Can we help our post offices?

Catering increasingly for older customers, and with its economic viability increasingly intertwined with local convenience stores and the remaining retail services in local communities, the post office network has been shrinking for decades and looked like a basket case.   But last November the Government came forward with its vision for the future of the network announcing a commitment to a £1.34bn funding package to 2015 and an objective to find a sustainable future for a network of 11,500 branches long term.   At the end of January, a lengthy Written Statement from the then BIS minister Ed Davey fleshed out some further details.

A key objective for Post Office Ltd is to meet the challenge of services being increasingly delivered online and to customers directly, including central and local government services.   High level contract bidding is going on to provide ID verification (for Criminal Records Bureau checks for example), and a number of local pilots in a range of areas, such as projects in Reading and Birmingham to develop Print on Demand kiosks to support people who cannot access services or information online.   The minister wants these ideas to multiply, and the package of financial support is to provide the investment to sustain and improve the network so that this innovation can flourish, and offer greater convenience to customers.

Developing financial services has been an important focus for Post Office Ltd for the last decade, and is seen as part of its future critical mass.   It is the number one provider of foreign exchange.   It offers a range of competitive savings, loans, mortgages and insurance products.   The network wants to ensure that these offerings reach customer groups such as the financially excluded.

Historically, the post office has not been the most flexible and open of business partners, and because the lion’s share of the network is in the hands of private businesses – the local sub-postmasters – it offers a rather lumpy and uneven set of options and opportunities.   But as the network moves forward, with these ideas about being a community resource in a digital age, Post Office Ltd will be beginning a voluntary programme this summer to convert branches and introduce new operating models which enhance both consumer service and the sustainability of the network.

This is an opportunity that groups caring for older customers or consumers cannot ignore.   An improved local post office, with more potential to support people increasingly digitally excluded (and hopefully with more potential to develop awareness of the services available to older people) may not arise again too soon.   Our remaining post offices might be able to reclaim their unofficial role as the ‘community hub’ of the past.   It looks like a chance worth taking.

This is where a local Age Action Alliance (not necessarily with that formal title, but operating in that way) can make a difference.   Local organisations and local companies, working with local authorities, could be sitting down with postmasters to develop plans for the future.   Bring into the mix older people themselves, who know what is missing in their lives from the current service provision.   Find the partners whose digital knowledge will be essential, but who need to know how those digital services can be delivered in a community setting such as a post office, and what support needs to be provided in human terms.   The Government has not ruled out the idea that post offices might need to be relocated to bring them up to speed – a difficult decision to make or implement, but an option for consideration on the table.

Mervyn Kohler

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