Sixty-one years ago this month, The Economist published the seminal piece that popularized “Parkinson’s Law,” the notion that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” The article explained:
Granted that work (and especially paper work) is thus elastic in its demands on time, it is manifest that there need be little or no relationship between the work to be done and the size of the staff to which it may be assigned.
He illustrated his case with the British Admiralty:
What we have to note is that the 2,000 Admiralty officials of 1914 had become the 3,569 of 1928; and that this growth was unrelated to any possible increase in their work. The Navy during that period had diminished, in point of fact, by a third in men and two-thirds in ships.
Perhaps no institution in the U.S. government has been a better illustration of Parkison’s Law than the National Security Council (although Pentagon civilians are a close second). My American Enterprise Institute colleague Luke Strange recently examined the case for The Ripon Forum:
…It’s useful to remind ourselves how the NSC has evolved since its establishment after the Second World War, from a small group charged with coordinating the president’s paper flow in national security matters to a large and influential organization in its own right. Presidents have each used the NSC differently, according to their personal style and preferences, but the trend has been toward an “operational” NSC, centralizing national security policymaking in the White House and away from a “coordinating” NSC. The growth of the national security state itself and its attendant bureaucracy has also contributed to a larger NSC. The creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and other entities all create demand for more staff attention at the top of the food chain and more perceived need by a president to make sure the whole of the executive branch is on-board with his agenda.
Perhaps Strange is a bit understated. The NSC formed to help coordinate policymaking departments like Defense, Treasury, and State; it was never supposed to be a policymaking body itself. Over time, it has become the main platform for ambitious young civil servants, aides, and appointees to launch themselves into plum positions. During the Bush administration, military servicemen criticized young NSC officials for essentially wielding an 8,000-mile screw driver to interfere in the minutiae of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns. Under Obama, that became a near-daily occurrence, with 30-somethings who never served in the military with little concept of how the military works calling 4-star generals to issue them instructions.
Strange highlights an idea circulating in Congress:
…The House and Senate Armed Services Committees have proposed language in their National Defense Authorization Acts that would cap the NSC permanent staff at 150 people. If the cap is breached, the National Security Advisor would become subject to Senate confirmation – an assertion on the part of Congress that if the NSC is going to have the size and influence of an agency, it should be subject to congressional oversight as an agency, not as a White House staff office with the protection of executive privilege over documents and deliberations.
Perhaps it’s time to take that idea further, however, and cap federal agencies and offices with the same caveat: you want it bigger, then it should be subject to confirmation.
As Parkinson subsequently demonstrated in his monograph, his law illustrates the behavior of bureaucracies for centuries. The Lords of the King’s Council, for example, began with less than ten in the thirteenth century but grew steadily to 172 before it ceased to function completely in the sixteenth century. Such bureaucratic behavior need not be pre-determined. If the NSC is a policymaking body, then the Pentagon and State Department should lay off dozens if not hundreds of staff members who, in such circumstances, are just shuffling papers and killing time. If policy is to be enshrined in the departments formed to handle it, however, then it is time to reduce the NSC sharply, save money, and restore coherence not only to policy making but, more importantly, its execution.