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11 September 2003 Edition

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Lost in the post

BY ROBBIE SMYTH

THE GOVERNMENT needs your help to solve a mystery. Well, communications minister Dermot Ahern needs your help.

Here are the facts as we know them. Ten months ago, John Hynes, the chief executive of An Post, told Ahern in a letter that the company would return to profitability in 2003.

Hynes wrote to Ahern telling him that, "We would argue there is no case at present, for the preparation of a survival plan for the business''. Now, disclosures to An Post workers and the minister, by new chief executive Donal Curtin, show a very changed state of affairs.

An Post is facing trading losses this year of  50 million and 1,500 jobs are in jeopardy. The company is looking for a further rise in stamp prices and is proposing to sell properties worth  27 million over the next two years to raise money for the company.

Other drastic action proposed is to cancel management bonuses and ban air travel. It all smacks of desperation. How it was proposed to pay bonuses to the management of a company losing nearly a million euro a week is mind boggling.

But defying logic and reason comes with the territory when it comes to An Post. The bad signs have been there for months.

An Post's current tale of woe began last Christmas, when lack of planning for the Christmas period meant that tens of thousands of businesses and homes found their mail was days and, in some cases, weeks late.

As outraged customers took to the radio chat shows and newspaper letter columns to air their grievances, so did An Post - to combat any perception that the company was at fault. In recent weeks, this cycle has repeated itself, after An Post sought to play down a survey by the mail regulator ComReg, which showed that the next-day delivery rates of

An Post were considerably below their target 96% delivery target. The ComReg survey found that only 70% of post mailed reached its destination the next day, with the figure rising to 75% outside Dublin.

An Post claimed that ComReg had got its figures wrong and they really knew what was happening. An Post's survey had 87% of mail being delivered the next day. ComReg had an "immature'' monitoring system according to An Post.

However, this is only one example of the strange thinking at work in An Post. One of its profitable divisions, which subsidises loss making elsewhere, is domestic mail delivery.

Earlier this year, An Post proposed restricting deliveries, by setting up 500,000 roadside mail boxes - so the company wouldn't have to deliver to rural homes. The boxes would cost millions, but An Post management believed it would save the company - 20 million annually.

There was no imaginative thinking when it came to dealing with other losses. And it is here that the real failures of managing An Post become completely clear. An Post is subsidising international mail operators - particularly the

British `Royal'Mail - because of badly negotiated international mail agreements. Government for some time has known about this issue, but what have they done? Absolutely nothing.

Now the minister wants monthly reports from the new An Post management. The new CEO, Donal Curtin, took over during the summer and had been an executive at ESB. Curtin has cancelled the bonuses of 80 executives at the company. And another ComReg survey has shown considerable customer dissatisfaction with the company. One third of businesses thought An Post did not give value for money and one in five had complained to the company.

Like many other public utilities, An Post has been let stumble from crisis to crisis in recent years, with bad management practices being used as an argument for privatisation. It is clear, from the debacle over figures released this week, that much work needs to be done to ensure An Post is a well-run company. We also need the government to play their part in this. In recent years both parties have been absent from their posts.

An Phoblacht Magazine

AN PHOBLACHT MAGAZINE:

  • The first edition of this new magazine will feature a 10 page special on the life and legacy of our leader Martin McGuinness to mark the first anniversary of his untimely passing.
  • It will include a personal reminiscence by Gerry Adams and contributions from the McGuinness family.
  • There will also be an exclusive interview with our new Uachtarán Mary Lou McDonald.

Buy An Phoblacht magazine here

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