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Clear direction

September 14, 2013

UPU director general Bishar A Hussein talks to Helen Norman about the role and his hopes for the future 

How will your past experience benefit the Universal Postal Union (UPU)?

I have close to three decades of postal and diplomatic experience where I have had the opportunity to manage institutions and resources. I have good knowledge of the postal industry from operational, executive and market viewpoints. As chairman of the UPU’s Council of Administration during the past work cycle, I was involved in the preparatory work for the Doha Congress and have a good grasp of the current issues facing the UPU and the postal sector. I am confident my experience will help to translate the congress decisions and resolutions into concrete actions that will benefit UPU member countries.

Tell us about your experience in the role of Director General to date.

I have a better appreciation for the enormous responsibilities of the International Bureau, the union’s secretariat, and member countries’ expectations of us. I have also come to appreciate in greater detail the role I am asked to play as Director General, but so far my experience has been exciting and challenging.

What does a typical day for you involve?

My schedule can be quite varied but generally I take time to go through documents that require my attention and I normally have several meetings scheduled, either with staff of the International Bureau, ambassadors stationed in Switzerland or with the United Nations in Geneva, or with ministers passing through and wishing to discuss national postal issues and development. When I’m not at the office, I’m travelling on official business to our member countries – where I meet with postal and government officials to impress upon them the importance of investing in and strengthening the postal network.

What is your main focus moving forward?

Congress has given me a clear mandate and my priority is to work with the International Bureau and the member countries to ensure that Congress decisions are implemented and that major projects continue in important areas, such as improving the quality of postal services, strengthening and developing the network to foster trade for key economic sectors such as small and medium-size businesses, and extending financial inclusion through the postal network.

The UPU has forged many important working relationships with members of the international community, especially organisations of the United Nations system. These relationships are crucial to working together on common problems and issues, such as reducing customs barriers and improving the efficiency of mail movement across borders, ensuring the security of mail transportation, working to foster financial inclusion worldwide, and promoting cross-border trade.

I will work to nurture these relationships, which remain useful to meet our collective goals. 

Finally, we are a small organisation with a modest annual budget [about US$40m, (£26m)]. I will work to ensure that resources are used efficiently to meet the needs of our member countries, and seek ways of finding additional funding for projects and activities.

Can you outline some of the main projects being worked on as part of the Doha Postal Strategy?

The Doha Postal Strategy has four broad goals and 18 programmes, and member countries have set out their priorities in the regions.

Improving the quality of service remains a key goal. There can be no market development without quality of service, and this involves a change of culture and effectively managing the entire supply chain. The UPU continues to help countries with national projects and encourages them to make good use of our Quality of Service Fund, which is there to fund projects to improve the universal service.

Another priority is helping member countries and their operators to develop and capitalise on the three key dimensions of the postal network – physical, electronic and financial. While physical mail is declining, in many cases it continues to be an important part of global revenues. We must continue to develop those segments that are critical to the letter-post business, such as direct marketing.

At the same time, member countries and their operators must invest in new technologies to improve operational efficiency and better monitor their quality of service, while developing electronic services that meet customers’ evolving needs.

We are working closely with international organisations such as the World Customs Organization and the International Air Transport Association to improve mail clearance at customs and its transportation by air. We are heavily involved in developing processes that speed up data exchange between authorities to make the processing and delivery of international mail more efficient.

Finally, postal services are inclusive. No one is turned away at the post office – neither rich nor poor. Posts must capitalise on this asset, and the proximity of their services to the population, to facilitate trade and foster financial inclusion.

What are the main challenges affecting the sector and how can these be overcome?

The challenges differ according to the region and the countries. Generally, improving quality of service is a critical goal. It is the essence of our business. If customers see the value of postal services and are satisfied, they will keep coming back. We have to be attuned to customers’ needs and help them achieve their communication objectives using postal services. In some countries, for the operator to provide good quality of service, there needs to be appropriate regulation so that all market players operate on a level playing field, where standards of quality are well established and competition doesn’t run amok.

Raising government awareness of the importance and value of the national postal infrastructure is a key challenge for the UPU. Yes, the mail business is changing, but the network is there and can be a tremendous asset for governments to provide important social services to their populations. This can be part of the diversification strategy of postal operators, as they look at how to remain relevant in the communication market and respond appropriately to customers’ needs.

How will you ensure you don’t lose touch with the market, its issues and trends?

I am in constant contact with postal representatives in all segments of the business – from ministers, regulators and chief executive officers of postal entities to other stakeholders I meet through our consultative committee, including labour unions, express mail service providers, philatelists and others. Aside from travelling to various regions and seeing first-hand how postal services work, our regular meetings of the UPU official bodies, attended by nearly 2,000 delegates annually, are rich in discussions, and thought provoking.

Tell us more about how you are working towards making technology accessible to the developing markets.

Technology plays an important role in improving mail operations and quality of service, and generally strengthening the postal network in any country. That said, the resources of countries differ greatly.

Through the UPU’s Postal Technology Centre, we assist the posts of all countries – developing and industrialised – to gain access to affordable and effective technologies that help them manage their mail volumes, track and trace mail items, analyse their mail performance and exchange and monitor electronic money orders.

The UPU’s Global Monitoring System also makes it easier for posts worldwide to have access to RFID technology to better monitor mail movement, identify weaknesses in the network and take remedial action.

Finally, we now have a secure .post platform on the internet, which member countries and their operators can use to transpose into the digital world the well-known values of
physical postal services and expand their reach. More than 30 countries have already joined the .post group to oversee the development of the platform. This shows that there is much enthusiasm for developing the postal network of the future.

How can the industry work together more efficiently to improve quality of service?

Commitment at the highest level – whether it’s the government, the postal operator, or the regulator – is an absolute must. One cannot progress on improving service quality if the people that matter don’t give substance to these words. And it’s not just about having the best equipment or technology; it is a mindset.

From the employee who sorts the mail to the one who delivers it and their supervisors who monitor their work, providing the best quality of service to the customer must be their mantra. Why is this important? Because, while posts worldwide deliver millions of mail items every day successfully, this enormous task is seamless to customers. But when one letter or parcel goes astray, or the postal personnel did not meet the customer’s expectations, that’s when you will hear the complaints.

At the end of your four-year term, how do you hope the industry will have changed?

I hope we can succeed in convincing governments to give the postal sector the attention it deserves and, as I’ve said, capitalise on the network’s tremendous potential by investing in it to deliver valuable services to their people. We need to make progress on improving service, but at the local level we must help developing countries strengthen their national network and regain the business. There is tremendous competition for postal services.

If you could give one piece of advice to postal organisations around the world, what would it be?

Postal services still play a valuable role in the communication market. We are part of this global market and we must compete against well established and aggressive operators in
an increasingly liberalised market. Let’s never forget the essential values of postal services: proximity, inclusiveness
and affordability. These are strong assets on which to build.


This article was published in the September issue of Postal Technology International magazine

Words by Helen Norman

September 14, 2013


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