The Self Licking Ice Cream Cone Problem

Recall the Peter Principle – Item 2.  “Whether the mission expands or contracts, bureaucratic overhead grows at a steady rate.”  According to Laurence Peter, at a rate of somewhat more than 5% annually.  5% growth will double the base every 14 years. 

That rate of growth is unsustainable unless the resources grow at the same rate or a higher rate.  Not happening.  Here in the real world, as bureaucracies grow larger and more complex and more intrusive, resources grow even more slowly.

The extreme case occurs when, somehow, a bureaucracy actually solves the problem with which they have been tasked.  (I know that is funny, but bear with me, the good part is coming.)

In 1992 Peter Worden created the term “Self-Licking Ice Cream Cone” (SLICC) to describe NASA’s bureaucracy.  It means a bureaucracy whose only purpose is to perpetuate itself.  A bureaucracy with no problem to solve, but still consuming resources.

The puzzle is this.  When will bureaucracies consume all the resources?   Some bureaucracies begin with real problems to solve.  There has been no expectation of a 5% growth rate in resources for decades. Given Peter’s observation, bureaucracies will grow at 5% or more, regardless of the need.  Eventually they must use all the resourcces.

Some problems will go away because the bureaucracy solved them or because they go away on their own.  What will remain are SLICCs or agencies moving towards SLICC status.

In times of scarce or slowly growing resources, no society can afford very many Self Licking Ice Cream Cones.

The solution is to task people to solve real problems in efficient and effective ways.  There is ample management skill around to carry out this task.  There are known technologies to minimize the cost to do so.  There seems to be only a single defect.

No politician or bureaucrat wants to make a decision.  Certainly not without costly studies.  Certainly not by themselves.  Never is the timeline.  Study it until then.

In Peterborough, city council has recently approved a street, The Parkway, with a 17 year time frame to construct.  That is not a decision.  That is a bureaucratic ice cream cone.  Given Peter’s observation, we can expect the cost and the time to be much greater.  Especially true if they allocate the project’s hidden overhead at city hall.

This matter has been an ice cream cone for a long time.  It was first proposed in 1946 and the right of way has been owned for more than 60 years.  Its original purpose has been overtaken by events and almost no aspect of its original purpose remains true today.  By plebiscite, the citizens rejected it more than a decade ago.

I suspect, but do not know, that if the project were to be created today, that it might not be implemented.  At least, if it was proposed today, the anchor of owning the right of way would not drive the decision.  Realistic and appropriate alternatives could be explored.

Every business has these problems too.

Ask yourself frequently, “If I was not already doing this would I start, and If yes, would I do it this way?”

Check your credit cards and bank accounts for pre-authorized charges.  You will be amazed at how many things you would not start.  These are self-licking ice cream cones.

Don Shaughnessy is a retired partner in an international accounting firm and is presently with The Protectors Group, a large personal insurance, employee benefits and investment agency in Peterborough Ontario.  |  Twitter @DonShaughnessy  |  Follow by email at moneyFYI

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