In early 2017 the Consumer Futures Unit (CFU), part of Citizens Advice Scotland, embarked on programme of deliberative research to engage rural and remote consumers in shaping the Post Office’s outreach policy and delivery practice.
The specific aspects of postal services which the research focussed on were Post Office Outreach services, as delivered as part of Post Office Ltd.’s Network Transformation Programme. These Outreach services are designed to retain access to postal services in remote areas, or areas with dispersed populations, and include a range of different service models :
- Mobile - Mobile Post Office vehicles visit over 250 location every week in rural locations across the UK, at set times and on certain days of the week. These mobile Post Offices are kitted out to provide a walk-in Post Office on wheels, with the added facility of an accessibility lift. They are operated by postmasters who can bring all the services that their core branches provide.
- Hosted – Hosted services operated out of a local building like a cafe, village hall or community centre on certain days of the week. There are 69 hosted services across Scotland. They are operated by postmasters who can bring all the services that their core branches provide.
- Partner – here Post Office services are offered through a partner – for example a local shop. Usually customers can access over 80% of Post Office services there whenever our partner’s business is open.
- Home Delivery - This is a service for very small communities and enables customers to order a reduced range of Post Office products and services over the telephone. The products will then either be delivered to a customer’s home by the core subpostmaster or are available for collection by the customer at a local Drop-In Session.
The purpose of the research was:
- To establish what aspects of the Post Office Ltd Outreach network are most important to customers in remote and rural areas, and why.
- To use this to help establish a consumer-centred monitoring framework that can be used to assess the quality of service offered to rural and remote consumers and track performance year-to-year.
What was done:
Working with Ipsos MORI Scotland, we designed and delivered 7 different engagement events, using 3 different methodologies: 1
- 2 Focus Groups (in Melrose and Peterhead) – to act as a control method against which the added benefits of more deliberative approaches could be assessed;
- 2 Structured Dialogues (in Melrose and Peterhead) – a flexible deliberative format that, when well designed, prioritises dialogue between participants and is able to deliver evidence of consumer values, preferences and priorities.
- 3 Online deliberations – using a Sounding Board tool to enable rural and remote participants from different parts of Scotland to engage in dialogue and deliberation together.
For each of the engagement events the participants were recruited to be a 'mini-public' ie demographically representative of the rural population of Scotland. Overall 66 people took part in the deliberations.
Overall, there was a low level of awareness of the Outreach Services provided by the Post Office, even in the area they were targeted to serve. Post Offices, however, were seen as a vital resource in rural communities because of the core functions they provided:
- Postal services were consistently seen as the most important of those provided by the Post Office There were felt to be few other outlets, if any,that provided these services locally, particularly in the most rural locations.
- Financial services were also viewed as very important to users of the Post Office, particularly in the most remote, rural communities without easy access to a bank or cash machine.
- Bill paying was a service that participants often relied on the Post Office for because there were no other outlets to do so within their community.
The perceived importance of the Post Office in all cases extended beyond its role as a service provider to include the social function that it played within the fabric of rural communities.
Participants identified a range of characteristics that they associated with a good Post Office service; in particular:
- good customer service from staff - who were expected to be both knowledgeable and friendly.
- reliability of the service, including consistent opening days and times, working technology, and the available of back-up or alternative provision should the service be unavailable.
- practical considerations, including convenient opening times, location, accessibility for those with mobility issues, and the level of privacy afforded for transactions that customers may wish to be discreet about.
These same principles of good service were also seen as important for Outreach services. In terms of the specific Outreach models, various elements were considered particularly important, including:
- reliability for both the Hosted and Mobile services, in terms of having consistent opening days and times.
- location of the Hosted service, which participants felt should be central and accessible.
- accessibility of the Mobile service, which participants felt should cater as much as possible to those with mobility issues,
- staff, which was seen as particularly important in Hosted services because of the dependence on an individual staff member, and in the Partner service due to the possibility of retail staff carrying out Post Office tasks that they may not have been trained to do.
To find out more about the findings see:
The CFU Insight Report - Keeping communities connected: consumer views on Post Office Outreach services
- The full Project Report
- 1 This public engagement was carried out on a live policy issue as part of a wider CFU research project that sought to establish ‘Which deliberative methods are most effective at identifying and understanding consumer preferences, motivations and priorities within the regulated industries?’