HOW A FINANCE COMMITTEE ACTUALLY WORKS

People who understand high finance are of two kinds : those who have vast fortunes of their own and those who have nothing at all. To the actual millionaire a million pounds is something real and comprehensible. To the mathematician and the lecturer in economics a million pounds is at least as real as a thousand, they having never possessed either sum.

This can be put in dramatic form thus :

Chairman :

"We come now to item 9. Our treasurer, Mr. McPhail, will report.

Mr. McPhail :

The estimate for the atomic reactor is before you, Sir, in appendix H of the sub-committee's report. You will see that the general design and layout has been approved by Professor McFission. The total cost will amount to 10 million. The contractors consider that the work should be complete by April ...The plan of the main building is before you - see appendix 9 - and the blueprint is laid on the table. I shall be glad to give any further information that members of this committee may require.

Chairman :

Thank you, Mr. McPhail, for your very lucid explanation of the plan as proposed. I will now invite the members present to give us their views. Perhaps Mr. Brickworth has something to say on this matter."

Now Mr Brickworth is almost the only man there who knows what he is talking about. There is a great deal he could say. But Brickworth does not know where to begin. The other members could not read the blueprint if he referred to it. He would have to begin by explaining what a reactor is and no one there would admit that he did not already know. Better to say nothing.

Mr Brickworth :

"I have no comment to make.

Chairman :

Does any other member wish to speak ? Very well. I may take it then that the plans and estimates are approved ? Thank you. May I now sign the main contract on your behalf ? (Murmur of agreement) Thank you. We can now move on to item 10."

The time spent on item 9 will have been just two minutes and a half. The meeting is going well. But some members feel uneasy about item 9. It is too late to query that reactor scheme, but they would like to demonstrate, before the meeting ends, that they are alive to all that is going on.

Chaiman :

"Item 10. Bicycle shed for the use of the clerical staff. An estimate has been received from Messrs. Bodger and Woodworm, who undertake to complete the work for the sum of 350. Plans and specifications are before you, gentlemen.

Mr Softleigh :

Surely, Mr Chairman, this sum is excessive, I note that the roof is to be of aluminium. Would not asbestos be cheaper ?

Mr Holdfast :

I agree with Mr Softleigh about the cost, but the roof should, in my opinion, be of galvanized iron. I incline to think that the shed could be built for 300, or even less.

Mr Daring :

I would go farther, Mr Chairman. I question whether this shed is really necessary. We do too much for our staff as it is. They are never satisfied, that is the trouble. They will be wanting garages next.

Mr Holdfast :

No, I can't support Mr Daring on this occasion. I think that the shed is needed. It is a question of material and cost ...

The debate is fairly launched. A sum of 350 is well within everybody's comprehension. Everyone can visualize a bicycle shed. Discussion goes on, therefore, for forty-five minutes, with the possible result of saving some 50. Members at length sit back with a feeling of achievement.

C Parkinson, "Parkinson's law", 1957

John Murray Ltd

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