December 2023
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Pournelle’s “Iron Law of Bureaucracy” explains a lot about today’s sclerotic bureaucratic Britain

I just came across something called Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy. Apologies if you already knew about it.

This Law states that in any bureaucratic organisation there will be two main kinds of people:

1. First, there will be those who are devoted to the goals of the organisation. Examples are dedicated classroom teachers, many of the engineers, launch technicians and scientists at NASA, some doctors and nurses in the NHS, many charity workers, a few (very few) BBC reporters, front-line soldiers in Afghanistan and so on.

2. Secondly, there will be those dedicated to the organisation itself and more specifically to their own careers, self-importance and well-being in that organisation. Examples are many of the administrators in the education system, many teachers’ union officials, much of the NASA headquarters staff, most of the NHS’s 40,000 overpaid, over-pensioned managers, council bosses increasing their own salaries and allowances while firing lower-level staff, the almost 100 BBC managers who earn more than the Prime Minister, the military bosses who looked after their own careers and got their peerages while knowingly and cynically sending our troops without proper equipment to be slaughtered in Afghanistan, thousands of over-paid, over-pensioned charity bosses and 99% of our lying, cheating expenses-thieving MPs and Peers.

The Iron Law states that in every case the second group – those dedicated to promoting their organisation’s growth and power and also advancing their own lousy careers within the organisation – will gain and keep control of the organisation. This second group will thus write the rules, control the strategy and decide promotions within the organisation favouring those like themselves to the detriment of those genuinely trying to provide a front-line service.

This is why most bureaucratic and public-sector organisations will continue to grow their scope, size, expenditure and salaries and perks of their managers and free-riders while their level of service declines and regardless of the need, if any, for their services


We can see this in almost every aspect of our bloated, useless, wasteful public sector.

– Our MPs and Peers continue to increase their own salaries, expenses and number of support staff in spite of handing over ever more power to the regional assemblies and the corrupt, undemocratic EUSSR.

– We were promised a ‘bonfire of the quangos’ – in fact their numbers and budgets have been shooting up even during supposed ‘austerity’. For example, Ofwat, the utterly impotent regulator for the water industry increased its spending on itself from £11.5m in 2006-07 (just before the financial crash) to £17.4m by 2010-11. Ofgem, the completely supine supposed regulator for the energy industry, doubled its spending on itself from £38.8m in 2006-07 to £78.7m by 2010-11

– And in our ostensibly cash-strapped NHS, we had 200,000 hospital beds and 25,000 managers in 1997 (8 beds per manager) when New Labour first came to power. By the time of the 2010 election there were less around 140,000 hospital beds and over 40,000 managers (3.5 beds per manager)

Hospital beds per manager

So, is it any wonder our national debt keeps rising while our public services fall apart supposedly through ‘lack of money’ even though the amounts of our money they spend on themselves is forever increasing?

1 comment to Pournelle’s “Iron Law of Bureaucracy” explains a lot about today’s sclerotic bureaucratic Britain

  • Keen Reader

    And let’s not forget Police Commissioners, created 2 years ago by the ConLibs, elected by fewer than 15% of the electorate, each on £75K to £100K p.a. plus expenses. Then there’s all their support staff, yet another layer of admin. This while numbers of Bobbies on the Beat are being reduced and we were told yesterday that certain crimes may not in the future be investigated due to staff shortages!

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