Friday, 30 December 2011

The man in the sorting office

How many of us understand the new(ish) system for determining what value stamp to use based on size of envelope as well as weight? Clearly, many people sending oversized Christmas cards do not. For the second year running, I had to collect a card from the sorting office and pay £1.12 for the privilege (of which £1.00 was for admin). At least it was from someone we know – the lady in front of me was collecting a card that had no stamp on at all and it was from her local garage! This was my second attempt to collect this card – the first was abandoned, as the parking at the sorting office is completely inadequate. A few days earlier I had collected a parcel, had to double park and then wait in a queue in a tiny room, with only one person serving, for over 20 minutes.
Acknowledging that I knew it was not his fault, and in a very pleasant manner, I suggested to the member of staff serving that getting people to pay for card collection at Christmas, requiring the expense and environmental impact of car journeys to the sorting office, plus the inconvenience, was not the best customer service, so who could I complain to? The answer?
“You won’t get anywhere. It is all automated now. We had over 400 of these last week. Underpaying to post a letter by 12p is a big thing when you add it all up; it is a significant percentage of the cost of a stamp. We used to be a service, now we are a business.”
I am not going to bash the Post Office – I don’t know enough about it, but I do think this is a wonderful example of the tension and confusion around public services now – exacerbated by right wing ideology. Should posting a letter to anywhere in the country for the same price be a service or should market forces dictate? What about other services? Is it right that the NHS has to provide universal access to all essential services, when competitors can select which parts of healthcare they will compete to deliver? Probation is heading the same way – required to deliver core services universally, yet it will have to compete for other key components. Added together and intelligently co-ordinated, integrated services are more likely to reduce reoffending, thereby protecting the public, so why risk fragmentation?
I have been thinking about these tensions for a long time, ever since writing, in a management exam in 1990, about outsourcing NHS cleaning services to private contractors! I struggled fundamentally to see what could be in it for the private contractor unless they were able to take some profit from the contract, and the main way to do this was by reducing staff benefits and compensation. On the other hand, contestability made many public sector organisations quantify what they do, identify their ‘customers’ and learn to value and communicate their strengths and unique 'offer', with varying degrees of success. (Very simplistic summary I know.)
To conclude, I disagree with the man in the sorting office. I do not think service and business are mutually exclusive. In fact, continuing to behave with a high quality service ethos to customers, based on the extensive knowledge base and sense of vocation I know may public sector workers have, has to be a key business benefit.