Ansi Arumeel, Chairman of the management board of Eesti Post
Estonia is an extraordinary success story on the world scale – our digital society is something that doesn’t exist elsewhere. Every time I am asked to speak at conferences or events abroad, I am proud that I can talk about how things are organized in our country. Everybody is in awe and visibly envious. The digital standards and services can probably be viewed as the state’s best effort to make sure that services are equally available to everyone in the country.
The same success story has produced an inverse effect on postal services. If people prefer digital services, postal services are needed less and less often. The change has been among the fastest in the world. Once, postal services was vital, but that is not the case anymore. People have made this decision for themselves– the number of letters sent by conventional mail is less than one-quarter of what it was some ten years ago. On average, Estonians spend money on universal postal service twice (!) a year. What is extraordinary is that the postal service continues to operate along the rules laid down years ago – letters are still delivered five times a week and post offices and mailboxes continue to be located across the country. From the perspective of the market economy, it’s illogical – supply exceeds demand several times over. The illogical situation is also strongly expressed in Eesti Post’s financial results – if things continue this way, the company will post a loss of over 40 million euros on universal postal services and periodical delivery services. In part, the loss can be covered with other lines of business, and this is what is being done by the company under the Omniva trademark that has expanded to different fields and Baltics-wide. But that is not enough.
Postal services: the presence of the state in the countryside
Curiously, there doesn’t seem to be any problem on the practical side: if there’s no demand, supply should be pared back. But it isn’t actually that simple. First of all, supply – in other words, how postal service should be provided – Is governed by very precise rules. Secondly, every change has an emotional side: if a post office closes after decades in a certain location, it feels like the state is moving away from the people. This directly undermines people’s sense of security. Actually, though, there is no reason or worry – postal services will not disappear. The transformation of post offices to smaller outlets or provision of postal service by courier tends to makes life easier and safer. Provision of service in cooperation with a local institution such a library, shop or local government is more efficient and is convenient for consumers as well. And in a rural area, it’s even better if a courier brings service home directly than people being forced to come into town for postal service. The service reaches the people and people don’t have to seek out the service.
Local community demands changes
Postal services are traditional, yes, but there are many examples of where a local community has welcomed and even demanded changes. A few years ago, the inhabitants of Paikuse Municipality started a petition on Facebook for replacing the post office with a parcel locker. The main reason people went to the post office was to pick up packages, but they had to plan around the office’s opening hours and this was a hassle. Today, Paikuse has its 24/7 parcel machine and other postal services are also still available for locals.
Changes in service over time have another dimension, one that is also very human. Recently, one of the most senior Eesti Post employees celebrated their 60th work anniversary. When our management board member congratulated the celebrant and asked how work had changed at the post office over the decades, the woman had a short answer: “Today I’m a parcel machine.” But is doing the work of a parcel machine what motivates people on today’s job market and provides an incentive to work in postal services?
The safe choice is a dead end
Life has changed and people and services are adapting – regardless of regulations or the attempt to preserve everything just as it was. As the human geographer Garri Raagmaa has noted (EPL /Delfi https://epl.delfi.ee/lp/kas-eestist-on-jarel-ainult-uks-suur-harjumaa-voi-elab-veel-keegi-ka-mujal-maal?id=86655245): changes in postal service are not the reason that rural life is less vibrant or why local institutions are closing, but rather the consequence of people’s needs changing.
As a company head, I have always followed the principle that the leader’s job is to summon forth changes. If a company doesn’t change, doesn’t adapt to the market or create new opportunities, there’s no future. That has been the guiding principle for Eesti Post throughout the recent years. Knowing that demand for traditional postal service is diminishing, we have started new business areas and made investments so that we can continue to be successful in future. I believe that the same principle applies to all leaders, including those who create rules and possibilities for the state. Clinging to the old may seem like the safe choice, but it is also a dead end.