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Parkinson's law is the adage that "work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion".
Articulated by Cyril Northcote Parkinson as part of the first sentence of a humorous essay published in The Economist in 1955, it was reprinted with other essays in the book Parkinson's Law: The Pursuit of Progress (London, John Murray, 1958). He derived the dictum from his extensive experience in the British Civil Service.
A current form of the law is not the one Parkinson refers to by that name in the article, but a mathematical equation describing the rate at which bureaucracies expand over time. Much of the essay is dedicated to a summary of purportedly scientific observations supporting the law, such as the increase in the number of employees at the Colonial Office while Great Britain's overseas empire declined (he shows that it had its greatest number of staff when it was folded into the Foreign Office because of a lack of colonies to administer). He explains this growth by two forces: (1) "An official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals" and (2) "Officials make work for each other." He notes that the number employed in a bureaucracy rose by 5–7% per year "irrespective of any variation in the amount of work (if any) to be done".
The first-referenced meaning of the law has dominated, and sprouted several corollaries, the best known being the Stock-Sanford Corollary to Parkinson's Law:
If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute to do.
Other corollaries include (relating to computers):
Data expands to fill the space available for storage.
Storage requirements will increase to meet storage capacity.
The law could be generalized further as:
The demand upon a resource tends to expand to match the supply of the resource.
An extension is often added:
The reverse is not true.
This generalization has become very similar to the economic law of demand; the lower the price of a service or commodity, the greater the quantity demanded.
Some define the law in regard to time as:
The amount of time that one has to perform a task is the amount of time it will take to complete the task.
Parkinson also proposed a rule about the efficiency of administrative councils. He defined a "coefficient of inefficiency" with the number of members as the main determining variable. This is a semi-humorous attempt to define the size of a committee or other decision-making body at which it becomes completely inefficient.
In Parkinson's Law: The Pursuit of Progress, London: John Murray, 1958 one of the chapters is devoted to the basic question of comitology: how committees, government cabinets, and other such bodies are created and eventually grow irrelevant (or are initially designed as such).
Empirical evidence is drawn from historical and contemporary government cabinets. Most often, the minimal size of a state's most powerful and prestigious body is five members. From English history, Parkinson notes a number of bodies that lost power as they grew:
At the time of Parkinson's study (the 1950s), the Cabinet was still the official governing body. Parkinson observed that, from 1939 on, there was an effort to save the Cabinet as an institution. The membership had been fluctuating from a high of 23 members in 1939, down to 18 in 1954.
A detailed mathematical expression is proposed by Parkinson for the coefficient of inefficiency, featuring many possible influences. In 2008, an attempt was made to empirically verify the proposed model. Parkinson's conjecture that membership exceeding a number "between 19.9 and 22.4" makes a committee manifestly inefficient seems well justified by the evidence proposed. Less certain is the optimal number of members, which must lie between three (a logical minimum) and 20. That it may be eight seems arguable but is not supported by observation: no contemporary government in Parkinson's data set had eight members, and only the unfortunate king Charles I of England had a Committee of State of that size.
He also wrote the book Mrs. Parkinson's Law: and Other Studies in Domestic Science.
A "generalization" of Parkinson's law is mentioned in an episode of British comedy series Yes Minister, "The Skeleton in the Cupboard", originally aired on November 25, 1982. An undersecretary of the Department, played by Ian Lavender, explains to the Minister that a certain county "has the smallest establishment of social workers in the U.K." Answering the Minister's question "Is that supposed to be a good thing?", he replies, "Oh yes, sign of efficiency. Parkinson's law of social work you see; it's well known that social problems increase to occupy the total number of social workers to deal with them".