DorobekInsider: A UK idea – The best way to help the postal service is to ignore the Internet

Thursday - 7/9/2009, 2:27pm EDT

Let me start out by noting that this is a discussion going on in Britain, but there are many organizations — including parts of the media — that I think would just like this whole Internet thing to go away. (Ah yes, this InterWeb is just a fad, right?)

Essentially, the UK Parliament’s Commons Business and Enterprise Committee has published a report suggesting that the drive toward e-government is undermining the British postal service.

Here is the report by UK’s Computing headlined E-government is not always the best option, say MPs; Commons committee questions drive to put public services online, and says face-to-face services must still have their place:

MPs have questioned the drive towards e-government and accused Whitehall departments of undermining local Post Offices by pushing online services instead of over-the-countertransactions.

A report from the all-party Commons Business and Enterprise Committee cited as examples the campaign to persuade motorists to renew vehicle excise licences on the web instead of at sub-Post Offices, and the strategy to persuade pensioners to receive payments into bank accounts instead of collecting them over the counter.

The committee’s report, most of which concerned the need to find more new business to keep local offices viable, said the public “is deeply sceptical about the extent to which it is acceptable to offer services online only, with widespread concern that certain disadvantaged groups find themselves further disadvantaged by ignorance as to how to use the internet and inability to afford a computer.”

Read more here

I’m not an expert in UK government, but I believe this would be the equivalent to a U.S. congressional committee.

Here is an excerpt of the report Post Offices – Securing their Future:

We should not underestimate the need for mail services. The internet may be reducing the number of letters sent, but technology has enabled people to set up businesses in remote areas, and increased the demand for packet and parcel services…

Many of the problems facing the (postal) network are a consequence of the Government moving services online, and so reducing Post Office Ltd’s income. But people see the post office network as a public service, and expect the Government to support it. We believe the Government has seriouslyunderestimated the potential of the network to serve as a link between government and its citizens. Although some departments are seizing the opportunity a truly national network offers to allow easy access to their services, many government departments are woefullyunimaginative about the needs of their customers, and show too little respect for members of the public’s right to choose how to deal with the Government.

The Digital Britain report sets out ambitious proposals for a Digital Switchover of Public Services in which the internet would be the primary means of access to public services, rather than one of many. We wholeheartedly support e-delivery of public services; it can be more convenient for the user, and more cost-effective to the taxpayer. But however much the Government may want to encourage digital inclusion, it also needs to prevent social exclusion. The British public believes that post offices are essential to the fabric of our society. Those who contacted us were eloquent in their belief that the post office closure programmes may have saved Post Office Ltd costs, but had displaced those costs onto individuals, and onto society as a whole. They were also sceptical about the extent to which online services were desirable. We note that 40% of households do not have access to theinternet . Members of the public can be encouraged online — they should not be driven there. Social exclusion and isolation can often best be countered by encouraging face-to-face services.

It makes no sense for one arm of government to recognize the importance of the network, while another makes policy proposals which do not recognize people’s right to access services in ways which suit them, not the state. The Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform was clearly committed to the success of the post office network; however, the new Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Government as a whole need to share that commitment.

Find the full report here

The Post Office has been used to provide public services and private services in partnership for nearly four centuries; we have no doubt that with will and imagination, and whole-hearted government support, it can continue to do so.

I fully understand the concern — almost the consternation — that many organizations have with the Internet, which has completely changed the business model for so many organizations. The postal service has clearly seen its world change. So has media, of course. But the notion that the option is to ignore how people are doing their work is beyondpreposterous. The challenge is figuring out a business model that works better — and being more efficient and competitive.