The service customers obtain from state-run post offices is often abysmal – a relic of how state services were run in the 1970s. Privatising the state post offices is highly desirable from a taxpayers’ point of view (£103 million subsidy for £61 million trading profit), but politically toxic. This is reflected in the Coalition Agreement: the Royal Mail Group Ltd (which provides universal postal service) will be privatised, but Post Office Ltd (which runs post offices) won’t. However, the political difficulty of privatising the post offices cannot be an excuse for the inept way in which they are run today.
I occasionally have to go to the post office to have packages weighed, etc. For this I’ve used post offices in London (Vauxhall Bridge Road, Charing Cross, and Victoria Street) and Kent (Sittingbourne). Almost every time there is a long queue. I attach a photo of the Vauxhall Bridge post office, taken on Tuesday at 2:55 p.m. A queue of about 25 people stretched out onto the street and persisted unabated throughout the time I was there (about 40 minutes). And no – it wasn’t Christmas.
Usually there are a large number of counters; but few are “open” (light on) and even fewer are actually manned. This is because of the routine “disappearances” of staff to back rooms for all sorts of explained and unexplained reasons. Staff also love rearranging papers and organising their tills – while the people wait. Add to this the slow-motion movements. Add to this the attempt to sell services which the customers don’t want from financial services to travel money. Add to this “staff helping each other” – spending endless time leaning over their colleagues patiently listening to the problems of one customer while twenty other are wasting their lunchtime in the queue. Many customers give up and leave the queue before it’s their turn or never join it when they see how long it is. The post office circus is prime material for a hidden camera investigation – I’m surprised it hasn’t been done before.
The state-run post offices are a relic of the sort of monopolistic service one was forced to submit to before Thatcher and Mayor privatised them. Today, the more statist the post office, the more severe the queuing problems are. There are three sorts of post offices: the large post offices run by the state-owned Post Office Ltd; those run by WH Smith; and the "privatised” franchised post offices in shops such as Tesco and corner shops. A mystery shoppers' investigation showed that 19% of the mystery shoppers queued for longer than ten minutes in state-owned post offices; 10% in WH Smith; and 8% in franchised shops.
Complaining about the poor service is useless: when you ask for the manager you have to wait for him/her too; and sometimes he is just absent. When he turns up he often transpires to be just another person at one of the counters – the poor service staff are his colleagues and friends sitting at the next desks. Complaints have to be made within full hearing of everybody It is possible to complain online (reply within TEN working days) or by phone 08457 740 740 (paying number). Fact is that few people bother. Apart from traditional British non-confrontational reticence and stiff upper lip, by the time they have reached the head of the queue customers are so deliriously happy that their misery has ended that they turn into sycophantic supplicants in their dealings with the counter staff. A sort of Stockholm
Syndrome. Or they just want to get out of there as soon as possible, and not waste even more time complaining to likely-to-be-hostile staff.
So, short of franchising all the presently state-run post offices to the more efficient private sector, what other options remain open? The shareholding in Post Office Ltd is managed by the Department of
Business, Innovation & Skills. Yes, it’s Vince Cable’s responsibility. How about a profound shake-up? Here are a few proposals:
- Rolling out “do it yourself” machines is a good start.
- Abolishing numbered queuing and the “one queue” system might be another: if people line up in front of individual counters and look the staff in the eyes, it is less likely that they will quickly dash off in between customers and all evasive action is in full view.
- Get rid of the attempt to sell services at the counter the customer isn’t asking for and isn’t there for – how many people actually buy a mortgage after a hard sell at the counter?
- Performance-related pay for counter staff: pay counter staff according to the number of people they serve per hour (adjusted for quiet hours).
While Post Office Ltd. remains heavily subisdised and its services are found wanting, its unionised staff want to continue the status quo. On 7th May the Communication Workers Union had its fourth recent strike (4 days in 6 weeks), opposing the franchising of 20% of the network, a pay freeze, and the management “refusing to negotiate with the union”. They are truly living in cloud cuckoo land: the fact is that Post offices are a relic of the past, and only rationalisation will postpone their demise. Many services can already be purchased on the web, though sadly it’s going to take quite a while before the entire population is online (when I hear politicians say that post offices don't matter as it can all be done online it reminds me of politicians not knowing the price of a pint of milk).
Ultimately, the political desire to leave everything as it is in the cosy 1950s-style post office world will be by-passed by free market efficiency. In the meantime, let’s get rid of those queues.