In political jargon, a self-licking ice cream cone is a self-perpetuating system that has no purpose other than to sustain itself. The phrase appears to have been first used in 1992, in On Self-Licking Ice Cream Cones, a paper by Pete Worden about NASA’s bureaucracy.
I touched on this in Maybe you only need it because you have it. Now that I know a vivid description for such things, I’ll have to use it more often.
Update: Maybe there should be a term for something that isn’t quite a self-licking ice cream cone, a system that serves some purpose other than sustaining itself but is still primarily about self perpetuation. Or maybe there should be a scale, say from 0 to 100, for the extent to which an organization is useless and self-perpetuating.
I’m reminded of the Blue Bell Ice Cream advertising slogan: We eat all we can, and we sell the rest. A self-licking ice cream cone would correspond to the employees eating all the ice cream, a sort of ice cream co-op. An organization that isn’t entirely about self-preservation might be one in which the employees manage to sell 20% of the ice cream.
Related post: Parkinson’s law