Sir Jeremy will see you now: time for a Whitehall version of The Apprentice

Behind the chaos, The Apprentice offers lessons for civil servants that a government version of the show could bring to Whitehall


By Andrew Greenway

27 Nov 2017

Sir Jeremy Heywood photographed for CSW by Louise Haywood-Schiefer

Halfway through its 13th year, corporate bellow-fest The Apprentice is beginning to show signs of tiredness. I think it’s high time we had a government edition.  

Leaving the entertainment value to one side for a moment, let’s consider the benefits from a practical point of view. As HR advisor Catherine Baxendale told MPs this month, the civil service has neglected proper induction of new staff despite repeated encouragement to do so. The time spent bringing new Fast Streamers up to speed has dropped from weeks to days in recent years. Training, if it takes place at all, tends to be confined to classrooms. Here’s a fantastic opportunity to provide some redress to all that, while reinvigorating a British creative export.

As a concept, The Apprentice offers several advantages over the current methods of inducting civil servants. It invests a generous twelve weeks. The candidates come from diverse backgrounds. Direct, clear feedback is delivered by executives rather than professional trainers. The vast majority of tasks are won or lost as a multidisciplinary team. Succeeding requires striking a delicate balance between delivery and chat. There are clear lines between project leadership and accountability.


Now, I am fully aware that The Apprentice is a television programme and therefore bears as much resemblance to business as Tupperware does to crockery. Even so, it feels like there are lessons to be learned here.

The good news is that many of the key ingredients are ready to go. Some can do the job better than the original cast. Sir Jeremy Heywood would be excellent if he were cast in the Sir Alan mould, emerging through a set of frosted glass doors to scowl balefully at a group of terrified people in suits. I for one would be amazed if the cabinet secretary didn’t occasionally yearn to take his safety catch off and growl things like, say, “if you nod your head any longer, I’m going to put you on the back seat of my bloody car.” 

His boardroom accomplices are also a level up. Most permanent secretaries would be far superior to Karen Brady. I’m not sure if there is an equivalent to Claude Littner currently working in government, possibly because there just aren’t many people in life who can constantly summon up the level of anger that most of us keep in reserve for train companies.

Some of the show’s basic concepts would obviously need tweaking. It’s hard to imagine Sir Jeremy pulling the trigger and saying ‘you’re fired’ each week. The unions would never wear it. It would have to be done in a more appropriate way, with all the important decisions made well in advance of the board meeting itself. Rather than being fired publicly, the losing candidate would simply not receive the meeting invite or papers in advance, a misfortune later put down to an accidental administrative oversight.

The weekly tasks would need fewer alterations than you might think. The typical competency-based interview offers all the right ingredients for those ‘gotcha’ moments where a candidate’s personal achievements are revealed to be much less impressive in reality. Traipsing round a market with instructions to buy an apparently random selection of items with an unclear purpose is arguably an ideal primer for public procurement. The obligatory trip abroad offers an opportunity to practice the kind of trade negotiations that UK officials are going to spend a lot of time on over the next 20 years.

You can also expect to see the same kinds of mistakes. In almost every series of The Apprentice, there is an occasion where a team simply ignores the evidence provided to them by an informed, unbiased expert. On one occasion a team decided to make a dog food targeted at every possible mutt out there, despite a vet pointing out that, in fact, it would be impossible to create such a product. Take this example and substitute dog food for certain government policies – don’t make me say Universal Credit circa 2013 –  and you have the reason why former cabinet secretaries lament the lack of evidence-based policy making. 

A government version of The Apprentice would bring aspiring civil service leaders into contact with professional experiences that they may never otherwise build any empathy for. Laugh all you want at the owner of a PR fashion company failing to make burgers. But why shouldn’t an introduction to the civil service involve a week in a benefits office, hospital or working in the departmental post room? Nothing novel about that. That said, it is also easy to imagine the hilarity that would ensue from letting a team of new fast streamers (or a random selection of the Top 200) let loose in such an environment. Especially after the footage is passed through an editing suite.

The interesting thing about The Apprentice is that it has produced a diverse bunch of winners. Some years you get Mensa members and consultants, others plumbers and inventors. There is no single type of person guaranteed to triumph. Government could do with a little more of that. 

I’d certainly watch it. You won’t see me in the boardroom though. I think the invite went missing. 

Read the most recent articles written by Andrew Greenway - Andrew Greenway: How GDS conquered the world

Share this page