The Bad Apple Metaphor

Mark’s post about prisoner abuse provides a peg on which to hang some remarks on the “…few bad apples” metaphor, which is commonly misused. The complete expression is “even a few bad apples will quickly ruin the whole barrel”, because the decay quickly spreads to the good ones. The implication is that bad apples must be removed immediately, because they are worse for the system than they appear. It’s a justification for rapid and fell attention to the beginnings of corruption in a human system, and for making that attention the duty of highest authority.

Recently, the phrase has been attached to quite different ideas, such as “…it’s only a few bad apples; the [army, police department, school system, etc.] is basically [sound, honest, capable, etc.] “, or (worse) “…every organization always has a few bad apples, there’s nothing particularly wrong here”, meanings that justifiy institutional inaction and excuse managerial failure.

The metaphor arose to describe a real phenomenon, namely the rapid spread of rot from seemingly inconsequential and exceptional cases in human organizations, and I think we should try to use it in the original sense. Discovery that one or more bad apples have been allowed to remain in a system (let alone hidden by suppressing reports) should be a damning indictment of management in any context.

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.