In a recent interview by the North Carolina News and Observer, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue discussed the current proposal to relocate the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) outside Washington DC. When asked if he was worried about employee backlash he replied, “anytime you make change or move people’s cheese, there’s always anxiety.”
While I’m sure Secretary Perdue isn’t the first Agriculture Secretary to use a food reference to get across a message in a folksy way, this felt different. So far as I can tell, the reference to people’s “cheese” comes from a highly popular 1998 self-help book called Who Moved My Cheese? Having only seen the book in thrift stores until now, I did a little internet search to learn what it was about. I quickly discovered that Who Moved My Cheese? was (and maybe still is) the go-to resource for corporate leaders to ease employee concerns in times of great change (think reorganizations, layoffs). In the book, mice seek cheese in a maze, but an unseen hand moves the cheese, forcing the mice to adapt, resulting in lessons learned about life and work, and the joy that can be had from change.
Albeit a bestseller, the book has been criticized by many. For example, Harvard Business School Professor Deepak Malhotra wrote a 2011 book titled I Moved Your Cheese: For those Who Refuse to Live as Mice in Someone Else’s Maze. He said of the original book, “There are ways in which the message of Who Moved My Cheese? is not simply incomplete, it’s dangerous.” Professor Malhotra explains that the danger of the book lies in its key message to employees: don’t “waste time wondering why things are the way they are”. Just put “your heads down and keep running around the maze chasing after cheese”.
The Secretary’s tone-deaf reference is a signal to me that, at best, he doesn’t understand why USDA employees (willing to speak on the record to reporters about how bad this is)— along with thousands of outside scientists, plus farm groups, members of Congress, and a who’s-who of former USDA administrators—are so concerned about the damage this relocation and restructuring will do to the quality of work done by ERS and NIFA, which directly supports farmers while protecting our food supply. At worst, he simply doesn’t care.
Does this Administration think so little of its workers, by comparing them to mice on the hunt for cheese? And if it has such apathy, then the logical next question is: does it value the work they do in direct service to farmers and consumers across the country? I’m not sure, and that’s the problem.
But whatever is in Secretary Perdue’s heart, he has not clearly articulated to the public how the proposed restructuring of ERS and NIFA will be better for farmers, our environment, and the people who eat food every day (that’s all of us). So my key message for the Secretary is this: what’s at stake here isn’t just “people’s cheese” and he should know that.