Public sector waste

  • Re-reading C Northcote Parkinson’s pearls in ‘The Law and the Profits’, written 60 years ago, one might despair about how nothing much seems to have changed since then
  • We all know his first law: ‘Work expands to fill the time available’ – administrators thus multiply
  • Less well known is his second law: ‘Government expenditure rises to meet and exceed public revenue’
  • The public accept taxes need to be paid for such as common defence, maintenance of justice and order, prevention of disease and support of learning
  • But how much tax money?
  • First, and well before Arthur Laffer came up with his famous curve in 1974 showing that, beyond a certain percentage, increasing taxes can reduce total tax revenue, Parkinson was highlighting that very effect – but he then moved on to consider what HMG and Civil Servants do with all that money
  • In particular, he asked: “Why pay so many people to do so little?
  • His answer reached out to zoology – ‘In the presence of wolves sheep are said to form a tight bunch with horns outward and the weakest in the centre’ – civil servants do the same – ‘Faced by a common danger (like productivity improvement) they take up that formation, yield nothing, deny everything, conceal all’
  • And any whistleblower thinking of denouncing their department’s extravagance and/ or poor service keeps quiet knowing he or she would be regarded as ‘at best a crank, at worst a spy, and clearly unpromotable – anyway, he or she should know any money saved in one direction would certainly be wasted in another’
  • Just ask how many civil servants there are now versus 10 or 20 years ago, and what they cost, if in any doubt
  • It seems: ‘Tax revenue is regarded as limitless and expenditure rises eternally to meet it’
  • Over time, ministers forever claim their departments are working as efficiently as possible – and, before each budget, they argue their corner for more and more money that their department needs
  • Instead, Parkinson says their collective start point should be asking ‘what can the country afford to spend?’
  • He recognises that, in wars, nobody asks this question – it cannot afford defeat
  • But not so in peacetime – for example:
    • How much is needed for research? – ‘The whole thing is wrapped in mystery’ – unknown unknowns etc.
    • How much for education? – how much to provide teachers, buildings, test-tubes and chalk, even when ‘as a formative influence, schools play a smaller part than teachers are prone to imagine’ ‘education expands to fill the time available’
    • And the NHS – doctors and nurses spend too much time in administration when they should be with patients – ‘they provide useless statistics for the tottering structure of committees and administrators’ (and inspection bodies) – ‘a deluge of paper overwhelms the medical staff, for whom all decisions are taken at some higher level, infinitely removed from reality’
    • Many other departments attract similar comment, such as: ‘An organisation which combines the maximum of effort with the minimum of result’
  • Overall, Parkinson claims most public sector ministries are burdened with a top-heavy structure of administration, inspection and publicity, and involve a constant waste of money and effort
  • ‘No other system could provide so much work for so many’



  • We’ve had 60 years to dwell on Parkinson’s views and react to his laws
  • But what lessons have been learned?
  • One need only ask what changes have been made which empower tax-payers to assess the value they get for their money?

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.