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Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Sugar, Trump and the Reality of Bureaucratic Life.....

Okay, a question for my American colleagues: who is Sir Alan Sugar? Well if you were on this side of the pond you would recognize the name as England's version of Donald Trump. (Post blog addendum: an interview with Sugar was published in the 24 April Observer -- does not seem like the interview went well....) Not only is he a multi-millionaire with a very public persona, but he is also the individual firing people on the UK version of "The Apprentice." According to the intro to the show, Sugar is worth £750 million, and while I am not certain whether that is equal to Trump's fortune (which always seems a bit at risk), he certainly seems to be following Trump's scripted approach on this BBC version of the US hit show.

I first heard about Trump's Apprentice from Randi during its first season last year, and then saw some episodes of the show on British television over the summer and into the fall. The UK version began about 10 weeks ago, and it came so close to a copy of the US version that I didn't pay much attention to it for several weeks except for bits and pieces I caught as I change channels. And while I was back in the US for three weeks I began to watch the US version, only to find that the two were even closer in format that I had imagined.

But unless I missed something in a recent US episode, I think tonight's UK Apprentice was exceptionally interesting. The five remaining participants were assigned the task of selling a range of items on a UK homeshopping TV channel, and in carrying out their mission all five personalities really came through -- as did that of Sugar and his advisers who had to all but admit aloud that no one really deserved to be let go on the basis of poor performance. Confronted with the dilemma that someone must get fired in each episode, Sugar took a somewhat arbitrary stand on who was to blame for the (relatively) poor showing of the losing team and let the "project manager" go despite having openly praised her on air just moments earlier. It all makes for great entertainment, but also raises issues about the nature of dilemmas and how we handle them.

Which, of course, brings me to my favorite topic: accountability. In the work on public administration ethics that I've been doing with friend Ciaran, I've been drawn increasingly to questions related to dilemmas and how people deal with them. I have long been convinced that public sector accountability to some degree involves the construction of dilemma-generating situations, and that much of governance is the creation of a culture of blameworthiness among those we entrust with providing public services. Despite all the rhetoric about promoting public service values and high ethical standards among public officials, the culture of the modern administrative state is premised on the assumption that appropriate behavior by civil servants can be assured only through creating dilemmas and promoting a sense of blameworthiness. In a sense, many public administrators live the life of The Apprentice participants almost each and every day.

Now I wonder if it might be possible to sell the powers that be at some TV network on the idea of a reality show featuring the daily life of a public servant...
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