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How Royal Mail fiddles the figures

It is easy, working in an office where we deal with a lot of incoming and outgoing post, to forget the reasons behind the intermittent CWU industrial action and see it as a minor irritation -- after all, if something's really important, we can always bike it, can't we? So it's good to see this timely (and shocking) report in the current LRB on how Royal Mail is fiddling its figures in order to justify part-privatisation:

Mail is delivered to the offices in grey boxes. These are a standard size, big enough to carry a few hundred letters. The mail is sorted from these boxes, put into pigeonholes representing the separate walks, and from there carried over to the frames. This is what is called "internal sorting" and it is the job of the full-timers, who come into work early to do it. In the past, the volume of mail was estimated by weighing the boxes. These days it is done by averages. There is an estimate for the number of letters that each box contains, decided on by national agreement between the management and the union. That number is 208. This is how the volume of mail passing through each office is worked out: 208 letters per box times the number of boxes. However, within the last year Royal Mail has arbitrarily, and without consultation, reduced the estimate for the number of letters in each box. It was 208: now they say it is 150. This arbitrary reduction more than accounts for the 10 per cent reduction that the Royal Mail claims is happening nationwide.

Fewer letters being sent these days, due to email and mobile phone use, is a truism repeated by everyone from Royal Mail managers to the Business Secretary, Peter Mandelson. In fact, as the piece makes clear, the real crisis affecting Royal Mail is not one of technology, but of a conflict between public service and private profit. The LRB's correspondent illustrates this point with a telling exchange:

We had a meeting a while back at which all the proposed changes to the business were laid out . . . We were told that the emphasis these days should be on the corporate customer. It was what the corporations wanted that mattered.

. . . Someone piped up in the middle of it. "What about Granny Smith?" he said. He's an old-fashioned sort of postman, the kind who cares about these things.

"Granny Smith is not important," was the reply. "Granny Smith doesn't matter any more."

For an indicator of what might lie ahead, I recommend you track down a copy of Jonathan Franzen's essay collection How to Be Alone, and read his gloomy but revealing mid-1990s investigation of Chicago's decrepit postal service.