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


Anonymous said...

歐美a免費線上看,熊貓貼圖區,ec成人,聊天室080,aaa片免費看短片,dodo豆豆聊天室,一對一電話視訊聊天,自拍圖片集,走光露點,123456免費電影,本土自拍,美女裸體寫真,影片轉檔程式,成人視訊聊天,貼圖俱樂部,辣妹自拍影片,自拍電影免費下載,電話辣妹視訊,情色自拍貼圖,卡通做愛影片下載,日本辣妹自拍全裸,美女裸體模特兒,showlive影音聊天網,日本美女寫真,色情網,台灣自拍貼圖,情色貼圖貼片,百分百成人圖片 ,情色網站,a片網站,ukiss聊天室,卡通成人網,3級女星寫真,080 苗栗人聊天室,成人情色小說,免費成人片觀賞,

傑克論壇,維納斯成人用品,免費漫畫,內衣廣告美女,免費成人影城,a漫,國中女孩寫真自拍照片,ut男同志聊天室,女優,網友自拍,aa片免費看影片,玩美女人短片試看片,草莓論壇,kiss911貼圖片區,免費電影,免費成人,歐美 性感 美女 桌布,視訊交友高雄網,工藤靜香寫真集,金瓶梅免費影片,成人圖片 ,女明星裸體寫真,台灣處女貼圖貼片區,成人小遊戲,布蘭妮貼圖片區,美女視訊聊天,免費情色卡通短片,免費av18禁影片,小高聊天室,小老鼠論壇,免費a長片線上看,真愛love777聊天室,聊天ukiss,情色自拍貼圖,寵物女孩自拍網,免費a片下載,日本情色寫真,美女內衣秀,色情網,

Anonymous said...


女優王國,免費無碼a片,0800a片區,免費線上遊戲,無名正妹牆,成人圖片,寫真美女,av1688影音娛樂網,dodo豆豆聊天室,網拍模特兒,成人文學,免費試看a片,a片免費看,成人情色小說,美腿絲襪,影片下載,美女a片,人體寫真模特兒,熊貓成人貼,kiss情色,美女遊戲區,104 貼圖區,線上看,aaa片免費看影片,天堂情色,躺伯虎聊天室,洪爺情色網,kiss情色網,貼影區,雄貓貼圖,080苗栗人聊天室,都都成人站,尋夢園聊天室,a片線上觀看,無碼影片,情慾自拍,免費成人片,影音城論壇,情色成人,最新免費線上遊戲,a383影音城,美腿,色情寫真,xxx383成人視訊,視訊交友90739,av女優影片,