The Guardian (Manchester); 16 August 1990; Claire Neesham; p. 33
Towards counter revolution New technology looks set to boost post office services and could even throw a lifeline to threatened rural outlets, says Claire Neesham
BRITAIN'S biggest retailer, the Post Office, is just embarking on its path to automation. Over the past year computer terminals have appeared on clerks' desks in the Thames Valley Region. Electronic transactions with major customers such as Girobank, the Driver & Vehicle Licence Agency (DVLA) and the National Savings Bank have been enhanced, and last month Post Office Counters (POC) announced that it would be installing French-built Unisys computers in a further 650 main post offices next year. ``We are trying to automate more services because most of the clients we deal with are developing their own computer systems and the public is becoming increasingly computer literate,'' says Brian White, director of POC business systems. ``It would have been strange if the Post Office had remained out of line as a totally paper-driven organisation.'' Post Office Counters, a subsidiary of the Post Office, deals with over 150 different types of transaction ranging from selling stamps to accepting multi-million-pound Girobank deposits. More than 75 per cent of this business is for large clients, and a further 20 per cent is for the Post Office's Royal Mail and Parcelforce divisions. The rest is small counter transactions, dealing with the 25 million customers who use the PO's 21,000 UK outlets each week. The 250 post offices in the Thames Valley region stretching from Banbury to Guildford were picked for the pilot scheme because they have a good cross-section of customers who use most of the transactions on offer. Installation began in October and was completed by April. For customers, the most visible parts of the system are the Nixdorf retail terminals. These contain 8810PT processors, 20 megabytes of storage, and are linked together within each post office over a local network, which includes a master terminal for collating data. This is connected to a Plessey Telenet kilostream network, which links into the automation project's central computer a four processor Tandem VLX mini based at Farnborough. The fault tolerent Tandem has dedicated lines to systems at the three POC clients taking part in the project: an IBM mainframe at the DVLA, Honeywell, ICL machines at National Savings, and another Tandem system at Girobank. With this set-up, Girobank customers can walk into a Thames Valley post office and withdraw cash using automatic teller machine (ATM) cards. These are passed through a reader built into the Nixdorf terminal. The customer then keys in a personal identification number on a counter pad. The Post Office-Girobank link provides on-line credit checking, and users can withdraw up to œ250 a day. Links to the National Savings Bank and DVLA mean withdrawals from National Savings accounts can also be authorised on-line, while new vehicle licence documents are presented to the customer legibly printed and validated at the counter. But it is not only the counter customers and staff who should benefit from the system. As Robert King, pilot business controller for counter automation, says, ``The main objective of moving the counter business into the technology age is to provide a value-added service to large clients with the aim of retaining their business and generating new accounts.'' So far POC has spent over œ17 million on the scheme. This covers software development and hardware costs, and management of the system design, which was contracted out to systems house Software Sciences in 1987. ``At the time, the Post Office Counters project was the biggest we had won,'' says Peter Appleby, Software Sciences' major projects director. The systems house had to develop both application and system software for the Tandem computer, and manage the team writing software for the Nixdorf terminals. The project took around 50 programmer years and lasted five months longer than the expected two years mainly as a result of changing customer requirements. The pilot is under evaluation, but POC is already enhancing the system. Software has been developed to help clerks balance and summarise accounts, and customers will soon be able to get cash advances on Visa cards. The plan to install 6,300 Unisys counter terminals in main post offices will bring widespread automation a step closer. The decision to buy Unisys DOS-based terminals rather than the Nixdorfs used in the trial, was the result of a competitive tender. Brian White of POC stresses that it was always the company's intention to consider several terminal suppliers, and that the decision to use Unisys does not invalidate the fact that Nixdorf was the best option back in 1985. Robert King adds: ``We can justify making the decision on the Unisys terminals prior to the completion of the evaluation, because full counter automation is such a large project we have to take a staged approach.'' The Unisys terminals will first be used on a local basis, but POC acknowledges that it intends to link them to the central computer in the future. Most software for the terminals will be written by the Post Office's independent information technology subsidiary, iT. According to King, the task should not be too daunting. The Unisys terminals have been tried and tested in US post offices, and the original Nixdorf terminal software was designed with portability in mind. Any future development of the POC's automation project will depend on the acceptance of the systems by the Post Office's major clients and customers as well as its own staff. George Brown, assistant secretary of the Post Office Users' National Council, is optimistic. Increased efficiency should mean shorter queues, and the widespread introduction of counter automation may also keep some rural post offices in business by enabling them to offer a wider range of services.