How many politicians spoil the broth? More than 20…

Cabinet size

The Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson once said: “politics is perhaps the only profession for which no preparation is thought necessary.”

Given that these people run the world’s biggest (and smallest) economies, how many are needed to do a decent job?

It is well known in management circles that decision making becomes difficult in groups of more than 20 or so. The British historian Northcote Parkinson studied this idea in relation to British politics and conjectured that a cabinet loses political grip as soon as its membership passes a critical size of 19-22 due to its inability to make efficient decisions.

Now Peter Klimek and pals from the Complex Systems Research Group at the Medical University of Vienna in Austria have found a similar relationship between the efficacy of political systems around the world and the size of the cabinets they employ to make decisions.

Using data supplied by the CIA (which must obviously be 100 per cent correct), they compared the cabinet sizes in 197 self-governing countries with various indicators related to those countries’ economic, social and democratic performance. For example, the UN’s Human Delevopment Indicator which assesses a country’s achievement in areas such as GDP, life expectancy at birth and literacy.

The size of cabinets varied from just 5 in Liechtenstein and Monaco to 54 in Sri Lanka.

Klimek and co say that the various indicators of success are negatively correlated with cabinet size. Their message is, rather predictably, that too many cooks spoil the broth.

More interesting is their claim that there is a critical value of around 19-20 members, beyond which consensus is more difficult to achieve. They build a (somewhat unconvincing) mathematical model to show that at this critical value “dissensus” becomes more likely because it is easier to form multiple opposing factions in groups of more than 20 members. However, the transition from consensophile to dissensophile groups doesn’t look very critical to me.

All this is of more than passing relevance in Europe where the recent expansion of the European Union has resulted in a club of 27 nations. How will effective decision making be made? By reducing the size of the cabinet, called the European Commission, to 18 members, with various countries coming in and out on a rotation basis.

That means a third of the members will not be represented at the exective level. Which is praisworthy for its practicality but dubious from a democratic point of view. But that’s politics.

Ref: To How Many Politicians should Government be Left?

5 Responses to “How many politicians spoil the broth? More than 20…”

  1. John Clem says:

    The USA has been making high level foreign policy decisions based on the Liechtenstein model.

  2. diggers says:

    Zimbabwe has a cabinet of 90 now

  3. diggers says:

    ehem kenya 🙂

  4. Is it a coincidence that the maximum in the curve
    follows the critical value of 20 persons? Are the systems self-organizing around this number?

  5. digest says:

    kenya has 42 now; a horrible case of “trying to please everyone” – if 24 ministers were doing nothing, i wonder how much more nothing 42 can achieve.

    We do have a long way to learn the proper intricacies of democracy.