Government services need to move with the times

29 Jun 2006

One of the sure things about the internet and all that comes with it is that the way business is being done is changing. We hear more and more how small businesses are closing their doors and concentrating on the internet for marketing and sales. The costs of keeping a premises and staff to run the place are no longer worth it if you can access bigger markets without the need for a shop at all.

So things are definitely on the move and some predict that the end of the small retail outlet is nigh, although I have to admit that I can’t quite envisage getting the paper and milk online just yet. I’m not saying it’s impossible but I don’t see much activity in that area. Then again, the recent demise of the milk round may well have been stalled and even reversed if the technology and applications were there for people to log their daily orders for milk, juice, papers and even a bit of breakfast.

Clearly the internet can be good or bad news depending on your willingness and readiness to go with the flow and bite a few bullets. And for those who don’t, well, maybe they were doomed anyway because they broke or never got into a cycle of innovation that would have made it possible to transform and progress as the circumstances around communications and relationship development changed in such a profound way.

I was musing with some colleagues recently about how only a little over 20 years ago I was making great progress using a telex machine to send stuff from Cork to Dublin in real time. It was a revolution in the job I was then in and made things a whole lot better in terms of getting sign-off for plans I was making for a major event without having to come all the way back to Dublin and get the schedule typed up over the course of a day or so.

The next tremendous leap was the fax machine and I subsequently worked for a company that made shed-loads of money selling faxes. I rarely use a fax nowadays –in fact I can only recall using it twice over the last year — because we have email and we have things like the BlackBerry that make it possible to communicate in long or short mode no matter where or when (except for today in Latvia where Vodafone doesn’t seem to have a GPRS arrangement with any of the local suppliers — out of the loop again!).

For businesses, the need to move with the times is critical for survival. For governments and public services organisations, however, the same imperative is not really there. While you could say that the failure of governments to meet growing expectations for agility and relevance in its service delivery could eventually lead to anarchy but with a slow-moving fleet like the government, enough of the smaller craft can move with sufficient speed to take the heat out of the situation and release some of the pressure.

But one public sector organisation that has had to cope with the digital revolution is An Post. I don’t have the figures but I suspect that postal volumes must have been impacted quite significantly by the increasing use of email. And from the noises that we’ve heard over the past while you can gather that there have been “interesting times” there between management and unions.

On the positive side, there has to be the large increase in the amount of parcels being posted. You would imagine therefore, with goods purchased on eBay and Amazon and the like, that there would be a great opportunity to respond with new types of parcel-delivery options for those of us who are getting online access to goods that we used to carry home in our luggage.

You’d think they’d design a service allowing you to register for a “parcels-minding service”. Instead of sending the “man in a van” with an armload, you’d get a notice by email telling you that the parcel has arrived and that you can collect it outside working hours. Why? Because it would be more convenient than having to take time off, as I did a week ago, to go and collect the parcel at some big depot (in my case about five or six miles away) between 8am and 3pm.

Another point that struck me a day later in relation to An Post (perhaps because I was a little sensitive after the parcel circus) was a notice in a post office informing people that An Post doesn’t take credit cards. Everyone else in the world is trying to take cash out of the system and encouraging the use of cards of every variety. You’d think that having been the target of so many of our “cash cowboys” in the past that they would be only too happy to use anything possible to stay out of handling cash. Yeah, you’d imagine, wouldn’t you?

By Syl O’Connor