Sunday, 3 May 2009

The rubbish that is social engineering

Apart from swine flu, what panic shall we have this week? I will discount swine flu, because it's not a moral panic. Let's pick an old moral panic, like childhood obesity, and see how that's worked out.

I could do some searching and find some graphs showing the trends for childhood obesity, but I can't be arsed. We've been told that obesity in children is a large problem, and that it is growing. Let's just believe that and go along with the government for a minute. Personally, I find it hard to believe, since I use the Mark I eyeball to do my analysis, and porky kids around here are as rare as a Leb with a job.

Things may be different further west and south. For all I know, the suburbs of Blacktown and Liverpool might look like feedlots, but I am not inclined to ride down there and have a look. Besides, if the porkosauruses do exist, chances are they will be inside playing on the Nintendo, not outside running around in the open air. Or waddling around, as the case may be.

But someone deep in the bowels of the government got themselves in a flap about it a few years ago, and enough people got in a lather about it to put it on the agenda. Action was required - "action this day", as Churchill would say.

Back when I used to do something useful, if my boss stormed in on one of his periodic high horses wanting something to be done, I'd calmly take him through his issue and try and extract from him what he thought success would look like. If he had walked past a field of rocks and didn't like the look of all that moss on them, we'd agree that success would be all rocks painted white on the upper visible surfaces with moss-resistant paint.

We'd then talk about how we would make that happen. Someone, or a group of someones, would have to be dispatched to the field with pots of paint and paintbrushes and instructed on the correct method for painting rocks. We would identify those someones - a list would be made, and they would be summoned to verify their availability and suitability for the work. They would then be tasked. The petty cash drawer would be raided, and another someone sent to the hardware store to purchase paint and brushes - that would be called funding. I would go to the field on day one to ensure that the someones knew what they were doing, and I would regularly drop by to check on progress. That would be called checking on progress. If some rocks were not painted correctly, I would take corrective action. My boss would visit at the end, and announce himself well pleased at the lack of moss, although he'd then say that he wanted them painted in gloss rather than matt finish. But we would have agreement that we had solved his problem.

Rocks have a bad habit of shedding paint, so I would organise a system of regular revisits with a pot of paint and a brush to paint over the bald bits. That would be called.... I don't know - boring work?

But note what we did. We actually sent people out into the world to change the physical appearance of something, and we then continued to send them out to ensure that the change stuck.

What do we get with an anti-obesity program?

TV commercials, pamphlets and maybe a program of weighing kids in schools.

The last bit harks back to my earlier posting this month on nurses, and how many have ended up in positions that have little to do with patient care. Take childhood obesity as an example - a government committee decides that an action item is to weigh all kids at a certain age to identify those that regularly clean out the buffet. I'm not sure why they need to be weighed and a BMI calculated, for a simple casting of the Mark I eyeball over the playground would surely identify those in need of a bit of calorific adjustment. But we can't do that, because it would be subjective and might lead to the fatties being ridiculed, so all children have to be put on the scales to avoid singling out and ostracising the tubs of lard. That would be a terrible crime to commit.

Since we can't just send a memo to each school Principal saying, "Identify your porkers for a program of enhanced physical activity", someone has to be sent to each school to weigh them, and that someone has to be qualified as a health professional. Hence the sudden need to recruit a busload of nurses to visit every school with a set of scales and a clipboard.

This might be a useful idea if the nurses weighed the kids, drafted off those with bitch tits and then put them through a Biggest Loser type of program over a few months, without expelling any of them along the way. We would be able to measure success quite easily - the kids would be wearing new clothes 5 sizes smaller, and their total weight would have dropped by a few tons.

But do we get the nurse to do that?


Instead, the nurse is given a clipboard with a checklist and although each child is weighed, she is not allowed to record that weight against a name. That would be an invasion of privacy or a heinous form of data collection. Instead, she simply lists the weight and height of each kid as it is called out and calculates the BMI for each in turn. When the weighing is finished, she packs up the scales and tape measure and moves on to the next school, telling the Principal nothing.

All those lists are then sent to head office where they are collated and eventually a press release is issued stating that "30% of kids are overweight". We are not told how that calculation was made, nor whether the problem is clustered around several socio-economic or ethnic groups. We are simply given a blanket figure. We are not told what the ideal weight is either, and how far kids are from that ideal weight. We simply assume that those 30% are all bulbous balloons the size of hefalumps.

But we should be given the underlying statistics. Let's assume that the ideal weight for a 14 year old boy is 50kg (I am making this up and using round numbers to make it easy on me and you).

We are told that 30% of kids are over this ideal weight. OK, how would you feel about that if I told you that those 30% all weighed 51kg? Would that be the end of the world, knowing that they are 1kg over the ideal weight?

What if I told you that we had measured 100 kids and found that 30 were over the ideal weight, and that 10 of them came in around the 60kg mark, and that those 10 were all rugby players? And furthermore, skin fold tests showed that their average fat content was 7% (extremely lean). Is that a problem?

Yes, it is a problem if those 30 all weigh 110kg and do no exercise and they have grease buildups in the folds under their tits from the fat that has dripped from their jowls as they stuff another pork sausage into their maw. But the raw numbers tell us nothing useful, and the press releases tell us even less, except that we must engage in a moral panic, recruit some health professionals and throw money at a TV campaign.

Remember my rock painting exercise? How useful would it be to pay for a TV add encouraging rocks to shed moss? How useful would it have been to send my someones out into the field with a clipboard and a ruler to measure the amount of moss on each rock, but not to actually paint each rock - especially if those doing the measuring were qualified painters who could have been somewhere else doing some good with their skills? And what if they measured each rock, but did not record the location of that rock so that you could go back later and start by painting the rocks with the most moss on them?

Government information campaigns shit me to tears, and they should all be abolished forthwith. If you are worried about fat kids getting fatter - and that is all that will happen with existing government campaigns, you should undertake the following draconian measures:

  1. Cancel the Foxtel subscription for that household
  2. Confiscate all TV's and electronic games
  3. Send mum on a month long cooking course to give her some confidence in producing proper food
  4. Issue food stamps
  5. Put their house on a local fast food delivery blacklist
  6. Assign a personal trainer to the kid for at least 1 hour of daily exercise
That will never happen of course. The howls of confected outrage from the many and varied lobbies that would be affected would torpedo this before you got past item one.

I like measuring things to judge success or failure. If we started an anti porky kid campaign a year ago, and spent $50 million on it, I would be doing another round (ha ha) of measurements now to see if the strain on the scales is any more or less. If it is more, then it is obvious that the current approach is not working, and we have poured $50 million down the drain.

If it is less, we should calculate how much each shed kilogram cost, and whether the $50 million was worth it. Kids lost 500kg in aggregate? Gee, that's only $100,000 per kg. Is that good value for money?

No. Let's try a more cost effective approach.

Bureaucracies by their nature are lazy, and they will always choose the shotgun approach over a targeted one. My approach requires people to leave their offices and do some work - they need to visit people face to face and tell them that some tough changes are coming their way. Like the idea that their precious 50 inch plasma is being hauled away this afternoon, as is the 42 inch plasma in the bedroom and the TV in the kitchen and the TV in each of the kid's bedrooms. Oh, and every pizza chain for 10 miles around has flagged your address in their computer as verboten.

And as for you, porkie; Mr Barry Fitbastard will be here at 6am tomorrow for your first morning run. You're about to put that tracksuit and those trainers that you slob around in to good use for once.

If a bureaucrat has a choice between that, and visiting an advertising agency full of glamorous models to commission a new ad campaign, which do you think they would choose?

1 comment:

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