Our governments add costly corollaries to Parkinson’s Law
Written by Michael Lewis on August 1, 2013
C. Northcote Parkinson would feel quite at home in Miami.
That’s unfortunate. In the long run it’s very costly.
Cyril Northcote Parkinson was a British naval historian who wrote 60 books before he passed away 20 years ago. Most of those books are scholarly. But it was the 60th that is by far best known and, sadly, is all too relevant to Miami.
Parkinson’s Law: The Pursuit of Progress, which satirizes bureaucracies and posits the inevitability of their expansion, was the first thing that came to mind last week when we reported that Miami’s Downtown Development Authority had just received, by virtue of rising value of properties, a windfall of about $794 million added tax base.
The authority had at that point several choices.
Because taxable value in the area had risen 6.8%, the authority could have cut next year’s tax rate substantially and still received this year’s revenue total. Each taxpayer would have paid a bit less in total than this year, with the gap being filled by taxes on new development.
A second choice was to trim tax rates only enough to keep what each property owner is paying this year about the same next year. That would have given the authority some added funds courtesy of new construction.
The third choice was the one the authority made: take all the added money, about $550,000, from both new construction and added tax value of existing buildings and then find some new ways to spend it.
Parkinson’s Law, as stated for bureaucracies, was this: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
A Miami corollary of that law can now be stated: “Work expands so as to use all the money available for its funding.”
In the Downtown Development Authority’s case, that means hiring more people to do new jobs.
One is to be a lobbyist in Tallahassee. While authority director Alyce Robertson was praised for lobbying skill, the board last week decided that her skill does not reach to the state level because, as board member Neisen Kasdin said, “Local advocacy is a different story.”
Another new job is to work with colleges and universities in the authority’s sphere of influence. This seems to be another specialized skill whose need was recognized only when money became available to fund a new job.
With the money flowing more freely, authority Chairman Marc Sarnoff — who happens to a city commissioner as well and so is used to spending whatever is available — told board members “Now is not the time to pull back. Now is the time to enhance.”
Which supports another Miami-based corollary of Parkinson’s Law: “Work expands so as to support the ambitions of those in charge.”
If bureaucratic expansion were inevitable only at the Downtown Development Authority we’d have a mini-scandal on our hands. But we have no scandal here, only because in Miami everyone does it. Downtown is just a tiny example.
The largest spending is at Miami-Dade’s county hall, where in the days before the recent recession all sorts of new services were added regularly.
All were nice to have — just as a Tallahassee lobbyist and a university coordinator are nice to have downtown — but none had been in any way vital until money became available for their creation.
So whether it was work expanding to fill available time, work expanding to use available money or work expanding to fulfill available ambition, the work of government expanded.
Once that work becomes institutionalized, however, it’s very hard to eliminate when money flows tighten up.
And so in the struggle with budget priorities, even with rising flows of money the county can’t do everything that users of specific services have come to expect, whether those users are in the public or inside the halls of government itself.
Thus we see a move to eliminate some fire and library services even as county revenues rise — revenues that are more than ample to fund those endangered services if they are given top priority.
But somewhere in county hall lurk multiple equivalents of an added Tallahassee lobbyist and university coordinator, and on a far larger scale than $550,000. Once those positions become established, it’s doubly hard to go back to just what we used to do without so many added bells and whistles and lobbyists and coordinators. So fire and libraries take a hit.
Somewhere lurking there too is the county’s equivalent of Marc Sarnoff saying “Now is not the time to pull back. Now is the time to enhance.” If you’ve listened to county commission meetings, in fact, you’ve heard almost identical words from the dais.
And so, one more Parkinson’s Law corollary: “Once work expands to fill the time available to do it, or the money available to fund it, or the ambitions of those who suggested it, it’s almost impossible to get the genie back into the bottle and cut back on ambitions to match realities.”
And so we don’t.