THERE are two starting fundamentals that need to be understood about post offices.
First of all: Post offices are not the same as standalone private commercial businesses. They provide core public and commercial services and deliver both a commercial and social role within the community that goes far beyond a normal business function.
The second is that approximately 1,100 of Ireland’s 1,150 post offices are operated by postmasters who are stand- alone, self-employed contractors.
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However, postmasters are different from other SMEs in that they do not have choice over which services they provide and how they are provided. Their service offering is decided on by Government and An Post.
To elaborate on the first point, post offices provide a social centre-point in their localities which contribute to community cohesion and connectivity. They also bring a positive influence to other businesses, as people who collect payments in the post office by extension spend this money in their local economy.
To expand on the second point, postmasters believe there is a meaningful future for post offices whereby they can earn a decent basic living and communities can have access to locally based core services, along with the intangible benefit of a human contact point for information gathering and exchange.
However, decisions on the network’s future have to come from Government/An Post as postmasters are not able to choose the services they provide. So, for offices to deliver more services to the public, the Government and/or An Post must sanction it.
The elephant in the room — and why postmasters were protesting this week — has to do with ongoing change in how social protection payments are made.
The social protection contract, and the transactions it generates, is fundamental to the business model of the post office. It involves the traditional collection of social protection payments in cash over the counter and accounts for more than 30% of post office business — and up to 50% in spin-off value.
Current Government policy is to move social protection payments to electronic funds transfer (EFT), making payments directly into people’s commercial bank accounts.
This process have been going on for a number of years and reached a boiling point in recent months, when Government issued revised social protection forms recommending the public use the bank over the post office.
Postmasters fully appreciate that greater use of EFT reflects what many consumers want and are not insisting that the traditional cash payment model be forced on the public.
However, postmasters believe there is a solution, which is neither complex or costly, and it simply involves levelling the playing pitch and giving people choice.
Firstly, a post office-based electronic transaction account needs to be developed which provides people with the option of receiving and transacting social protection payments via the post office, either in cash or EFT.
This will cost some money to develop and Government needs to allocate appropriate funding for it in the upcoming budget.
Secondly, while this is being established the Department of Social Protection should cease encouraging people to sign up or over to the banks — and work with the post office network as the provider of choice.
If people proactively prefer and choose to have their payments made to their personal bank account postmasters fully respect this choice.
However, the Government should not promote it, while not offering a post office-based alternative.
Should this continue it will close hundreds of post offices — and by extension many other local business will follow. Postmasters are reasonable people and are trying to shout “stop” before it’s too late.
We must also look towards maximising the potential to develop new post offices business such as motor tax renewal, property tax collection, retail of white label products and many other good ideas set out in the Bobby Kerr-led Post Office Business Development group interim report last month.
The cost of maintaining a meaningful network is not high, but it can only happen as a result of political decisions — firstly, that community matters, and secondly, that post offices are a national asset through which to meaningfully deliver on this principle.
Postmasters recently launched two Community and Post Office general election candidates on the platform of greater government support for and investment in communities.
Galway postmistress Seona O’Fegan announced her campaign to run in Galway West last month, while Cabra postmaster Andrew Kelly launched his campaign in Dublin Central last week.
The Community and Post Office candidates are independent in their own right and standing on a shared platform of “Community”, with post offices a key ingredient.
More candidates will be announced in September and it is expected that eight candidates will run in total.
They represent how postmasters feel and also provide a voice for what they are hearing in their offices on a daily basis.