PostNord: A Case Study in Incompetence

The Sunflower, Logo of Kompetenspartiet

By Jonathan Michael Feldman, PhD, Head of Kompetenspartiet

Author’s note: This is the first in a series of articles explaining why we need a new political party within Sweden, solely focused on the promotion of competence.  None of the political parties in Sweden has emphasized the need for competence as part of their program of activities.  As a result, we get more and more incompetence.  The public suffers from systematic bureaucratic incompetence, but the political parties respond to each episode of incompetence as if it were a unique occurrence or scandal.  Each episode is not unique, but rather part of a larger design system orchestrated by the very politicians who would police the incompetence.

Naked Incompetence

PostNord is a company jointly owned by the Swedish and Danish state, which acts like a dysfunctional corporate it bureaucracy.  Some months ago I got a letter from PostNord telling me to pick up a package at Klaraberg, a delivery point for such things in Stockholm. After I got there, I was told that the package had been sent on further to Stockholm University.  The lesson might have been that I should have called in advance about this letter or that PostNord made a mistake.  Yet, the problems are far deeper than this particular episode suggests.  I recently got another one of these letters.

I tried calling the customer service line in both Swedish and English.  The English customer service number is apparently a bogus number because on that call I waited 32 minutes and 15 seconds before not getting anyone to answer and then I hung up.  On the Swedish call, the wait time was about four minutes or so.  I called the person working at the customer service department to report these problems of incorrect letters and long wait time and asked them to correct them.  The person answering the phone kept saying “I understand.”   Roughly translated, this expression “I understand” is what I surmise is some kind of empathy training that involves not having to do anything.  The customer service representative said that they could not do anything about these problems.

I then proceeded to call the public relations office, the only number most large Swedish bureaucracies provide that give you access to a higher level manager directly.  They took down my information and suggested that they would send my concerns to some manager who would call me back.  The company does not really have a system for easily receiving information about its own dysfunctional operations because its customer service line is staffed by persons with very little authority or capacity to redirect information to the higher level managers who have designed in and sustained the incompetence manifested in: (a) repeated sending out of letters with false information, (b) long wait times on English call in numbers, and (c) the inability to assimilate or absorb information pertaining to these kinds of problems.

Somewhere in PostNord there is a person—perhaps a piece of software—that generates false information.  And on top of that, there is a layer of human beings who are generally indifferent to this fact and it is only by being persistent in an irrational fashion that one could possibly breakthrough the wall of indifference that surrounds this bureaucracy.

Related to this managerial level are the front line workers who resemble the army that does the work of the generals of indifference: you have persons trained in the customer service department to sound like they have empathy without actually being responsive.  Apparently, some form of industrial relations psychology is deployed to displace a managerial and political problem and transform that into an issue of managing the caller’s psyche.  The use of psychology to displace political or organizational choices made by those with more power is nothing knew of course, but it is surprising how commonplace its acceptance is among the mass of consumer/citizens who take it as a normal part of so-called “modern life.”

The Production of Indifference to Incompetence

The head of PostNord Sweden is Anders Holm, a person who is labeled by the organization’s website as a “market economist.”  His experience is listed as being involved in sales and marketing.   The post office should really be viewed as a public service, but instead it has become a corporation involving in salesmanship. Sweden in a cynical fashion has tried to extinct the idea of public service by turning over public functions to the market.  It thereby not only eliminates pubic services, but also eliminates the capacity to even understand what public service is.

It might have been far better if PostNord’s Chief Executive had a training in industrial engineering and organizational sociology, so he could have intimate and detailed knowledge of the flow, storage and organizational processes involved in delivering the mail.  Put differently, it might have helped if Holm had such competences and boasted about them on the page that directs one to him on PostNord’s homepage.  Yet, there is no such boasting and—one can likely assume—no such matching competence.  A marketing background, however, is very useful for selling services and selling an image to the public, politicians and other stakeholders.  Thus, Mr. Holm becomes the bridge or connection device between a set of values and competencies heralded by the market and love of the market, but rather very much at odds with delivering what should be a public service accountable to the public. Politicians may be happy that they don’t have to take direct responsibility for creating postal services, but this is not a satisfactory response.  Instead, politicians must think less in terms of market economics and more in terms of public service and user friendliness.  A user is hardly the same thing as a customer.  Therefore, having a proficiency in marketing is not sufficient for servicing the user in terms of the quality of what is delivered, how it is delivered, when it is delivered, and where it is delivered.  Swedes suffering from PostNord’s incompetence have taken their case to the public through editorials, but nothing has changed because of this bureaucracies power to be incompetent.

A short news item in TV2 Denmark’s blog explains how the leadership there engages in corporate expertise which is designed to destroy public functions.  The government there hired a privatization expert as its advisor.  The international financial housed hired by Denmark to advise it on the future of PostNord, “has a long history of selling off state postal companies.”  In Denmark, the company has suffered from “falling mail volumes as well as high costs for dismissing employees.”

Solutions

The solutions to these problems are rather simple.  First, dissolve PostNord and create a public authority that delivers the mail.  The public authority will be funded directly by the Swedish government, but will charge new rates for junk mail and other bulk mail with the fees for that designed to diminish these forms of now socially accepted pollution and waste.

Second, create an interdisciplinary educational program at a university related to how to organize and develop postal services.  The program will be used to train managers and personnel alike.   Do not assume that the currently available workforce tied to the public or private sectors are competent and do not assume that they have no need for specialized training.

Third, create an innovation office within the newly Named Swedish Postal Service which conceives of new ways to respond to customer suggestions, including the development of a hotline number that takes calls about such suggestions as well as any or all complaints.  This information will be fed daily to a new Vice President of Innovation, Corporate Responsibility and User Responsiveness.  This officer will respond directly to the new board of governors for the post service (see below).

Fourth, diversify the services offered by the new, Swedish Postal Service, to include banking in cooperation with the JAK bank, the leading cooperative bank in Sweden.  Give commissions to this joint venture to carry out functions.  For example, Swedish authorities decided recently to abolish the existing coins representing one and five crowns in value as well as certain paper denominations.  Yet, it was exceedingly difficult for many persons living in the country to get the old denominations changed into new ones.  The reason for the difficulty was that the major banks charged with this function were indifferent to their responsibility for overseeing these changes.  What should have been done is that the government should have paid for a currency conversion service to be established throughout the country, in widely accessible sites.  Swedbank, for example, only had one key conversion site within Stockholm City for the whole of inner Stockholm.  Other places took a huge commission fee, on the order of 20 percent or so, to convert currency.  The politicians were perfectly happy with this mafia like development, hiding again behind the veil of the market. While complaints later surfaced, no big ideas emerged from the small minded status quo.  That situation was clearly absurd, the result of politicians’ incompetence in administering public services to the public.

Fifth, create a new infrastructure of service sites similar to public post offices.  The goal is to eliminate the outsourcing of sales of stamps, package reception and the like to supermarkets.  The new sites will operate as franchises owned by the managers with the Swedish state having a certain ownership share, to be determined at a later date.

Sixth, create a new board of governors for the new Swedish Postal Service.  The board of governors will consist of the following persons: (a) individuals trained in industrial engineering and operations research (3); (b) two organizational and innovation sociologists, one trained in servicing users, the other trained in analyzing dysfunctional versus functional organizations; (c) a political scientist or policy oriented social scientist with competence in analyzing democracy theory and democratic organizations; (d) an expert or former manager in a foreign postal service that has a reputation for working well (3)–note, members of the board need not be Swedish citizens just like directors of Swedish companies need not be Swedish; (e) the head of the JAK bank, a manager of a cooperative firm, and a specialist in trucking to rail freight conversions (4); and (f) experts in organizational, service, and logistical training and services (4).

Finally, we need a new political party in Sweden to fight for these changes.  Such change will not come automatically from a lethargic and indifferent group of politicians who lack the creativity and courage to change the country or even the incentive to move beyond the tropes defined by obsolete ideologies.