Monday, December 15, 2014

Heroic bureaucrats and annoying foodies -- one reason so many reforms fail

As promised, here are some more thoughts on West Virginia's promising initiative to improve school lunch programs.

From a transcript of the interview with writer Jane Black:
People in Huntington across the board were very interested and concerned about what he was doing. But the place that the show focused probably the most was in the schools. There he went in and was shocked and horrified that they were eating breakfast pizza and what he called luminescent strawberry milk. He tried to get them to start cooking from scratch. He said it didn't really matter that the food met the guidelines of the USDA as far as nutrients were concerned, but it wasn't fresh.

Of course what people saw on TV were the school lunch ladies being furious about this and feeling like he was stepping on their toes. They also saw the kids taking those lunches, which are paid for by taxpayer dollars, and dumping them in the trash.

What happened in the aftermath was really interesting. After he left, they were audited by the USDA, who came in and said, "These meals may be fresh, but they don't meet our requirements for nutrients." The head of school food, Rhonda McCoy, basically could have gone back to the way she'd always been doing everything. Even though on the show she came across as this cold, aloof bureaucrat, clearly the message had gotten through.

What she did over the next summer was redevelop the recipes, change the flavors a little bit. For example, she took some of the garlic out of his garlicky greens so that the kids liked them better. Within a year they were basically cooking all their meals from scratch.

I went down there. In this kitchen that any New York restaurant would be happy to have, there were 10 cooks making chicken, rolling it in a spice blend, baking it in the oven, taking potatoes, cutting them up, putting them in olive oil and roasting them in the oven. The meal that I ate there included a salad that had lettuce from a student farmer. It was incredible.

What's even more amazing is that since then, Cabell County, the county that Huntington is in, has trained I think 52 of 55 West Virginia counties to do the same. I would say West Virginia, which is not known as a very progressive state, probably has one of the best school lunch programs in the country.
If you follow reform movements, you see this all the time (particularly in education). Outsiders come in with lots of valid criticisms and some good ideas, but they also come in with unacknowledged personal preferences and cultural biases amplified by a subjective viewpoint and a dangerous lack of humility.

Jamie Oliver had some useful things to say about a tremendously important topic, but his initiative was a failure. His creations were, in many ways, less nutritious than the "unhealthy" meals they were supposed to replace. They didn't meet federal guidelines, making the whole enterprise a non-starter. Oliver brought the sensibility of a celebrity chef from a Michelin-starred London restaurant (specializing in Italian cuisine which might explain the level of garlic). He didn't think through the problems of dealing with kids or the other constraints school officials work under.

The difference between success and failure was Rhonda McCoy. We normally think of bureaucrats like McCoy as being, if not out-and-out villains, then at least being part of the problem, but it was McCoy who understood both the kids' tastes and the constraints of the program and who took this dead-in-the-water proposal and made it work. McCoy managed to take the best parts of Oliver's ideas and make meals that were both appealing to the students and manageable from a standpoint of budget, logistics and federal standards.

The press loves stories of the heroic outsider who shows up and fixes everything in a few easy steps. It's a plus if the outsider is a celebrity but an economist is almost as good (for some reason, this is one discipline that is always granted instant expert status). One of the main problems with these stories is that they tend to assume that the people in the field before the outsider showed up were either criminally lazy or dumb as a box of ball-peen hammers.

Finding an entire field full of idiots is rare (finding one with a dysfunctional culture is a bit more common but that's a subject for another post). That means that it is extremely difficult to come up simple ideas that are good and easy to implement but which haven't already occurred to almost everyone already working on the problem. That doesn't mean that people who are new to a field can't make a contribution, but it does mean that these contributions usually need to be collaborative. Fresh perspectives make for good first drafts, but it generally takes experience to fashion them into something usable.


  1. Mark:

    You write: "The press loves stories of the heroic outsider who shows up and fixes everything in a few easy steps."

    Yes, but the press also loves stories of the clueless ivory-tower outsider who is humiliated by the locals with their common sense.

    The larger problem, I think, is that these templates already exist, so all a reporter has to do is decide which template to use (or maybe a mix of them), based on his or her political or cultural allegiances.

    The same thing happens in social science, of course: the two templates are, Factor X matters, or Factor X doesn't matter. And, again, the researcher can choose among the wealth of available data to make the case either way.

    1. Andrew,

      Both narratives are out there but they aren't symmetric and, more to the point, they aren't evenly distributed. The clueless ivory-tower outsider appears disproportionately in conservative media where the narrative often serves to mock some progressive initiative. Heroic outsiders are more popular in the mainstream press and are disproportionately economists, physicists, and ex-CEOs (with the occasional celebrity thrown in). If an economist with no relevant expertise bungee cord jumps into a field like epidemiology, the NYT and WSJ treat him or her like the Oracle of Delphi.

      There are certain underlying similarities to both narratives. Both show a lack of respect for relevant experience and the hard work required to get that experience and both also have a way of making certain groups villains whether the slant is pro-insider or pro-outsider.

      Bureaucrats hardly ever get to be the hero, but it is often the bureaucrats who actually end up making an initiative work.

      Healthy institutions are open to ideas from outsiders but they have to be implemented by people who understand the institution. Both narratives miss that.

    2. Mark,
      I both agree and disagree.
      W. Edwards Deming has a quote somewhere that real innovation comes from bringing in an outsider who can look at things in a new way. From personal experience I can agree that a new view, often from outside the field is extremely valuable, especially if you need radical changes or challenges to existing assumptions.

      Deming did not say that the outsider was the one to dictate the implimentation where IMHO the in-the-field experts are almost always the ones with the expertise and experience to carry out changes.