Next week will see the 2012 National Digital Conference with over a thousand delegates exploring "the policy, leadership, innovation and collective action needed to support an inclusive and enterprising digital nation". The state of current debates over electronic identities and payment mechanisms, let alone of those over data protection, privacy and security, indicates that inclusion and innovation will be almost the last things in the minds of those seeking to herd the sheep on-line to be fleeced. Whether the fleecing is to be done by the purveyors of technology, regulatory or compliance snake oil or by local and global organised crime, no-one appears to be giving priority to quality of service to paying customers.
One of those planning to attend the National Digital Conference sent me the following guest blog. I have changed the heading from his original "Please sign here - but not at the Post Office." and put his message into political context, but it is stark
The DWP has, whether by accident or design, created a situation whereby some of the most vulnerable in society, with least access to reliable on-line services (if they could see or manage the dexterity to use them) are no longer able to use their local Post Office, where they can deal with staff they know and who know them, but must travel miles to a Paypoint to use a less secure service. In rural areas, with few buses and expensive taxis, the increase in cost and the deterioration in quality of life flies unnecessarily in the face of declared government policy. Worse, it will be blamed, unjustly, on current ministers and their enthusiasm for using new technology to deliver better service at lower cost.
We all know that older people love their Post Offices but does the Post Office love them? Not if you can't remember you PIN number. You can't sign for transactions using your Post Office Account Card or Bank Card. Post Office Counters Ltd clearly does not know it's customers, particularly their most vulnerable, even if their staff do. Signing for pensions and bank withdrawals is the simple answer. Even if supplementary ID is needed, as in some countries that require it for all card transactions.
But is it actually the fault of the Post Office or of a mix of political dogma (those wishing to privatise Government's last source of face-to-face contact with most of the population) and silo mentality (illusory intra-cost centre savings aggregating to a massive collective increase in outsourced spend)?
When the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and Post Office introduced the Post Office Card Account (POCA) a few years ago, most pensioners accepted this as a reasonable alternative to Giro payments or paid their pensions into Bank Current accounts. Those unable or unwilling to do so continued to be paid by cheque. This included some of the most vulnerable members of society.
When CHIP enabled cards were introduced, the Banking code insisted that CHIP and SIGNATURE card should be issued to people that can't use CHIP and PIN technology. Many people can't remember their PINs and others cannot use the technology.
With CHIP enabled cards the main security is in the encrypted CHIP. CHIP and PIN only proves that the person that has the card knows the number. It does not prove the identity of the card holder.
But the Post Office Card Account is not available as CHIP and Signature.
Because DWP policy forbids this.
The DWP say that they comply with Equality issues by issuing Giro cheques to people who can't remember their PIN numbers. In consequence the DWP is forcing a significant number of older and less able people to give up their giro cheque and go to PayPoint outlets to collect their money using their new unnecessary and less safe system ominously called 'Simple Payments'. Simple payments requires the issuance of another card and attending the paypoint counter with a memorable date and proof of ID. Meanwhile sub-post-offices are not permitted, for reasons that are not clear, to also offer PayPoint services and in many rural areas there is not enough business to support both a Sub Post Office and a PayPoint service - the choice is either/or. Thus the nearest Paypoint to Gamblesby, which has a Post Office, is Alston or Penrith, both a low frequency bus journey away.
Almost all banks (except HSBC, the 'World's Local Bank' and Santander, "Europe's Biggest") allow current account holders to make withdrawals at Post Offices. But the Post Office does not allow CHIP and Signature Card holders to sign for their money.
So even if you are 'financially included' and have a bank account, but have to sign, - you are digitally excluded by the Post Office.
Perhaps the suggestion that the whole DWP 'Simple Payments' system would be unnecessary if the Post Office did what retailers do and allowed usage of chip and signature cards will upset those who promoted the 'Simple Payments' system.
But the suggestion that allowing usage of chip and signature cards will keep more Post Offices in business and respect the needs and wishes of older and vulnerable people is a much more powerful one.
The UK Payments Council last year withdrew it's plans to abolish cheques. This was partly as a result of Age UK's report "The way we pay" which advocated the use of a 'magic card'. At the Alzheimer's society report "Short Changed, Protecting people with Dementia from financial abuse" a speaker, who suffers memory loss after a stroke, could not understand why the Post Office insisted on using PINs and did not have a method of identification that included photo ID. After all, most older people have, (and in many cases, only understand) their routine, and are known and therefore identified, by the staff in their local post office. And they carry photo ID - bus passes.
Action On Elder abuse warns that Financial Abuse of the elderly is more prevalent than physical and sexual abuse. Financial abuse is also most commonly committed by persons in a position of trust - family and carers. Older people have a right to their independence and not to rely on others.
The UK Payments Council, to their credit, have included wider issuance and use of CHIP and Signature Cards in their strategic plan. This is partly because of widespread publicity and lobbying for consumer groups including Which?
Next week's Digital Inclusion Conference ND2012 will be interesting - especially to hear what promises Paula Vennels, Chief Executive of the Post Office is going to make to assist her vulnerable customers. Perhaps she has listened to her fellow panellist from last year, Gordon Graylish, Global VP Enterprise and Marketing. Intel. Who said "We should be looking at people who need services, and those services can be delivered in a hundred different ways, or a thousand different ways, ...But the most important thing is to think about the people and how you help them, rather than try to make them fit into an 18 year olds mindset of the Internet."
Tom Wright, Chief Executive of Age UK is also speaking - will he be recognising digital exclusion for significant numbers of people that his charity represents, and their carers. Particularly during the 'Everyone Online' sessions in day two.
Frances Maude will be speaking for Cabinet Office but the need is for Ian Duncan Smith, as Secretary of State for DWP and Stephen Webb, his IT enthusiastic LibDem Minister for Pension, to demand that their officials indulge in joined-up thinking with those reporting to Ed Davey, BIS Minister for Consumer and Postal Affairs and to Mark Hoban, Financial Secretary to the Treasury (including Banking services responsibility) with regard to the cost-effective use of technology to better serve the public, rather than perpetuating the New Labour business models of their incumbent consultants and outsourcing suppliers.