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Henry Ford said his management principles could be applied to schools, hospital and the railways. PA Images

Op-ed The civil service should be run as if it were a company

Simon Cunnane, a reader of, has been following the commentary on civil servants’ ‘privilege days’ – and believes those running it could learn a little from the management style of Henry Ford.

THE NEWS THAT civil servants will hold on to their two ‘privilege days’ following a ruling by an arbitration board has been greeted with a lively debate in’s comments section. One reader, Simon Cunnane, articulates his thoughts on the ruling:

FOR the record, I don’t hate the public sector. I just hate the way it’s run. The recent coverage of “privilege days” only serves to reinforce my view.

The “Yes, Minister” style of management is fun to watch in a sitcom scenario but efficient, it is not.

People have commented here and in other forums that a country is not a company and should not be run as one: “A Taoiseach is not a CEO”, “The people are citizens, not worker bees”, “There are too many variables”, “The types of decisions are varied and complex”.

All ridiculous arguments, of course. It’s all about processes.

I’m reading Henry Ford’s “Today & Tomorrow” at the moment and while my interest is predominantly manufacturing (as was his), Ford applied his principles of factory management to schools, hospitals, railways and farming. His take was that everything should be in private ownership as only then will real efficiencies become apparent.

Morale improved drastically

His employees were the highest paid in the industry. In 1914 he stunned the American industrial world by DOUBLING the hourly rate he paid his employees and also by reducing the work day from 9 hours to 8. “It was the best cost-cutting measure we ever made” he stated. Absenteeism fell sharply, morale improved drastically and efficiency increased exponentially.

His opinion was that his employees should also be his customers and that the more that people were paid, the more cars they would buy from Ford as well as being able to provide for their families quite comfortably. He did all this while DRAMATICALLY REDUCING the cost of producing a car.

He didn’t believe in a bonus culture or piece rate. All staff were paid a basic wage for working 8 hours a day, 5 days a week with no overtime. Some staff were members of trade unions but the unions never had a dispute because the staff were paid well above average.

Henry Ford was the most logical thinker of his time. He broke everything down to the bare facts and figures and saw everything as a process. He had TWO layers of management – Office (Administration) & Shop (Production). The supervisors in each area were also regular workers and only became supervisors if problems arose, which they rarely did.

The best way today is not necessarily the best way tomorrow

In the private sector, companies manage processes and find the most efficient way of doing each one. The best way today is not necessarily the best way tomorrow and people are encouraged the find new and better ways of doing it. In most cases, they are not given, nor do they seek, a bonus/pay rise/extra days holiday for doing this as it’s part of a very transparent agreement between the company and its employees.

The public sector is also made up of a number of processes. Different processes, perhaps, but no less complex than those in the private sector. Processing a passport application is a process. Teaching a child is a process. Open heart surgery is a process. You find the best way today, do it, improve it and get paid a fixed wage for doing so.

While members of the civil service are public servants, they are the administrators of the state and as administrators, they should be paid accordingly (LESS, basically).

On the other hand, it is my belief that nurses, teachers, guards & other front line public sector staff should be paid €100,000 net per year. Why? Because the job they do is one of the most important in our society. The protect us, take care of us and help us to learn. But they are frustrated in their jobs, blocked from implementing ideas and tied down by a system that eventually converts many of them from qualified, motivated people to the public sector worker everyone loves to hate – “The Entitled One”.

Of course, for this new 6-figure salary, my future government will expect a number of things in return:
  • Privilege days – Gone.
  • Bonus culture – Gone.
  • Overtime – Gone.
  • All forms of monetary reward outside of the basic salary – Gone.
  • Oh and by the way, the school year will be extended to 46 weeks.
  • Annual training will be conducted for 2 weeks per year and holidays will be 4 weeks maximum.
Identify the process. Find the best way of doing it. Do it. Improve it. Repeat.
A country is not a company. But it should be run like one.

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