I told this story at the ISPCS meeting last month, so pardon me if you have heard it already. It is a mostly true story.
Recently I traveled to a somewhat remote government facility. At the mid-day break in our meetings, the facility director took us to the cafeteria where the food was excellent and very reasonably priced. Then he surprised us with the story of how hard it had been to keep the cafeteria open.
It seems that the government regulations on cafeteria operators are quite lengthy. There are requirements to buy the food ingredients from certified vendors to ensure high quality of the food. There are requirements to post the nutritional content of the foods so that the customers can make informed choices about their meals. There are requirements to provide “healthy choice” meals which must meet certain defined nutritional content. A whole lot of common sense, very good requirements that almost anybody would agree are reasonable.
The outcome was that no operator could run the cafeteria there at a profit. After going through several operators, the director had to provide almost $200 k a year to keep the cafeteria open. Then the budget cuts came, and without the subsidy, the cafeteria closed.
Then, the facility director noticed that every day just before noon, a food truck appeared just outside the security gate of the facility and many of the employees would go outside the gate to purchase food from them. This family owned operation did not provide “healthy choices”; they sold what the people wanted to buy. The family owned operation did not buy their supplies from certified vendors; they went to the local grocery stores where the employees also bought their food. Nobody got sick – after all the state still inspected the operation, just not the feds. Nobody asked to see the nutritional information on the food. In fact the only problem was that there was a traffic jam at the security gate every noon-time, and a fair amount of lost productivity resulted from employees traveling down to the off-site food truck.
So the innovative, flexible facility director made a command decision; he invited the food truck operators to come into the empty cafeteria and sell food there; all of this under a non-standard contract mechanism. Interesting, yes?
So the result; cafeteria food that was popular, even sought after; low prices; and a profitable business with the food truck proprietors making a reasonable return on their investment and labor. No government subsidy required. No traffic jams, no lost productivity, and everybody was happy. Free enterprise at its finest!
This is a mostly true story, after all.
So what do we learn from this? Government requirements, even apparently good ones, come with a price. Flexible, nimble commercial operations working in the competitive market can provide services and products tailored to their market better than government planners can mandate.
Does this have anything to do with human spaceflight?
You bet it does.