Bikeshedding and the challenge of amateurs scrutinising experts

Posted on November 22, 2017 by Ed Hammond. Tags:

We can all tell stories about times when we have been in meetings and large amounts of time have been expended by those present arguing volubly about something comparatively insignificant, only to neglect something extremely important. My own personal example is from a scrutiny committee which I was observing about five years ago, where members spent nearly an hour talking about the rights and wrongs of a £5,000 grant, then to rattle through the scrutiny of the council’s entire capital investment programme in less than five minutes.

This is known as bikeshedding, or more formally, “Parkinson’s law of triviality”. Cyril Northcote Parkinson was a history professor and sometime critic and commentator on matters relating to public administration shortly after the war; in this latter role he’s perhaps best known for his “main” law, that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. His law of triviality is just as much of a truism.

The term “bikeshedding” derives from Parkinson’s example of a committee considering the construction of a new nuclear power plant. The first item on the agenda is an item about £10 million in capital expenditure on the reactor; the figure (and the issues involved) are too vast and complicated for the committee to properly understand, and the item is passed in five minutes. A second item is about the expenditure of £350 on a staff bike shed. There is a spirited 45 minute discussion, covering in particular the material to be used for the roof.

It is easy for us to retreat from issues that we see as complex and outwith our experience; it is easy to spend time on things which seem to us to be more tangible. But more than 50 years on, why is “bikeshedding” still so prevalent – and how can we tackle it?

It would be straightforward to place the blame directly at the doors of committees guilty of this kind of behaviour. There is a cynical undercurrent here – that (in the context of local government) members don’t read their papers, that they may be intelligent laypeople, but they are hopelessly outclassed by professional officers who live and breathe the services they provide. Inevitably, things aren’t as simple as that.

The challenge is twofold –

  • ensuring that the information provided to members, and what is being asked of them, reflects their role and area of expertise;
  • ensuring that members have the skills necessary to engage intelligently with that information, and to use it productively.

Bikeshedding occurs when people providing oversight don’t understand what they’re overseeing, and those being overseen don’t think about their own role in rectifying this situation. Properly avoiding it involves conversations – from professionals about what kind of input they would find most useful, and from members about what information they need to exercise their role effectively.

In the case of the bike shed, the issue should not have been brought to the committee in the first place – it should probably have been delegated elsewhere. And the committee should have been prepared for the discussion about the £10 million of capital expenditure with some careful discussion between the chair, members and others – in advance of reports and papers being written – to ensure that the committee is making the right contribution at the right time.

It is a testament to the entrenched nature of this challenge that it is still so common 60 years after Parkinson first raised it. The first step in its resolution is for people to recognise when it is happening and then to ask why.

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About the Author: Ed Hammond

Ed leads CfPS's work on devolution, transformation and on support to councils and other public bodies on governance and accountability.