UK postal problems

This week is looks like the UK is going to have a postal strike. I think this raises a range of interesting questions about public management, and of the role of public services.

The management in the dispute are claiming that the strike is down to an unwillingess of workers to adopt ‘modern’ working practices. They say that postal volumes are down by 10%, and that this will inevitably lead to reductions in workforce and changes in working practices.

Unions say that they have already agreed to reductions in workforce, and that managers are trying to push through changes that are not in interest of the service as a whole.

Victoria Coren wrote a rather scathing piece about the strike at the weekend (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/oct/18/victoria-coren-royal-mail). She makes some rather excellent points. Central to her argument is the question of who exactly the post office now works for. She points out that the post office made a pretty remarkable surplus last year, and that it can afford to pay its workers a little better as a result. This is debatable, but clearly starting from a pretty good premise. More interestingly she asks in whose name modernisation is taking place in the post office. Consumers, she suggests, probably want all the things that have disappeared in the name of modernisation in the last few years – second deliveries, post offices close to where we live, and postal delivery people who we actually know. So modernisation doesn’t appear to be taking place in their name.

Equally, modernisation doesn’t seem to be taking place in the name of post office workers. They are going on strike to try and oppose the modernisation process. Something we need to be careful of is that ‘modernisation’ sounds like something that it is perverse to oppose, but hides a variety of sins. If ‘modernisation’ means silly targets, poorer service for consumers and workers doing a worse job because they resent the introduction of new working practices, then it is harder to argue in its favour. It is also worth mentioning that workers don’t generally go on strike lightly – they won’t get paid for the time they spend striking, and so it is a tough decision to come to.

So if modernisation isn’t being done in the name of customers (who probably got a better service 5 years ago), or staff (who are prepared to go on strike to oppose it), then who is it for? One answer would be shareholders, but the post office’s majority shareholding is the government, who are meant to be acting on behalf the citizens of the UK, who are also the customers of the post office. And we’ve already said that they aren’t benefitting from it a great deal.

Perhaps modernisation has become some kind of managerial holy grail that now has no resemblance to whether it makes things better for anyone, anymore. We know what we want from our postal service. We know that we won’t be getting it this week, and we know that we probably got a better service 5 years ago. If modernisation is supposed to represent cutting edge public management, which appears to be the government’s position in relation to this mess, then perhaps we need to think again what we want from our public managers.

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