Headlines: December 4th, 2000

The Post Office, described in a Cabinet Office report as a ‘sleeping giant’ has responded to the wake up call with a plan to trial ‘one stop’ government shops. The postmaster will become a Government General Practitioner with a role, similar to a medical GP, by providing a gateway to central and local government services. They will offer low level advice and information on benefits, welfare, council housing, employment and education. They will also assist customers to carry out a range of transactions such as paying council tax. Customers will be able, either with or without the postmaster’s help, to access the Internet and e-commerce services through kiosks in the Post OfficeThe trial to be launched next summer will involve all 287 post office outlets in Leicestershire and Rutland. If the trial demonstrates that the problems of developing the GP concept can be overcome and the public respond, the service will be progressively extended to all the 18,500 retail outlets. The Government has committed 15 million pounds for the pilot project to fund the technology and provide training for the postmaster and other staff who will be involved.

The Cabinet Office report ‘Counter Revolution’, commissioned by the Prime Minister, was critical of the Post Office which is losing business as the world changes around it. It has been slow to modernise and become a neglected resource, but the 1 billion pound Horizon computerisation programme connecting all offices will be fully installed by summer 2001 and provide the IT platform to handle all the tasks of a Government one stop shop.

The one stop shop project has a double attraction for the Government. The development of e-government services risks creating a digital divide between the information rich and the information poor. Some 94% of the population of the UK live with one mile of a post office and of the 28 million people who make 45 million visits to a post office every week many are elderly and poor. Transforming the post office into a government shop could bring the services of the local council and central departments such as the Benefits Agency to within walking distance of most homes and bridge the digital divide. The second attraction is that preventing the closure of post offices is a key feature of the White Paper ‘A Fair Deal for Rural England’.

Because some 97% of post offices are run by sub-postmasters who are private business people who usually combine the function with some other retail activity, the development of one stop shops would result in a massive privatisation of public services. The Post Office would not have a monopoly because under the ‘Channels’ policy published in 1999 by the then Central IT Unit all public services carried out by private companies would be subject to competition. The field is open for any company to set up a Government GP service, or for a company to buy one or many sub-post offices.