Three small boys are showing off about what their respective fathers do for a living.
“My dad’s a racing car driver,” says the first. “He’s one of the fastest men in the world.”
“That’s nothing,” says the second. “My father is much faster than yours. He’s a pilot in the air force. Every day he flies at twice the speed of sound.”
The third says: “My father is faster than both of your dads put together. He’s a civil servant. His work finishes at 5pm every day, but he’s already home by lunchtime.”
Whatever criticism civil servants get in Britain, it’s nothing compared to the low esteem they’ve been held in numerous other countries at various times. That particular joke never really caught on in the UK, but you’ll find it still being told in various forms in plenty of other countries.
Its origins might well go back to West Germany. While you might expect the communist regime in East Germany (1949-90) to have been run by lazy bureaucrats, Beamte were held in low esteem in the West as well, and their negative image as idle, inflexible and almost un-sackable, has carried over into post-Unification Germany.
Not that we don’t laugh at civil servants in Britain, of course. Aside from TV comedies like Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister the UK’s greatest bureaucratic humour gift to the world is also one of the most profound. Cyril Northcote Parkinson (1909-1993) was an academic, novelist and distinguished naval historian, but is best remembered for coming up with Parkinson’s Law, now known and recognised around the world.
Parkinson’s Law states that work will always expand to fill the time available to do it in. He first outlined it in a humorous essay in The Economist in the 1950s about how Britain’s bureaucracies were expanding. The reasons for this, he said, were that first, “An official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals” and second, “Officials make work for each other.”
To illustrate his point, he used statistics from the Admiralty, saying the number of officials there had increased from 2,000 in 1914 to 3,569 in 1928, while over the same time the Navy had grown smaller by a third of its men and two thirds of its ships.