Friday, August 29, 2008

Why less is more in government
[This is the pre-edited version of my latest Muse for Nature’s online news.]

In committees and organizations, work expands to fill the time available while growth brings inefficiency. It’s worth trying to figure out why.

Arguments about the admission of new member states to the European Union have become highly charged since Russia sent tanks into Georgia, which harbours EU aspirations. But there may be another reason to view these wannabe nations cautiously, according to two recent preprints [1,2]. It claims that decision-making bodies may not be able to exceed about 20 members without detriment to their efficiency.

Already the EU, as well as its executive branch the European Commission, has 27 members, well in excess of the putative inefficiency threshold. And negotiations in Brussels have become notorious for their bureaucratic wrangling and inertia. The Treaty of Lisbon, which proposes various reforms in an attempt to streamline the EU’s workings, implicitly recognizes the overcrowding problem by proposing a reduction in the number of Commissioners to 18. But as if to prove the point, Ireland rejected it in June.

It’s not hard to pinpoint the problem with large committees. The bigger the group, the more factious it is liable to be, and it gets ever harder to reach a consensus. This has doubtless been recognized since time immemorial, but it was first stated explicitly in the 1950s by the British historian C. Northcote Parkinson. He pointed out how the executive governing bodies in Britain since the Middle Ages, called cabinets since the early seventeenth century, tended always to expand in inverse proportion to their ability to get anything done.

Parkinson showed that British councils and cabinets since 1257 seemed to go through a natural ‘life cycle’: they grew until they exceeded a membership of about 20, at which point they were replaced by a new body that eventually suffered the same fate. Parkinson proposed that this threshold be called the ‘coefficient of inefficiency’.

Stefan Thurner and colleagues at the Medical University of Vienna have attempted to put Parkinson’s anecdotal observations on a solid theoretical footing [1,2]. Cabinets are now a feature of governments worldwide, and Thurner and colleagues find that most of those from 197 countries have between 13 and 20 members. What’s more, the bigger the cabinet, the less well it seems to govern the country, as measured for example by an index called the Human Development Indicator, used by the United Nations Development Programme and which takes into account such factors as life expectancy, literacy and gross domestic product.

Thurner and colleagues have tried to understand where this critical mass of 20 comes from by using a mathematical model of decision-making in small groups [1]. They assume that each member may influence the decisions of a certain number of others, so that they form a complex social network. Each adopts the majority opinion of those to whom they are connected provided that this majority exceeds a certain threshold.

For a range of model parameters, a consensus is always possible for less than 10 members – with the exception of 8. Above this number, consensus becomes progressively harder to achieve. And the number of ways a ‘dissensus’ may arise expands significantly beyond about 19-21, in line with Parkinson’s observations.

Why are eight-member cabinets anomalous? This looks like a mere numerical quirk of the model chosen, but it’s curious that no eightfold cabinets appeared in the authors’ global survey. Historically, only one such cabinet seems to have been identified: the Committee of State of the British king Charles I, whose Parliament rebelled and eventually executed him.

Now the Austrian researchers have extended their analysis of Parkinson’s ideas to the one for which he is best known: Parkinson’s Law, which states that work expands to fill the time available [2]. This provided the title of the 1957 book in which Parkinson’s essays on governance and efficiency were collected.

Parkinson regarded his Law as a corollary of the inevitable expansion of bureaucracies. Drawing on his experience as a British civil servant, he pointed out that officials aim to expand their own mini-empires by gathering a cohort of subordinates. But these simply make work for each other, dwelling over minutiae that a person lacking such underlings would have sensibly prioritized and abbreviated. Dare I point out that Nature’s editorial staff numbered about 13 when I joined 20 years ago, and now numbers something like 33 – yet the editors are no less overworked now than we were then, even though the journal is basically the same size.

Parkinson’s explanation for this effect focused on the issue of promotion, which is in effect what happens to someone who acquires subordinates. His solution to the curse of Parkinson’s Law and the formation of over-sized, inefficient organizations is to engineer a suitable retirement strategy such that promotion remains feasible for all.

With promotion, he suggested, individuals progress from responsibility to distinction, dignity and wisdom (although finally succumbing to obstruction). Without it, the progression is instead from frustration to jealousy to resignation and oblivion, with a steady decrease in efficiency. This has become known as the ‘Prince Charles Syndrome’, after the British septuagenarian monarch-in-waiting who seems increasingly desperate to find a meaningful role in public life.

Thurner and colleagues have couched these ideas in mathematical terms by modelling organizations as a throughflow of staff, and they find that as long as promotion prospects can be sufficiently maintained, exponential growth can be avoided. This means adjusting the retirement age accordingly. With the right choice (which Parkinson called the ‘pension point’), the efficiency of all members can be maximized.

Of course, precise numbers in this sort of modelling should be taken with a pinch of salt. And even when they seem to generate the right qualitative trends, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they do so for the right reasons. Yet correlations like those spotted by Parkinson, and now fleshed out by Thurner and colleagues, do seem to be telling us that there are natural laws of social organization that we ignore at our peril. The secretary-general of NATO has just made positive noises about Georgia’s wish for membership. This may or may not be politically expedient; but with NATO membership currently at a bloated 26, he had better at least recognize what the consequences might be for the organization’s ability to function.


1. Klimek, P. et al. Preprint
2. Klimek, P. et al. Preprint


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