What does anyone expect a bureaucracy to do?

Officials at UK Trade and Investment, the Whitehall body that flies the flag for British business abroad with a little help from the Duke of York, have been instructed to burn through a spare £1m.

Sir Andrew Cahn, the quango\’s chief executive, sent an email to staff saying that the Foreign Office had failed to spend all of its budget this financial year and was keen to go on a splurge.

In the email, leaked to the Daily Mail, Cahn said: \”The FCO is heading for an underspend and wants to get money out of the door. If we spend money in this financial year on a one-off basis then we can have at least £1m.\”

Never, never, underspend a budget because if you do next year\’s will be cut and that means a diminution in the importance of those running the organisation.

It happens in all organisations of course: big corporates are no better. But at least there there is a countervailing force, the aim of the organisation being to turn a profit and thus control such urges. No such force exists in pure, government, bureaucracies. So this happens every damn year.

This is all well laid out here and if you haven\’t read it yet, you probably should.

8 thoughts on “What does anyone expect a bureaucracy to do?”

  1. Lost count of the number of times I’ve recommended this book. Should be compulsory reading at school.

  2. Pingback: Fighting Parkinson’s Law « Left Outside

  3. This is why your friend the retired accountant is so wrong about the morality of paying tax. I’ll accept that morality – maybe – if he accepts a concomitant morality on the part of the taxers to treat our money with respect.

  4. “Never, never, underspend a budget because if you do next year’s will be cut.”

    Whatever happened to zero-based budgetting? Or is it just too time-consuming to go back to basics every year?

  5. I’ve got the original hardback of Parkinson’s Law with the illustrations by Osbert Lancaster. As for stuck-record’s suggestion: it should be compulsory reading for any aspiring politician (with an exam afterwards.) There are others in this category (The Road to Serfdom, for example, and The Wealth of Nations) but the joy of this book is not just how hilarious and apt it is but that it’s concise enough to polish off in a single reading.

  6. “No such force exists in pure, government, bureaucracies.”

    Isn’t that the job of government ministers?

  7. Guys, this is reality-dodging. Every bureaucratic unit is assigned a mission (“fight crime!” or “collect taxes!” or “reduce beach erosion”) that is essentially unlimited in scope. And, to accomplish these aims, they are given a “budget.”

    There can be no two ways about it–any such unit that has funds left over at the end of their fiscal
    year has, to that extent, either failed in their mission by not doing as much of their assigned job as they were given funds to accomplish or someone screwed up in estimating the size of the job to be done (a fault which can be attributed either to the head of the agency or to his superior.
    Guess where that blame will usually end up.)

    The entire purpose of bureaucracy is to impose rigid control on the exercise of authority vested in the executive by divvying it up in a rigid hierarchy.
    It’s the only means ever devised to limit despotic behavior in the carrying out of executive functions.

    And the ONLY means for the reduction of the role of bureaucrats and bureaucracy in people’s lives is to reduce the role of government in people’s lives.

    Nor is it true that business, as it grows and becomes ever larger and more complex, tends to become bureaucratic; it simply cannot, as long as it is driven by the profit motive. But it is certainly true that various functions within businesses may become at least somewhat bureaucratic at the points where they rub up against the State and its agencies. Instead of simply seeking the best mix of necessary skills from those they hire and employ, “Human Resource” departments spend a certain amount of their time and effort making sure that their practices are in full compliance with various regulatory directives regarding the hiring, paying, and advancement of certain privileged minority groups, in complying with various labor regulations, etc. In a very real sense, such employees simply become–at least partially–agents or employees of the State for which the State is spared the expense as the employer is saddled with having to pay to carry the burden.

    C. Norrthcote Parkinson is (or was) a highly paid and well-respected author. But if he didn’t explain what I just did, he wasn’t playing square with his audience (or maybe it was just intended in a humorous vein).

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