Words and Laws


By John Latta, Editor-in-Chief

You know Parkinson’s Law and you know people who live it.


Cyril Northcote Parkinson, a 20th Century British civil servant (bureaucrat), naval historian and satirist famously wrote, after a lot of observation and experience, that “work expands to fit the time available to it.” His special focus was bureaucracy and its foibles. For example he is said to have observed that the British Royal Navy would one day have more admirals than ships, found that as Britain lost colonies the number of people employed to administer colonies rose, and noted that bureaucrats make work for each that has no other valuable purpose.

When you look at the amount of time and money it takes the highway and bridge industries to comply with government regulations, you can be forgiven for thinking about CNP. He would chortle and say, “I told you so.” I don’t think regulations are a bad thing, nor that paperwork (or perhaps nowadays paperless work) should not have to be done. But it’s legion in our industry that it can take 13 years for a road to go from idea to drivable And it’s also true that its takes far longer than it should, and much more money than it should, to comply with regulations and other form-filled processes.

What would Parkinson say?

I don’t think it’s the people behind the rulemaking and compliance machinery that are the prime problem. Certainly MAP-21 is trying to reform delivery times by finding efficiencies lost in years of writing rules. FHWA Administrator Victor Mendez is pushing his bold Every Day Counts agenda to do the same thing. But big, complex bureaucratic machinery tends to turn out big, complex bureaucratic paperwork.

As any editor will tell you, cutting back on words is a far more onerous process that adding words. The problem is that neither more words nor fewer words guarantee clarity, simplicity and pragmatism. The goal is just the right number, but to be fair that’s an almost indefinable quantity. On the whole, the tendency to fewer words will generally be the better option. But fewer-word documents can be scarier to publish because they can appear to contain drive-through loopholes. Not so if well written. Neither is the idea that more words will close those loopholes accurate; they may well just add others.

When mountains of outgoing paperwork from agencies require mountains of incoming paperwork from contractors, engineers, designers, etc., costs, delays and unnecessary work and procedures are apt to be the by-product.

A concerted effort to streamline, to minimize, to aim for simple clarity instead of exhaustive clarity in compliance paperwork and other rules, must surely benefit agency, contractor and public.