April 10, 2006
Parkinson's WarBy J.R. Dunn
C. Northcote Parkinson has a lot to say about the war on terror, even though he died in 1993. And not simply because he predicted (in East and West, published in 1962) that the great conflict of the third millennium would involve a battle between the West and revived Eastern world.
Parkinson was a British academic who taught for many years in the Far East. He came into his own in later life as a writer specializing in history, the social sciences, and for fun, sea stories in the Hornblower vein. At one time a household word, Parkinson been overlooked in recent years
Parkinson was best known for his social critiques, often disguised as humor, and usually dealing with bureaucracy and administration. His major contribution came in the form of Parkinson's Law:
This is not as obscure as it sounds. Simply put, it's an explanation why bureaucracies accomplish less as they grow larger. As far back as the 1930s, Parkinson had noticed that the Royal Navy's administrative establishment continued expanding even as the fleet grew smaller, and predicted — quite correctly — that the Navy would eventually have more admirals than ships. The same process was apparent in the Colonial Office, which had more personnel in the late 1950s than it did when the British Empire was a going concern. Investigation into other fields demonstrated that the effect was universal.
Say you have an organization consisting of fifty individuals. Expanding it to 500 will not produce ten times the work. You'd be lucky if they managed to accomplish the same amount. Most of the time would be taken up instead by meetings, paperwork, plotting against colleagues, and covering butts while production and quality collapse. This appears to be an iron law of organization. Anyone who has worked for a bureaucracy — or any large company — can testify to its validity.
And that's where we find Parkinson's contribution to the war on terror.
It's quite natural that the prosecution of the war — at least as far as defense goes — was turned over to a bureaucracy. We're dealing with a generation of politicians who have never known any other way of doing things. (George W's dad, after all, ran a bureaucracy or two in his day.)
Which does not mean that Department of Homeland Defense was not a mistake. In fact, the situation is even worse than it appears at first glance, since Homeland Defense is a second—order bureaucracy, an organization founded to run other organizations already in existence. As a result, we're lacking even the initial burst of energy and enthusiasm that often propels new bureaucracies to outdo themselves. Homeland Defense is a department that was born worn out.
So we don't have the lean, mean terrorist—hunting machine that the times call for, but something more on the lines of a crashed zeppelin. Under Tom Ridge, it took the better part of a year to come up with... a color—coded alert system. No other single action has done more to encourage people take the war effort less seriously.
The new department met its first real test with Hurricane Katrina, which is fresh enough in memory to not require detailed exposition. Suffice to say that FEMA, now under the Homeland Defense umbrella, and better funded and manned than at any time in its history, utterly collapsed. Yes, it was helped along by Ray Nagin and Kathleen Blanco, who explored new horizons in abject passivity during the 72—hour period in which local authorities are supposed to hold the fort. But to this day, FEMA has never yet pulled its act together.
It's easy for Democrats and the media to attack former director Michael Brown's preoccupation with his tie color. But Parkinson predicted that something of the sort would happen under any circumstances, no matter who was in charge. Neither Ridge nor Michael Cherthoff are lightweights, and they have done and will do no better. You can't fight social laws any more than you can ignore Relativity.
This is bad omen for future crises, particularly with an enemy as clever and energetic as Al—Queda. And there's no such thing as a program of reform. You can't reform bureaucracies.Look at all the efforts to remake NASA and the CIA. The results, if that's the word, amount to more paper and more layers of bureaucrats. (Not to mention the department's security vetting
So what's to be done?
Fortunately , Parkinson himself provides the answer. While looking into the evolution of the British cabinet system to see if it conformed with his law (it did, with racing stripes), Parkinson discovered that as the various cabinets grew more unwieldy, a new, smaller, and more exclusive offshoot always took over the original functions. Capable individuals didn't waste time trying to turn around a moribund organization, but hived off and started over again.
When FDR required a covert action unit in WW II, he didn't send a memo to the Pentagon or FBI. He called in WW I hero Bill Donovan and told him to get cracking. Donovan went to work recruiting eccentrics, adventurers, misfits, and Communists, and the legendary OSS was carrying out operations within a matter of months. (Contrast this to the modern CIA, which in 2004 announced it would require another six years before it would be reconfigured for terror war operations.)
In the mid—50s, when Lockheed was approached concerning a crash program to construct a high—altitude reconnaissance plane, the company turned to designer Kelly Johnson, whose Skunk Works — a small design team working in an out—of—the—way hangar — designed, built, and tested the aircraft in a matter of months (the Air Force had been working on the same project for several years, coming up with a lot of paper). The result, the U—2, is being phased out only today.
That's the answer: turning critical jobs over to small groups —— task forces is the resonant term. Get a competent man, give him his orders and a blank check, and let him go to it, the sole criteria being results. If results don't appear — which has been known to happen — it's much easier to shut down a small operation than a large one.
Consider what might have happened if such a unit had been put to work analyzing the flood threats to New Orleans, rather than depending on a witch's coven consisting of a committee of local political hacks, the state of Louisiana, the Corp of Engineers, the Department of the Interior, and, for all anybody knows, the Daughters of the Confederacy. Consider the small, fast—moving teams that in a matter of weeks conquered Afghanistan for the first time since Alexander. Consider Able Danger.
Is it too late to undo the damage? In short order, Homeland Defense will turn into another Social Security, Medicare, or CIA — agencies that have become as problematic as the situations they were supposed to address. But how do we assure that proper efforts are being made to actually defend the homeland? Do we hope that canny and experienced people are making the right moves? (Recent news has not been encouraging on this score.)
Do we call for an interminable round of Congressional hearings and investigations?
Or do we start from scratch, and establish the small, dedicated units that should have been chosen in the first place?
Somewhere in Valhalla, Northcote Parkinson is laughing.
Among many other things, J.R. Dunn was the editor of the International Military Encyclopedia for twelve years.