Parkinson's law

Parkinson's law

Parkinson's law is the adage first articulated by Cyril Northcote Parkinson as the first sentence of a humorous essay published in The Economist in 1955:[1][2]

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

It was later reprinted together 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.

The current form of the law is not that which Parkinson refers to by that name in the article. Rather, he assigns to the term 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 his law, such as the increase in the number of employees at the Colonial Office while Great Britain's overseas empire declined (indeed, he shows that the Colonial Office had its greatest number of staff at the point 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 in particular that the total of those employed inside a bureaucracy rose by 5-7% per year "irrespective of any variation in the amount of work (if any) to be done."

In 1986, Alessandro Natta complained about the swelling bureaucracy in Italy. Mikhail Gorbachev responded that "Parkinson's Law works everywhere."[3]



In time, however, the first-referenced meaning of the phrase has dominated, and sprouted several corollaries: for example, the derivative relating to computers:

Data expands to fill the space available for storage.


Storage requirements will increase to meet storage capacity.


Nature abhors a vacuum.

In terms of computer executable code filling CPU resource (see software bloat), a similar law is Wirth's law.

A second aphorism, attributed to Parkinson and sometimes called "Parkinson's second law", is "expenditures rise to meet income".

A modern version is that no amount of computer automation will reduce the size of a bureaucracy.[4]

The Stock-Sanford Corollary to Parkinson's Law reads, "If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute to do." If a task can expand to fill the time allotted, then conversely, the effort given can be limited by limiting the allotted time, down to a minimum amount of time actually required to complete the task. This phrase is often associated with procrastination.


"Parkinson's Law" could be generalized further still as:

The demand upon a resource tends to expand to match the supply of the resource.

An extension is often added to this, stating that:

The reverse is not true.

This generalization has become very similar to the economic law of demand; that the lower the price of a service or commodity, the greater the quantity demanded.

Some define Parkinson's Law in regard to time as:

The amount of time which one has to perform a task is the amount of time it will take to complete the task.

Related efficiency

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.

The Coefficient of Inefficiency is a semi-humorous attempt of Parkinson to define the size of a committee or other decision-making body at which it becomes completely inefficient.

In the book 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 government cabinets from history and contemporary evidence. 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:

  • The first cabinet was the Council of the Crown, now the House of Lords, which grew from an unknown initial number of members, to 29, to 50 before 1600, by which time it had lost much of its power.
  • A new body was appointed in 1257, the "Lords of the King's Council", numbering fewer than 10. The body grew, and eventually ceased to meet when it numbered 172 members.
  • The third incarnation of the English cabinet was the Privy Council, initially also numbering fewer than 10 members, rising to 47 in 1679.
  • In 1615, the Privy Council lost power to the Cabinet Council, initially with 8 members, rising to 20 by 1725.
  • Around 1740, the Cabinet Council was superseded by an inner group, called the Cabinet, initially with 5 members.

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. [5] 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.[neutrality is disputed] Less certain is the optimal number of members, which must lie between three (a logical minimum) and 20.[neutrality is disputed] That it may be eight seems both justified and ruled out by observation[neutrality is disputed]: 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 with that membership.

He also wrote the book Mrs. Parkinson's Law: and Other Studies in Domestic Science.

See also


Further reading

  • Parkinson's Law, or The Pursuit of Progress, C. Northcote Parkinson, 1957. [1][dead link]

External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Parkinson's Law — Par‧kin‧son s Law [ˌpɑːkɪnsnz ˈlɔː ǁ ˌpɑːrkɪnsnz ˈlɒː] noun HUMAN RESOURCES US noun [S] HUMOROUS ► the idea that work always increases to fill the time available for finishing it: »A variant of Parkinson s Law says that the quantity of emails… …   Financial and business terms

  • Parkinson's Law — 1955 (in the Economist of Nov. 19), named for its deviser, British historian and journalist Cyril Northcote Parkinson (1909 1993): work expands to fill the time available for its completion …   Etymology dictionary

  • Parkinson's Law — [pär′kin sənz] n. [propounded by C. Northcote Parkinson (1909 93), Brit economist] any of several satirical statements expressed as economic laws, as one to the effect that work expands to fill the time allotted to it …   English World dictionary

  • Parkinson's law — Parkinson s .law n [U] the idea that the amount of work you have to do increases to fill the amount of time you have to do it in used humorously …   Dictionary of contemporary English

  • Parkinson's law — n. the notion that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. Etymology: C. N. Parkinson, Engl. writer b. 1909 * * * ˈParkinson s law f10 noun uncountable (humorous) the idea that work …   Useful english dictionary

  • Parkinson’s law — the idea that ‘work expands to fill the time available to complete it’. People often mention Parkinson’s law when talking humorously about bureaucracy (= a system of official rules and ways of doing things which seem too complicated). The… …   Universalium

  • Parkinson's Law —    C. Northcote Parkinson (1909 1993), Raffles Professor of History at the University of Malaya, expounded his satirical law in 1955 in the Economist. His collection of essays on bureaucratic overload promulgated in book form in 1957 made this… …   Dictionary of eponyms

  • Parkinson's law — the statement, expressed facetiously as if a law of physics, that work expands to fill the time allotted for its completion. Also, Parkinson s Law. [1950 55; after C. N. PARKINSON] * * * …   Universalium

  • Parkinson's law — A principle formulated by the British political scientist C. Northcote Parkinson (Parkinson s Law, 1958) to the effect that ‘work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion’ …   Dictionary of sociology

  • Parkinson's law — the idea that the work you have to do will increase to fill all of the time you have to do it in. If you tell him you want the work done by tomorrow, he ll get it done this afternoon, if you tell him next Thursday, he ll spend a week on it. It s… …   New idioms dictionary

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