IRISH EXAMINER OPINION EDITORIAL: Post Offices can be citizens ‘go to places’ for all State paperwork

2 October, 2016:

Postmasters want Post Offices to become ‘the State on Your Doorstep’. What does this mean and how would it benefit citizens? Irish Postmasters’ Union General Secretary Ned O’Hara sets out Postmasters’ vision for the future of Post Offices in Ireland.

The vision of Postmasters for the future of Post Offices is for them to evolve into community based State and social service centres, which connect the citizen to the State in as comprehensive and useful a manner as possible.

Postmasters call this vision ‘the State on Your Doorstep’ and this is what Postmasters propose as the future roadmap for Post Offices in Ireland.

So what types of additional services do Postmasters envisage?

It would mean that all Government services could be paid for at the Post Office including HSE, CAO, or Third Level registration fees.

Via a database and print out system, all appropriate Government documents could be accessed and processed at the Post Office. To properly enable this, Postmasters should become Peace Commissioners enabling them to provide identify verification on official State documents.

Post Offices should also be able to process all licences including Drivers and Gun licences and all fines including traffic, parking and court.

For the citizen the Post Office can be a one-stop-shop for all State payments and documents.

A second area for development is in financial services. Provision of a Standard Bank Account through the Post Office Network is in process through An Post. Given that Post Offices are the largest retail Network in the country, with 1,100 offices, we encourage all commercial banks to work with us to provide counter transactions through the Network.

The Post Office is also ideally placed to support the National Pension Plan.

As Social Protection Payments account for 35% of all Post Office business (and an estimated 50% including spin off value), it is critical that these continue to be available via cash payment at the Post Office. Government must back its own National Asset and encourage continued of the Post Office for these payments, both cash and electronic.

Postmasters have repeatedly asked for Post Offices to be sanctioned to process Motor Tax Renewal, which Grant Thornton estimated would save €60-65m over five years.

Post Offices can provide a role in maintaining the Electoral Register and facilitate people to sign on and off for Job Seekers allowance.

With the critical mass of all these activities at the Post Office, the Postmaster would become a ‘go to’ expert on advising and supporting people on any aspect of their citizenship. Need to make a payment? Get a form and get it verified? Get a licence? Manage your finances? Tax your car? Register to vote? Need information? Go to the Post Office.

And that’s not all our Post Offices can become. Our ‘The State at your Door’ vision also sees the development of the Network as a Social Hub.

The IPU has recently been involved in a series of community consultation workshops about the future role of Post Offices, supported by a number of major corporate companies, and some of the expanded services identified here stem from what communities themselves have called for.

For example, we are proposing the use of technology to facilitate remote health checks with GPs and Hospitals. Through video link up technology housed at Post Offices, thousands of journeys for routine check-ups and follow ups could be saved. While futuristic, this type of approach will be deliverable in the years agreed.

Furthermore, we have secure collection and delivery at our Offices every day and could offer a secure prescription medicines drop off point, saving people in rural areas having to commute to collect their routine prescriptions.

We can also provide information and connectivity for local transport services.

Post Offices should be locations for guaranteed internet access in every community, and also provide ICT training services. We can also provide a formalised directory of local services (which Postmasters already do informally) and a point for Tourist Information.

The Post Office Network is a highly trusted service and a National Asset which Postmasters want to grow and develop. The Network can be leveraged to greatly benefit both the citizen and Government, strengthening our shared civic and social connectivity.

And to add, developing the Network will also have a positive multiplier effect for all other local businesses surrounding the Post Office.

What we are proposing holds strong public support. This time last year, we submitted half a million signatures of support for the Network to the Department of Communications. A recent online poll of 7,000 people found that 82% of people believe the Government should do more to support Post Offices.

While there is goodwill across the political spectrum for Post Offices, recent Governments have not sanctioned an expanded remit to the Network, but have in fact has been compliant with an ongoing reduction in services and transactions.

As a result the Post Office Network is now at breaking point and will not survive into the future unless action is taken.

The IPU is calling on Government to recognise our National Asset by allocating investment in the October 11 budget to enable renewal and transformation.

Postmasters are currently involved in a Network Renewal Working Group, together with An Post and Government, to develop a five-year plan for the future of the Network. We are also calling for the outcomes of the Bobby Kerr Chaired Group to match our vision of The State on Your Doorstep.