Eating your own dog food: on school meals and the government's chronic information problem.

Food parcels were mismanaged. Some really simple principles could fix that.

There’s an expression in product management called ‘eating your own dog food’. The origins of this saying aren’t clear. Google suggests that it dates back to Alpo commercials fronted by Lorne Green in the 1980s, in which the veteran actor supposedly claimed to feed the brand to his own dogs. Having watched some of them on YouTube (warning: 1980s TV ads are a rabbit hole) I’m unconvinced. Regardless of its origin, the meaning of the phrase is clear - using something you make is the ultimate test of whether it’s good enough.

The segue from dog food to meals for school children is not as big as it should be. We know this thanks to some sterling work from Jack Monroe, among others, who collected examples of the food parcels being sent to parents eligible for free school meals whose kids have been forced to stay at home due to the pandemic. These parcels replaced £30 vouchers, and were supposed to contain an equivalent value in food. If you were one of Lorne Green’s dogs, that would equate to a 52lb bag of beefy Alpo. If you’re a British school child relying on state support, you get… somewhat less.

These parcels are literally indefensible: we know this because not one single pundit or minister has attempted to defend them. The government reaction to Monroe, Rashford and others raising the issue has been to perform a screeching handbrake turn and immediately reintroduce the old food vouchers again.

Which raises an important question: why were these parcels so bad in the first place? The easy answer is ‘evil corporate profiteers’, but this overlooks a few things. Firstly, nobody profited from this: by putting out substandard product, those involved have trashed their reputation and, crucially, had a lucrative contract nuked from orbit with no prospect of renewal. And while Scrooge-like caricatures of business leaders are tempting, they’re rarely accurate in practice. Bad products are generally the result of incompetence or poor process rather than outright malevolance, with the obvious exceptions of Clippy the Paperclip and basically every British streaming service.

Let’s start with information. What’s striking about the food parcels is that there seems to have been no flow of information from the people receiving the food to… well, any other stakeholder. Their only option was to go on Twitter and hope that a food writer and a famous professional footballer would alert the media, kicking up enough of a stink for the government to notice.

This is obviously not good for parents, but it’s not great for the government, either. Put yourself in Boris Johnson’s shoes. I have a minister in charge of education who is supposed to be on top of this stuff. I’m supposed to be plugged into feeds of high quality information coming from my fancy Mission Control dashboards. So why the **** am I finding out about all this from a footballer’s Twitter feed?

By coincidence, this morning’s Playbook linked to a brutal exchange that took place in 2018 between Labour MP Yvette Cooper and the then Immigration Minister, Caroline Nokes. The questioning was about asylum seekers who had been living in rat-infested accommodation, but the questions, answers and excuses are timeless, and could easily be applied to the food parcels situation:

Nokes: “One of the challenges is… if information isn’t shared with us… then it’s very difficult for us to find the information if they won’t give it to us.”

Cooper: “This is your contract! This is your responsibility…”

Nokes: “And that’s information that has been provided anonymously by NGOs and we cannot, you know, telepathy is not my first skill.”

In both cases the government should have been representing the people in its care, yet there seems to have been no mechanism for monitoring the quality of delivery, for getting feedback from the people actually using the service. And this has knock-on effects: if I’m delivering a service for a client, and the client isn’t bothering to evaluate how good that service is, then even if I’m not actively trying to be terrible, I’ve got less incentive to peer closely at the cracks, or spend time and money collecting feedback of my own.

Of course, even without that feedback it should have been abundantly clear to the company’s leadership that their product wasn’t good enough. That’s where eating your own dog food comes in. For a lot of products, this can be surprisingly difficult: people often make products that they don’t, even can’t, use themselves - dog food being a prime example. The demographics and personal situations of people who work in a business are often very different to those of its consumer base, especially when providing services to disadvantaged populations. That can lead to a culture of leaders who are completely out of touch with the reality of delivering those services, as my friend Willard points out:

But in the case of packed lunches, there is a very literal solution: eat the damned lunches. Put them in the staff canteen, scaled appropriately to adult portions, and see how you like them, how well they keep, how willing you would be to feed them to your own children. Not keen? Then improve the product, figure out how to squeeze more out of the budget, better nutrition, nicer flavours, greater variety.

Of course doing this would have revealed an unpalatable truth: that assembling and distributing parcels rather than handing out vouchers to spend in local stores is an inefficient use of funds; that families have individual needs that parents are better able to understand and make choices of; that being the middle-man in a transaction between parents and low-cost supermarkets is not an attractive business proposition.

Information is kind of the opposite of risk. It flows through an organisation washing away all the nasty plaque and detritus that might build up and cause problems down the road. When you don’t have information, you start to accumulate risk, as more and more of your decision making is built on assumption rather than reality. And that’s when you end up losing a major contract, or getting skewered by Yvette Cooper in a select committee grilling, or having a jolly nice chat with Marcus Rashford for the umpteenth time in the last several months.

But will any of those involved learn the lesson? Do they even have the incentive to?