The Royal Mail: public business, public service

December 01, 1993

The last decade or more has seen many private sector disciplines applied to the public sector, largely through privatisation. The utilities in particular now feature prominently among the privately-owned businesses with the most active community involvement programmes. So it comes as something of a surprise to find an organisation still firmly in the public sector with a bigger and more professionally managed CCI programme than many companies.

The Royal Mail describes itself as “the letters business of the Post Office”, employing about 80% of the Post Office’s staff and earning three quarters of its revenue. Its 170,000 staff service 24 million addresses every day, putting it in more extensive direct touch with its customers than any other business, whether publicly or privately owned.


This year’s award, part of the Grand Met and Home Office sponsored Employees in the Community Awards, went in recognition of the “support provided by enabling and encouraging employees to use their skills and enthusiasm and by loaning company resources to a wide range of community projects”.

Community involvement

Royal Mail’s Community Action Programme has three main elements. The first, and most important, is support to facilitate employee volunteering. Help takes the form of how-to-do-it guidelines and an intensive effort to identify volunteering opportunities. Nine full-time community action managers, part of the divisional (regional) human resource departments, provide advice and information to individuals and local groups of staff. A senior community action manager, located in a central ‘consultancy services’ unit, coordinates the divisional team, although without direct line management responsibility.

No restrictions are placed on the type of activity supported, as some companies have done. Fundraising often features – for example, in 1992 staff raised £250,000 for the British Paralympic Association. Particular support has been offered to school governors, with a course being run for Royal Mail employees at the Post Office’s management training centre.

The commitment to help identify volunteering opportunities extends as far as seconding a member of staff to the Volunteer Centre UK’s Challenge ’94. In 1992, nearly 2,000 Royal Mail staff took on 114 separate community projects for a day as part of that year’s National Challenge event. The secondment will help ensure a bigger and better organised event, so helping other companies too.

The second element might be dubbed “asset volunteering” – there is a conscious effort to make available resources such as office accommodation, places on training courses, even vehicles, suitably refurbished, at the end of their efficient operational life. This is often in response to staff requests.

The third element is traditional full-time secondment. Some 20 Royal Mail staff may be released at any one time; presently at just one project, CSV’s Learning Together, a team of five is working. However secondment is not used simply as a personnel management tool; where appropriate, secondment opportunities are advertised internally and a ‘competitive selection’ undertaken. Royal Mail is also starting to explore using short-term assignments as a part of a structured staff development programme.

So the emphasis is very much on people, not, as in some companies, on charitable donations (although the appeals still flood in). Most requests for donations are handled by the Post Office, which reports a charitable donation figure of £1.1 million in its annual report, with a further £600,000 in-kind support – a respectable 0.6% of pre-tax profits, enough to qualify for the Per Cent Club.


So why do it? At one level, the answer is that “recognising responsibilities as part of the social . . . life of the country” is a feature of Royal Mail’s ‘Business Mission’ – yes, the private sector’s passion for mission statements, identifying core values, setting of objectives and targets, etc, has reached this part of the once sleepy public sector.

But why is it in the mission? Part of the answer is that it ought to be there, even more so than in an average business, because the local postman or woman is rather more than an average business; for many, it is a social service, keeping isolated people in touch personally. (That other great ‘communicator’, BT, does it by technology, not someone coming up the garden path.) This public service ethos may be one reason why the Post Office, at any rate so far, has escaped the privatising zeal even of a government attempting to put much of British Rail into private hands.

The other part of the answer, instantly recognisable by most community affairs managers, lies in the benefits to employees and the business: team building, motivation, developing individuals, etc. Community involvement also helps to open the eyes of managers to see the world as it really is – essential in a business which deals with so many ordinary members of the public every day. The attitudes of employees to the community action programme are tested every six months with a question in the general staff survey.


So if the employee elements of the ‘business case’ apply, what about that other business benefit most companies seek – improved corporate reputation? Here Royal Mail demonstrates a reticence common among companies a decade or more ago. Certainly, customer perceptions are monitored regularly through external surveys. Attitudes to the environment have recently been tested separately and community involvement may shortly be surveyed too. Furthermore the impact that staff involvement, even in their own time, can have on customer perceptions is acknowledged and is one of the motivations for Royal Mail’s extensive support. However publicity is not deliberately sought. For example, no community involvement brochure exists and press releases are not normally issued.

Milking the voluntary activity of staff for PR purposes is likely to be counter-productive if staff feel they are being exploited. In the absence of large corporate donations, it is harder for an organisation to claim the credit. But the business is supporting the endeavour and devoting real resources to the community, so the issue should be how to communicate in an effective way, rather than whether to at all. Because of these questions, Royal Mail will shortly be reconsidering this policy.


Among other future challenges, Royal Mail is struggling, in common with many companies, with how to measure the business benefits which community action brings, so that they are more demonstrable and less intuitive. Royal Mail is also concerned to make better connection with charities, to yield more good volunteering opportunities and to overcome practical impediments such as insurance liability questions.

Ambitious targets for employee involvement have been set: the goal is that by March 1996, 25,000 staff will be involved in community action through or with Royal Mail support. By comparison, in the four months to July 1993, some 5,000 volunteered, already a creditable total. Historically, voluntary sector demands, whether cash or in-kind, have always vastly exceeded what on companies can supply. Royal Mail seem confident they can meet their total; can the voluntary sector rise to the challenge and provide enough suitable opportunities?

Looking wider, if the employees in the community initiative really takes off, aided by the recent merger of Action Resource Centre and Business in the Community’s employee target team, the volunteering ‘infrastructure’ will need reinforcing. Government is showing signs of putting volunteering higher up its agenda. Perhaps Royal Mail can teach their public sector colleagues a trick or two, as well as spurring some private companies into action.


The Post Office

(group parent of Royal Mail)

Year ended 28 March 1993

Chairman: Michael Heron Main businesses: Royal Mail, Post Office Counters and Parcelforce

Turnover: £5,345m Profit before tax: £283m Employees: 193,000 fte FT top UK 500 ranking: /a

Declared charitable donations: £1.1m Declared total community contribution: £1.7m % of profits: 0.6% Memberships: BITC

Community Action Manager (Royal Mail): Giles Holman Address: Royal Mail House, 148 Old Street, London EC1V 9HQ Phone: 071 250 2528

Corporate Citizenship Briefing, issue no: 13 – December, 1993