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Commentary: Battling Bureaucratic Incompetence

Jan. 27, 2014 - 03:45AM   |  
By STANLEY ORMAN   |   Comments
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Forty years of experience working with and within the Pentagon and the UK Ministry of Defence convinced me that two basic laws promulgated over half a century ago apply to many current problems, including defense contracting.

An article published in the Washington Post in December, “The Feds, barely managing,” accurately described the issues faced by bureaucracies without mentioning the two laws that made such an impression on me as a young scientist. The authors of the Outlook article concluded that poor management in federal agencies is undermining public trust in government. This is undoubtedly true, but the only solution recommended was for Congress to take action.

Sadly, asking one dysfunctional body to correct the problems of others falls under the heading of humor — precisely the category allocated to the books describing Parkinson’s Law and the Peter Principle.

Cyril Northcote Parkinson’s “The Pursuit of Progress” was published in 1958, and his law is often summarized as, “Work expands to fill the time available.” He derived his law about bureaucratic growth from his experience in the British Civil Service.

One example was the growth in the number of employees in the Colonial office that reached a maximum, at which point it was folded into the Foreign Office because of a lack of colonies to administer.

"The Peter Principle” by Laurence J. Peter & Raymond Hull was published in 1969 and, like Parkinson’s Law, was treated as a humorous book. It observes that anything that works will be used in progressively more challenging applications until it fails. In hierarchical organizations, members are promoted to their highest level of competence, and then further promotion raises them to a level of incompetence where they spend the rest of their career.

A competent, even outstanding scientist, engineer or officer promoted into management could be a good example of an employee reaching a level of incompetence through no fault of his own.

I encountered frequent examples of this in MoD and the Pentagon. Sadly, once in a senior management position, these individuals can blight the careers of staff below them. A really bright employee becomes a disruption to an incompetent manager and could be set up to fail because firing government employees is so difficult.

Those who recognize the situation either leave or remain in a position for which they are overqualified. This is a reversal of the normal Peter Principle because their manager is exercising self-protection by preventing further promotion.

I recognized these tendencies early in my working life, having read the two books mentioned above. I even sent a synopsis of the Peter Principle to the director of the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment (AWRE) with a note saying I was surprised someone who had never visited us could describe us so accurately. I was trying to manipulate my immediate superiors to limit the damage they could do to my potential.

Surprisingly, the gambit worked. The director invited me to become his technical assistant and effectively invited me to prove my point to him. I received a series of promotions and rose to an undersecretary position.

I recount this to explain that in such hierarchical organizations it takes extraordinary effort to overcome the strictures that govern normal behavior.

The director of AWRE later confided to me that given a free hand he would gladly remove half of his senior managers, but Civil Service procedures posed too high a hurdle.

This is the background to the cost escalation that is so prevalent in government contracting. The perennial cost growth of major defense programs result from established bureaucratic procedures, coupled with the lack of recognition of acquisition as a career path. The op-ed “Acquisition Mumbo Jumbo” by John King in the Jan. 20 issue reinforces this point.

A basic component of any management course should be the inclusion of a session on Parkinson’s Law and the Peter Principle. But then again, what senior managers will be prepared to give such courses when students might conclude their instructor was at a level of incompetence? No, the idea is too humorous. ■

Stanley Orman, chief executive of Orman Associates, a defense and international consultancy, Rockville, Md. Orman is the author of “An Uncivil Civil Servant.”

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