"Double, Double (Administrative) Toil and Trouble*"

Posted by jlubans on July 04, 2012

Update August 12, 2012:
Detroit water department to cut 81% of workers under new proposal is the headline from the August 9, 2013 Detroit Free Press,"With fresh evidence of a bloated bureaucracy in Detroit's Water and Sewerage Department, Mayor Dave Bing and the Detroit Water Board embraced a consultant's plan Wednesday that calls for eliminating four of every five employees over five years.
The department, which has prompted suburban outrage by doubling rates in the past decade for its 4.3 million customers, plans to outsource billing, maintenance and other functions and hopes to save $900 million." The union is adamantly opposed: "It's not possible. They don't have enough people as it is right now," said John Riehl, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 207, which represents hundreds of water workers. "They are just dreaming...."

I often assign, as student reading, C. Northcote Parkinson’s classic essay on bureaucratic growth and behavior. Why, you might wonder, do I want students to read Parkinson?
20120704-Cyril Northcote Parkinson .jpg
Caption 1: Mr. Parkinson (1909 - 1993)
Isn’t his claim that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion” just a bit of Dilbertean fun and frolic, with little relevance to our modern efficient workplace? Well, it wasn’t for Parkinson. His topic and observations were based on fact.
Caption 2. “For every new foreman or electrical engineer at Portsmouth there had to be two more clerks at Charing Cross.”**
While he used a Wodehousean gentle humor to introduce contrarian ideas, he was definitely onto something. He chose not to get po-faced about it, but beneath the humor there’s no escaping humankind's wasteful peculiarities, especially in the uniquely human realm of paperwork! (Before we get too far along, there is something I call real work; Parkinson’s focus was on administrative work. There is a difference.)
Many of my library management students are often incredulous – finding it hard to believe Parkinson applies to libraries, or government, which is where Parkinson found bountiful evidence of its occurrence. In my administrative career - referred to in Leading from the Middle - the larger the organization, the more likely I would find abundant duplication and redundancy of effort – often encouraged by the administration. Of course, we could justify with certainty the importance of what we did - just like Parkinson’s busy bureaucrats (A, B, C, D, E, F, G, & H) assiduously reworked memoranda drafts. Some of my peer administrators could get lyrical in justifying redundant checks and controls. Finding ourselves in endless meetings and discussion, we’d still exalt discussion over action! The extra time (weeks and months, not hours) and staffing consumed by discussion and administrative controls were off set, (were they not?) by gains in quality. If so, we had scarce evidence to prove it.

An anecdote is told about Parkinson’s wartime experience*** that led him to wonder about administrative layers:
“In a joint army and air force headquarters somewhere in 1944 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. An administrative disaster strikes. The chief of the base goes on leave. His deputy falls sick. The deputy's deputy is called away on urgent business. 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. Parkinson later mused: “There had never been anything to do. We'd just been making work for each other."
In a way this story reminds me of a Latvian student’s reflections about leadership:
“(Where I work we were) led by a … supervisor … (until) she got sick for 6 months. During her absence our department changed a lot: everyone found her/his own place in work mechanism and we worked as team. Before that we only did what our supervisor ordered us to do. We learned how to work without anyone ordering us what to do, we had our own experience in ups and downs; it gave us courage to have our own opinion about things. We all tried to lead and to follow without anyone telling anyone else what to do. For me it was great experience, a school of life :)”
Another reason I re-read Parkinson’s essay was to draft a discussion guide for small student groups when I teach again at the University of Latvia. Here’s my first effort on the Parkinson reading (I'd like to do something like this for each of the readings):
Draft Reading Discussion Worksheet
Parkinson, C. Northcote, Parkinson’s Law. (1955)
(n.b. Parkinson writes with humor; however his topic and interpretation is based on fact.)
1. What is your most important “take away” from this reading?
2. What in your personal work and life experience relates to Parkinson’s ideas about work?
3. Was bureaucracy different during “Soviet Times” from today’s democratic structures?
4. Parkinson concludes: “It is not the business of the botanist to eradicate the weeds. Enough for him if he can tell us just how fast they grow.” If you are or want to be a leader what does that statement mean to you?

*Macbeth's witches offer cautionary advice for any aspirant to administrative grandeur.
**Translation: Every new worker, doing real work, resulted in the employment of two office workers. Portsmouth Harbour is the UKs naval base; Charing Cross, in London, is the location of the old Admiralty Building & Offices. Charing Cross is in Whitehall, the location for much of UKs bureaucracy. Sometime in the late 60s or early 70s, I visited Whitehall, the Department for Education. I was a brash young American interested in finding out what the Brits were doing policy-wise to teach students about information use. The grey sub-department head - his office was on a polished endless hallway - who saw me mumbled a few words in response to each of my questions. This office holder was not taking any chances with the inquisitive American! Or, perhaps he was desperate to get back to his paperwork! Unlike most Brits - who go out of their way with hospitality - he did not offer me any refreshment. Nor did he express interest in educational trends in the USA.
Caption: Whitehall sometime in 2010.
***The anecdote is slightly modified from Mark Buchanan’s telling of it in his “Parkinson's law revisited”. New Scientist; 1/10/2009, Vol. 201 Issue 2690, p38-39.

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