21st century-designed post offices
THAT THE postal service is in need of comprehensive reform is impatient of debate. To many Jamaicans, the post office is the service that best connects them to their government. Even though some are in an awful state of disrepair, post offices and agencies can be found in the most remote areas, often where other public services are absent. There are post offices in every nook and cranny which provide employment for some 2,000 people.
Individuals can walk into any post office and avail themselves of the services, which are largely limited to the traditional functions of delivering mail and packages. But with telephone, computers and the Internet, demand for some of these services has fallen off dramatically. Technology will continue to transform modern communication. The result is that post office demand and revenues will continue to fall. Operational challenges to the postal service did not come overnight, and it could only be a short time before bulk mailers, like utility companies, find more efficient ways of delivering their bills.
The truth is, governments have failed to respond to the challenges of a changing, digital world. In fact, unless the statutes have changed, the post office has a monopoly on delivering mail islandwide. But over the last few years, what was once exclusive post office work has been taken over by courier services. The courier services have flourished, at the same time undermining the viability of the postal service.
The feeble response of the postal service is to attempt piecemeal changes like introducing services such as bill payment, lotto machines and Internet surfing. The time has long passed for bipartisan initiatives and new strategies to ensure that the postal service operates in a manner that will guarantee better financial performance.
Cost-effective and efficient
For example, there is no reason why the postal service cannot provide cost-effective and efficient services to the small-business sector. One could think of delivery, printing and photocopying services. By exploiting its valuable network, there was a time when customers did banking business at the post office. We believe there is still that need.
A 21st century-ready postal service should ensure that citizens can perform various government-related tasks, like paying taxes and renewing passports, at the post office. New ways of merchandising, such as introducing self-service stamp machines, kiosks for maps and philatelic items, should have long been undertaken.
Switzerland demonstrates how innovative reform can keep a postal service alive. Switzerland's Swiss Post provides customers with secure, address-linked online mailboxes where they can view scanned images of their mail and decide whether to virtually open it, discard it or have it physically mailed to them.
It would take huge amounts of cash to modernise the service and bring it up to speed. It is cash that the Government does not have or is not willing to spend. This is why any suggestion that the post office should be divested to its employees cannot be supported. If divestment means doing the traditional things it has been doing for these 300 years, then the postal service will wither and die.
Employee Share Ownership Programme can be an excellent idea, but in this case it is hard to imagine where the employees would get the resources because the new postal service cannot revolve around the traditional business of delivering mail.
The Government has to decide whether it is going to abandon its 300-year mandate to deliver mail safely to the population or allow the private sector to transform it into a viable business.
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