Rotten apples

It’s time to remind ourselves what the “rotten apples” metaphor means and what it does not. It means that a even very few corrupt individuals in an organization need to be detected and dealt with quickly, because the rot otherwise quickly spreads and infects the whole system.  Someone getting away with stuff is an object lesson to his peers.

It does not mean that a problem is limited, minor, and atypical of the system generally.  It is incorrect usage to say of a scandal that it is “just a few rotten apples, not the whole barrel” and it is also an ethical and managerial blunder.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

6 thoughts on “Rotten apples”

  1. It’s the blame-the-bottom-ranks alternative to “the fish rots from the head”. But both phrases are originally clear on the notion that a few bad actors can turn an entire system corrupt if they’re not removed immediately.

  2. Similarly (though not exactly relevant), people often seem to forget the lesson of the Fox and the Grapes. Losing a game and, say, blaming the refs, or making some other excuse is not “sour grapes”. Losing a game and saying that it’s not big deal because you never really wanted to win anyway is “sour grapes”. Sorry, but that’s just a pet peeve of mine.

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