents significant problems when it comes to measuring workplace performance, since firing any particular worker risks altering the tacit workplace dynamic. As well, the key role of tacit knowledge in the workplace presents a trade-off between unhindered intra-organizational ‘flow’ of knowledge and the ‘democratic’ introduction of special interest groups into the decision-making process (Wiig, 2002: 228). Such problems, insofar as they are uncodifiable, present seemingly insurmountable problems, pointing toward persistent expansion of bureaucracy for fear of endangering the system, contrary to the prescriptions of NPM.

When viewed in terms of C. Northcote Parkinson’s theory of public administration, however, the prescriptions of NPM may be seen to be quite sensible. He takes as a premise his eponymous ‘Law’ that “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion” (Parkinson, 1957: 2). This is due to two “almost axiomatic” motive forces: “(1) ‘An official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals’ and (2) ‘Officials make work for each other’” (ibid., 4). As he makes clear in subsequent chapters, this law may be generalized such that instead of ‘time’ only, it applies to resources of any sort. This is often viewed as facetious, but can be interpreted in an entirely serious light: in fact, in addition to Parkinson’s own data (ibid., 7-12) taken from military records, Klimek, Hanel, & Turner’s quantitative study (2009: 3939) of the formulae derived by Parkinson from his eponymous Law concludes that they “hold empirically to remarkable levels of significance.” Parkinson’s conceptual innovation is to take the quality of work as a constant, while leaving as variables the amount of resources available for the work’s completion and the degree of the work’s ostensible complexity. This assumption is legitimate in the case of public administration, since much of the work (e.g. paperwork) can only be done so well; in the terminology of economics, the marginal productivity of effort spent on a project drops to (or, at least, toward) zero at a certain fixed point.

Following Laruelle (2000), it can be said that NPM views the matter of budgets as a “unilateral duality”—defined as any scenario where from the perspective of x, both x and y exist, but from the perspective of y, only y exists. To illustrate, Laruelle’s main inspiration here is Marx, whose base-superstructure model posits that in the last instance, all elements of society are determined by the relations of production (cf. Inwood, 29-30). So according to NPM’s Parkinsonian logic, all the incidental details comprising the completion of a project are effectively epiphenomenal, since they are determined-in-the-last-instance by the budget.

Moreover, Parkinson’s Law possesses an interesting sophistication in that it posits an asymmetrical distribution of possible amounts of resources to assign for a given project: while there is an obvious limit in terms of parsimony, there is no limit when it comes to abundance—thus accounting for stereotypical bureaucratic wastefulness. What the concept of unilateral duality contributes to our understanding of budgets is this: since allocating more resources to a project than are strictly needed causes the knowledge networks related to the project grow more and more complex, this redundancy can be deliberately managed in order to create intellectual capital for use in future projects related to the present one (cf. Wiig, 2002: 232; Taleb, 2012: 72-3). This idea may be expressed rather clearly in the distinction made by Clausewitz (1909: bk II, ch. 1)—which should obviously be taken figuratively—where “tactics is the theory of the use of military forces in combat” and “[s]trategy is the theory of the use of combats for the object of the war.” Rather than budgets progressively increasing, according to the Parkinsonian view budgets should be steadily decreasing as the ‘learning-by-doing’ allowed by each project increases administrators’ productivity. By use of Parkinsonian logic, then, NPM is capable of overcoming cynical views of bureaucracy as wasteful—instead, by means of ‘strategy’, NPM is able to reflexively redirect the inflationary tendencies of bureaucracy toward productive ends. IBM consultants, for instance, were able to encode their personal heuristics for proposal writing into a database, which subsequently “cut proposal-writing time from an average of 200 hours to 30 hours” (quoted in Smith, 2001: 312-3). So, in much the same way that Taleb (2012) recommends that institutions be set up in such a way that they gain from volatility, from Parkinson’s Law may be gathered a prescription of purposively making use of redundancy.

It is now possible to return with a critical eye to the arguments about knowledge management raised above. Although Parkinson’s Law precludes any arguments about ‘ruining’ the tacit knowledge dynamic of the workplace, there is still the problem of the trade-off between ‘democratic’ participation and uninterrupted flow of information. To address this problem, the subtopic of affirmative action will be discussed initially, and its conclusions applied to remaining subtopics. As Inwood (2004: 295) notes, the education requirements for administrators are becoming increasingly stringent, to the point where schools intended specifically for training management workers have been opened. As Schmidt (2000) argues, the main purpose of professional education of this type is twofold: to instill standardized knowledge and practices for practical use in the workplace, and to impart specific modes of thinking and dealing with problems. Qualification criteria are expressed in standardized tests, and grades are thus viewed as positively correlated with merit. Since affirmative action policies relax the grade requirements for minority applicants, there is resistance to affirmative action on the grounds of a trade-off between inclusion of minorities and overall benefit to society. Looking at the matter in terms of tacit knowledge, however, Schmidt argues that this dichotomy is a false one. The problem is simply that qualification criteria have limits: “a professional is more than someone with technical knowledge” (2000: 108). In many cases, Schmidt observes that there are many instances in which professionals draw upon tacit knowledge related to their socioeconomic background in order to relate to clients, make causal inferences to diagnose problems, and to make ethically informed choices; he uses the example (ibid., 108-9) of a doctor who realizes that a patient’s illness is psychosomatic, that is, brought about by his or her work conditions, and is motivated to take steps to try to bring about change—as opposed to ‘mechanistic’ and palliative treatment of an isolated body part. Schmidt’s conclusion is that despite Wilsonian objections as to the objectivity of public administrators, the decisions made by professionals of all types are inherently political.

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So the prescriptive conclusion that we should draw from the above points in conjunction is as follows. Considering that “[n]early two-thirds of work-related information that is gradually transformed into tacit knowledge comes from face-to-face contacts, like casual conversations, stories, mentoring, internships and apprenticeships” (Smith, 2001: 314-5), efforts should be made to facilitate interdepartmental communication in an attempt to transmit tacit knowledge among departments. One workable idea is provided by Smith (2001: 317), who describes the online ‘social tactical system’ developed by Xerox:

Technicians write up ‘war stories’ to teach each other how to diagnose and fix machines. Service reps access over 5,000 tips a month for a 5 percent saving on both parts and labor. Field service reps create and maintain the tacit knowledge base by contributing and renewing all the tips and information and maintaining the system. Each time reps contribute a tip, their name goes on the system.

Given that flexible boundaries for budgets, according to Parkinson’s Law, only serve to motivate unnecessary complexity, these are to be avoided. In short, in order to run the government more like a business, finances must be tightly controlled from the top down. Affirmative action is to be encouraged (though not necessarily to excess) among departments, though this need not extend to executive positions, whose qualifications typically depend on traditional standards of competence more than do other administrative positions (cf. Inwood, 2004: 281). Such policies as described above are quite similar to those which currently obtain under NPM (cf. Inwood, 2004: 70-1), or are at least within the horizon of its potentiality. Future examinations of the Parkinsonian model of NPM in less parsimonious, and perhaps more quantitative, terms may prove fruitful, though this is beyond the scope of the present essay.


  • Clausewitz, C.; Graham, J.J. (trans.). (1909). On War. London : N. Trübner.
  • Inwood, G. (2004). Understanding Canadian Public Administration, 2nd Ed. Toronto: Prentice Hall.
  • Klimek, P.; Hanel, R.; Thurner, S. (2009). To how many politicians should government be left? Physica A: Statistical Mechanics and its Applications 388(18), 3939-3947
  • Laruelle, F.; Smith, A.P. (trans.). (2015 [2000]). Introduction to Non-Marxism. Minneapolis, MN: Univocal Press.
  • Parkinson, C.N. (1957). Parkinson’s Law, and other studies in administration. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • Smith, E. (2001), The role of tacit and explicit knowledge in the workplace. Journal of Knowledge Management 5(4), 311-21.
  • Schmidt, J. (2000). Disciplined Minds. Lapham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
  • Taleb, N. (2012). Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder. New York: Random House.
  • Wiig, K. (2002). Knowledge management in public administration. Journal of Knowledge Management 6(3), 224-39.

About Graham Joncas

We are a way for capital to know itself.

Posted on February 15, 2013, in Business, Economics, Non-Philosophy, Politics and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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