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More on Minimal Bureaucracy

by Alice Shirell Kaswell, AIR staff

Our Scientific Precision Survey #602, posed in mini-AIR 2000-01, asked:

What is the minimum number of people needed to constitute a bureaucracy?

Preliminary results were presented in mini-AIR 2000-02. Here, at last, are the final results.

Prior Work
We will ignore the work done by prior investigators, most notably H. W. O. Petard (thanks to David K. Smith for bringing it to our attention, though).

Voters' Values
Voters sent in values ranging from ZERO to 62. Selected sample values are appended to the end this report (see below).

Voters' Families
Most of the voters have families.

Voters' Family Values
Some of the voters' families sent in values. These values range from ZERO to 62.

The data have been abnormalized.

A result has been obtained.

Overruling Opinion Issued by Bureau Commissioner Harry Lipkin
By law, the Bureau Commissioner must issue a final report. This is that report. The Commissioner has decided to settle this question by purely mathematical means. And so, by order of the Commissioner, the minimum number of people needed to constitute a bureaucracy is: THE SMALLEST IRRATIONAL NUMBER. The evaluation of this number is left as an exercise for mathematicians.

I certify that the data set
was not altered in any way
that anyone cares about.
 --A.S. Kaswell
   Annals of Improbable Research

Selected voter responses, grouped by category


Zero. A bureaucracy requires paperwork, not people.
 -- Brad Hansen

The answer is zero. Literally, "bureaucracy" means "rule by a desk." It is possible to have a desk to which all memos are sent, behind which all rules and regulations are posted, and at which no one ever actually sits. This desk may be tended by flunkies whose job it is to occasionally clear the desk, however because flunkies are not bureaucrats, by definition, the zero-person-bureacracy (ZPB) may function independently of actual bureaucrats. In fact, because no one is around to keep changing the rules for no particular reason, the ZPB may indeed function *better* than a standard bureaucracy where even one cook can spoil the broth, so to speak.
 Needless to say, someone has to set up a ZPB, but again, this can happen independently of bureaucrats. *Consultants* can conspire to set up the initial state, by having focus groups with all manner of non-bureaucrats, and possibly even by involving the flunkies in the process to create the illusion of having contributed. However, as with flunkies, consultants are not bureaucrats, per se, although a good one can create the illusion of there being some sort of organizational structure, even within his or her own consulting agency. Despite the appearance of order, however, it remains an example of chaos arising from chaos.
 -Travis Gee

ZERO.  Only an organizational chart is necessary.  As anyone in a
flourishing bureaucracy knows, any position in the chart may be unfilled
at any time.
 --Carmen Giunta

Zero - then you can send letters, forms, money etc which are never answered,
returned etc. They will simply pile up. Just like a real bureaucracy.
 --Dave Hubble

Zero, the minimum number of people to indefinitely delay
 --Bram Smits

Zero. I know this for a fact having never been formally transferred from a
bureaucracy that was disestablished in 1995 but still exists on paper.
 --John S. Gardinier

Bureaucracies never die, although their people do (often while waiting on you). Over time, therefore, it's inevitable that some still-harrassing bureaucracies won't have employees.
 --Erik M. Jensen

Zero.  There's no reason that bureaucracies can't be implemented entirely in software.
 --Jordan Brown

In this electronic age, a bureaucracy requires no people at all. All that
is required is a really complicated voice mail menu.
 --Sarah McCarthy

Having worked in a govt bureaucracy for 20 years, I've got an answer to
your question.
The answer is zero!  Bureaucracy exists regardless of the number of
participants, like a corporation is a fictitious person in and of itself.
 One natural person is sufficient to create a bureaucracy.
 --Don Bain


One. I am my own bureaucracy. I can cc any messages to myself to at least 10  e-mail addresses,  online presence names, and user names.
 --Michaela Tauscher

One. An individual who inhibits his own actions for reasons he does not comprehend constitutes a bureaucracy. (Note: This is the answer for mini-AIR. For AIR, the number must be somewhat larger...)
 --Tom Rogers

You only need one.
I lie and procrastinate to myself.
I even do things the hard way.
 -- Robert Freeman

Answer: One
Explanation: I filed this e-mail in "pending items," went back to work, then
replied when my electronic, personal assistant popped up and reminded me to.
 --Matthew Shaw

Answer - 1
Reason - 40 years of observation of the commercial and
Government sector.
 --J. P. Letellier

In Germany, one person can easily constitute a bureaucracy. If that person believes that he or she has multiple responsibilities in a given matter, it is possible for one person to constitute several (or perhaps many) bureaucracies. Further research, with appropriate forms, is required.
 --Doug Merrill

I once had a manager who alone was able to produce the same result as a
medium-sized government bureaucracy. He accomplished this by regularly
refining his own goals and requirements to the extent that he was never
able fully to realize them. I was hoping to get funding to study the phenomenon, but sadly he returned
to his native Norway before the proposal was submitted. I was not at all
surprised when I subsequently learned that the root of the word "niggling"
is likely Norwegian, although I note that every other person of Norwegian
extraction with whom I have worked has managed to avoid this deadly
escalation of self-imposed requirements.
 --Anne Raugh

Empirically, one is the minimum number of people to form a bureaucracy.
The simplest, most familiar example of this is the person who can't take
your form at one window who then moves to another window and will take
it there.
 --Bill Rutledge

If 'people' includes 'a computer,' the correct answer is "1"; Proof:
just try to dis-enroll from any "book of the month club."
Thank you.
 --Walter W., Houston, (Retired)


Two.  Well, one, really, but you have to be kind of weird.
 --Barry Saver

Two.  You need at least one other person to pass the buck to (and then have
it passed back to you.)
 -- Olivia C. Williamson

Two.  One person is a dictatorship, with two you can pass the work
back and forth and accomplish nothing, thus obtaining a
 --Alexander Morgan

Individuals tend to rationality, but in an office environment women tend to
anarchy, men, consequently, to bureaucracy. So the answer is 2: a woman and
a rational individual.
 --Gianfranco Tomasi


Three.  It's not unusual for an Important Person to need an assistant, but
the second that the assistant needs an assistant, it's a downhill slide.
 --Mary O'Donnell

The answer to your question is simple - three.  Any usual form of government
(monarchy, dictatorship, representative democracy, etc) requires a minimum
of two people.  One to govern and one to be governed.  Bureaucracy is a
cancerous growth on government.  It acts as a surrogate leader.  In a three
person government, one is the leader, the other two are followers, with one
favored by the leader to interpret his rules.
 --Peter Wells

Given that a critical component of bureaucracies is the capacity to hold meetings, the defining criterion is how many bureaucrats does it take to have a meeting.
The minimal number for Christian (i.e. Western) bureaucracies is 3 or 4. cf. King James Bible, Book of Matthew, 20:
For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.
[Corollary notes: This would make Matthew the patron saint of bureaucracies.  It also establishes the sacred nature of bureaucracy for
Western civilization:  God Himself is present at all meetings.]
 --John Clement


Four:  two offices, each being the wrong one, and which each contain a
secretary (with no authority) and a boss (out of the office).
 --Karl Krueger


Eight. Two at each level for blame diffusion and two levels of hierarchy
between the top and the bottom to prevent clear direction and feedback.
 --Mike Traynor


A bureaucracy needs 20 people.  Once a federal office has 20 employees, it
is virtually guaranteed continued existence.
 --Derek Link


Sociology tell us that the human animal is comfortable in a group of 10 or 12. Three goups would have to have somebody to schedule meetings, etc.
 -- Ted Cormaney

More or Less

I don't know what the minimum number of people needed to constitute _A_ bureaucracy is, my guess would be a rough dozen. However, it takes not more than a thousand people to constitute a bureaucracy that's totally busy dealing only with itself. In the army, this is the case for one sole battalion. (I've been in the army and I know what I'm talking about.)
 --Chris (Germany)


Absolutes are no longer important.  We now reward *improvement*.
Thus the minimum size of a bureaucracy is either 10% more or 10% less
than last year, depending on your position.  If you have ever changed
position its probably the same as it was two N years ago.
 -Lee Naish


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