The Point of Vanishing Interest

Whatever the accuracy of his theories, “Parkinson’s Law” is a great read, and a highly recommended stocking filler for the economist or policy wonk in your life.

I have said before that the operative word in ‘citizen journalist’ is not the latter, but the former. Fay Young’s short, personal report on the happenings of an Edinburgh City Council meeting seems to be a good example of ‘citizen journalism’ and the importance of new Internet technologies. The happenings at the meeting were probably not newsworthy enough for The Scotsman or even the Edinburgh Evening News, so a reporter might not be paid to file a report on it. Now, Fay is an established journalist, but it was in her role of ‘citizen’ that she was present and able to post her report (“Hot air stifles climate change debate”) on her blog. More information for the rest of us, which we hope leads to a more accountable, participatory democracy.

Fay was not impressed by the councillors’ collective time-management:

The meeting rattles through some fairly important stuff about poverty … Then the meeting spends 25 minutes debating whether to replace or restore the old Davenport desks and chairs. Finally one Labour councillor protests at this waste of time when there is still a motion on climate change to debate, not to mention the capital city’s alcohol problem. Still they drone on, and it is another five minutes before they vote [27 to 29] to replace the old heavy mahogany with something that can be easily shifted and stacked when it is not in use.

I wonder if Fay Young has read C. Northcote Parkinson’s eponymous Parkinson’s Law? This is a fantastic compendium of satirical essays, first published in the Economist, and collected in book form in 1958 (I have a fourth edition from that year, which carries some delightful illustrations by Osbert Lancaster). In his essay, “High Finance; or, The Point of Vanishing Interest”, Parkinson describes a committee that bears a remarkable similarity to that which Fay witnessed last week. Finance committees are, he says, made up of people who know nothing of millions, but well accustomed to thinking in thousands:

The result is a phenomenon that has often been observed but never yet investigated. It might be termed the Law of Triviality. Briefly stated, it means that the time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum involved.

So, Fay’s experience seems all too familiar! Parkinson also presents an amusing essay on the ‘Coefficient of Inefficiency’, definied as the size at which a committee ceases to be of any effective use whatsoever. This he puts at somewhere between 19 and 23 members. It is interesting to note that the number of councillors voting at Fay’s meeting was more than double that estimate…

Whatever the accuracy of his theories, Parkinson’s Law is a great read, and a highly recommended stocking filler for the economist or policy wonk in your life.

12 thoughts on “The Point of Vanishing Interest”

  1. Thanks Rob, Parkinson’s Law is now on my Santa list.

    I wrote my council ‘report’ on impulse, intending to rewrite it once I got hold of the climate change motion but I was so depressed by the Evening News report I decided to leave it and am delighted you picked up the discussion.

    Of course the Evening News had fun with the council’s chairs and desks – to the extent of comparing prices with Ikea. But no mention of the climate change proposals (clearly listed on the council’s agenda) for Edinburgh to reduce carbon emissions by significant amounts each year. I am still trying to get hold of those papers because I think they deserve public attention. If the council has any sense they will promote them on their home page (some hope!).

    Interesting to see how Edinburgh media tackles the Stern report but if Parkinson’s Law is right the numbers involved are too big to for the Law of Triviality.

  2. Interesting. I did not realise that the Evening News had made a report on the tables and chairs. I’m not sure whether that reinforces or weakens my point about citizen journalists filling the gap that the MSM does not reach. Reinforces, I hope, since their report seems to be without the context of the debate on climate change…

    In Parkinson’s essay, the committee members spend about two minutes to approve the construction of a £10 million nuclear reactor (a number they cannot really understand, for a project too technical to comprehend), and spend about an hour discussing a £21 per year coffee budget (costs and concepts they understand only too well).

    Likewise, everyone will have an opinion on whether to replace the mahogany chairs with Ikea – they are sitting in them, after all. But climate change is a multi-headed hydra, that will cost trillions to combat, not to mention the ideological and leadership challenges we will encounter along the way.

  3. Yes, I think the EN report does reinforce your point about citizen journalists – one of the things that frustrates me about conventional media and politicians is that they both seem to assume the public is not up to coping with complex arguments, or any shades of grey.

    Could that be why so many papers are losing readers while the number of people turning out to vote continues to decline?

  4. Parkinson’s example of the nuclear reactor and the coffee budget could also be seen as a demonstration of how people judge the importance of something by its price. The reactor is assumed to be important because it is so expensive, and the coffee is assumed to be unimportant because it costs so little. Hence, they are happy to spend £10 million on the reactor but worry if they can really justify spending £21 on mere beverages.

  5. I’m rather pleased that local governments spend more time on reatively harmless things such as new furniture than granting themselves ever greater powers to intervene in people’s lives in an effort to tackle climate change.

  6. Don’t you think we are unlikely to make constructive changes in our lives without intervention? And are those interventions such a bad thing? Other UK local authorities are already introducing systems to reduce waste, encourage renewables, reduce car use and increase energy efficiency so they can cut carbon emissions in their area. I could live with that kind of intervention.

    Besides, the consumer choices we ‘freely’ make in our daily lives in developed countries are already imposing a hell of an intervention in the lives of people in Africa, Arctic circle, Latin America, Asia…

    to say nothing of Scotland where flash flooding is likely to make it impossible to get insurance in some high risk areas. Seems to me, local governments have a responsibility to lead a debate on how we might adjust our behaviour and social investments to cope with changes that are already happening – and try to prevent them getting much worse.

    Perhaps this stuff about chairs and desks is an interesting example of collective denial.

  7. Thanks for opening up so many new ideas for me in the last couple of days. Actually, not completely new but these discussions are making me see some of the things I am doing in a different way. In particular the Smallweg blog by your friend Michelle Kasprzak – I see the last post (so to speak) on that discussion was May 21 so correspondence may now be closed (?) but I am really fascinated by the potential for creating and sustaining so many different kinds of communities whether they are thousands of miles apart or in the next street.

    Informally, I am already doing that with emails among my own family – it’s great when my sons and husband are in another country but it can also be an excellent way of communicating when they are in the next room! More formally, I am just starting to use another blog to explore the potential for making links between communities in the same part of town (part of a multicultural network or as a friend Kimho Ip (http://www.kimhoip.com/) prefers to call it intercultural exchange).

    But I also really like your idea, Robert, of the tenement network which may one day produce a community garden – I know of several people who are already turning their backgreens into fantastic spaces. It could be great to create ‘green corridors’ between all these different community gardens in the city (Edinburgh and elsewhere) so people can learn from each other what works and what doesn’t. How to get people to take turns weeding and planting. Or get involved at all. Another interesting example is Greener Leith (http://www.greenerleith.squarespace.com/greener-leith-news/), a community website campaigning for community greenespace in the Leith area.

    PS can’t work out how to insert website links on someone else’s blog (so much to learn…)

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