Shifting perspectives

UPU Director General Masahiko Metoki and Deputy Director General Marjan Osvald assumed their new duties in January 2022, ushering in a change of perspective for the UN specialized agency for the postal sector. They sat down with Union Postale to discuss their vision for the four-year term ahead of them.

Masahiko Metoki, Director General of the UPU

You have dedicated your career to public service. Why did you choose this career path and why is the Post such an important public service?

In my view, there is nothing more rewarding or more humbling than dedicating oneself to the service of others. This is why I chose to lead a career in the public service sector.

My love for the Post itself began early on when I worked for Japan’s Ministry for Posts and Telecommunications in the 1980s. However, that love really grew as I went on to serve as a Postmaster for a local post office and I had direct contact with the community my post office served. It was then that I came to understand how essential the Post was to society. Postal workers are one of the few public servants who reach the public every single day. They provide access to bare essentials, communication, commerce, financial services and more at peoples’ very doorsteps.

How have you seen the postal sector change over this time and where do you think it is going?

As I mentioned, I began my career in this sector several decades ago and I have seen it change tremendously during that time – especially as digitization has taken hold of the world around us. This shift in communication style has changed the role of the Post. Though its focus used to be on letters, the postal business has moved onto new opportunities such as delivering parcels generated by the development of e-commerce, deepening its role as a financial services provider, and working more closely with governments to deliver social programmes and other initiatives that require close contact with communities. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated this shift. The Post’s relevance as a public service partner is now evident not only to governments, but to customers. Posts must seize this the opportunity and continue that momentum to recoup profitability as the lion’s share of the postal business – letters – continues to decline.

How has your experience as Chair of the Postal Operations Council informed your vision for the UPU over the next cycle?

My role as Postal Operations Council Chair allowed me a depth of insight into the workings of the postal business across the globe. I gained knowledge of the challenges and opportunities faced by posts in different regions, at different levels of development. The development gaps I noted between countries and regions have motivated my vision as Director General. That vision seeks to ensure that no country is left behind as the sector progresses.

I believe the UPU is in the prime position to diagnose and address postal development gaps. Only UPU has the reach to obtain a global view of where they exist. Comprising 192 countries, the UPU also has the ability to facilitate cooperation and knowledge sharing across the network to address and bridge the divide. We are in the best position to work with governments to show them why investing in postal infrastructure is critical. We also have contact with the restricted postal unions, who can help accelerate development efforts in each region.

You have now been in office for more than a month. What are your first impressions of the International Bureau and what are some of your first priorities as Director General?

As Chair of the Postal Operations Council, I worked with parts of the International Bureau secretariat quite closely. I have always known IB staff to be hardworking and dedicated to the advancement of the Union and the sector. Therefore, I was not surprised to be approached with new ideas when I took up my post here in Berne. However, I noticed silos and inefficiencies in the way different parts of the secretariat were working together. This is not uncommon for a bureaucratic organization.

I wanted to figure out how to eliminate these barriers to the smooth functioning of the secretariat, which is ultimately responsible for ensuring the Union can continue with its work for the cycle.

My first priority, then, was to listen. Marjan-san and I collected feedback from the staff themselves to find out how their teams work, how they interface with other teams, and how they thought they could work better. This input was extremely valuable to us and informed my next priority, which was to redesign the International Bureau secretariat in a way that would address the challenges staff brought to us and ensure the IB could better serve the UPU’s membership. This reorganization also allowed the formation of a new think-tank within the International Bureau that will focus on clinching opportunities for the Post. This division will help the UPU make the most of its role as a forum, a provider of postal solutions and knowledge centre for its 192 member countries, as well as wider sector partners.

What is the greatest opportunity you plan to help the sector seize?

COVID-19 has been one of the greatest challenges for the postal sector, but it has also provided several key opportunities to transform our business. The pandemic showed the entire world that the Post is a truly essential service, but it also forced Posts to diversify and to innovate.

One of my key aims is to keep this spirit of innovation going. We know that the letters business is rapidly declining. We understand that there is a parcelization of trade occurring. We can clearly see that customer expectations are changing with the development of new technologies. We can turn these challenges into opportunities if we keep driving ourselves outside of our comfort zone. I intend to make sure we do this.

How do you envision the role of the UPU in terms of readying the sector for the future?

I envision the UPU as a think-tank for the postal sector. The UPU has the unique advantage of being able to unite operators from 192 countries in one space to cooperate, exchange knowledge and best practices, develop solutions and plan the sector’s future. This is enshrined in our strategy for the next four years, the Abidjan Postal Strategy.

Now, countries are also discussing the possible ways in which our many partners outside of our network of members might be better included in this process. We can use this diversity of viewpoints to our advantage to bring all countries to a high level of postal development and to evolve our service into one that meets and exceeds the expectations of the more than 7 billion people on this planet.

During your campaign you spoke about creating harmonized communication with UPU member countries and International Bureau staff. How will you lead this harmonized communication?

What I have just mentioned will not be possible without good and open communication across the UPU network, between members, but also within the secretariat. I intend to lead by example, ensuring that I create a space where we can engage in open dialogue by first listening, then speaking. Listening should be the first step in any decision-making process that has a direct impact on 192 member countries. Each country has its own unique set of ideas, challenges and constraints and we must do our best to consider those varied conditions in order to ensure that the outcomes of the work done at the UPU moves us all forward, without leaving anyone behind.

Our staff at the International Bureau help organize and facilitate the work of the UPU, and therefore it is important that there are no silos within the organization. As I mentioned, one of my priorities upon arriving here in Berne was to understand how the secretariat worked and to help it work more efficiently. The Deputy Director General, myself and our transition team spent the first few months observing daily operations and collecting input. We have since restructured the IB in a way that we believe will help break down those silos and streamline our work.

You have also focused on sustainable development. Now that you are at the helm of a UN specialized agency, how do you intend to maximize or promote the contribution of the organization and its members to the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda?

The UPU is a member of the UN family and therefore has a duty to help coordinate the effort to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Agenda for 2030. We have known for many years that the Post is an important partner to governments implementing inclusion and socio-economic development programmes. We see that the Post also has an important role to play in other areas such as the fight against climate change and gender equality – the last Congress developed resolutions on these two areas and we are working full speed ahead to make progress.

Marjan Osvald, Deputy Director General of the UPU

You have led a substantial career in the Post. What drew you into this sector?

If I had to describe the reason in one word, I would say it was “solidarity.” Traditional postal services promote inclusion and connect people. They make our lives easier. That is why the role of the Post in forming a society of solidarity is very important to me, because it benefits everyone – it is universally useful and good for society as a whole. Post as an institution must have its role in a society, and that role is to be decided by the owners of the Post.

How have you seen the sector evolve and where do you see it moving in the years to come?

I have been following the development of the sector for 25 years and I can say that is no different from any other sector. To be honest, we have had considerable luck if we compare ourselves to others. The way technology seems to be taking over the sector worries me a bit. I fear that the development may lead us in a direction we may not be able to influence. I’m not sure if robotization or automation and artificial intelligence can, in addition to the humanization of work processes, take over all of the necessary functions in our environment. We must not forget that our members are at completely different stages of development, which means that our less developed members will lag behind even more if we do not act. Future developments and trends are rather tricky to predict. In the 1990s, we first heard predictions that integrators such as DHL, TNT, DPD, and GLS, among others, would privatize public postal operators. The exact opposite happened.

You have been an active member of PostEurop’s management over the years. What role do you see for restricted unions in the sector’s development?

Monitoring the development of the postal sector in Europe, or rather within the European Union, has been a privilege. PostEurop is an association of the European public postal operators, which, in my opinion, is a very successful example for the future development of postal operators around the world. As a member of the PostEurop Management Board, I was involved in several important projects and I am pleased to say that the differences between developed and less developed operators are smaller within this region than on a global scale.
Restricted unions need to be more involved in the development process. It is up to us, the UPU, to make that possible. Regional development is the most effective form of development. Two or three neighboring countries in Latin America, for example, would know best how to work together more effectively and efficiently. Some things are actually very simple if you look at them from the right angle.

How do you envision your role as Deputy Director General?

I will do my best to use the experience and good practices I’ve gained from my previous environment for the good of all. I believe that I know how to distinguish between good and bad, and I am ready to learn and to compromise. I also have quite a bit of experience with mediation, which I believe is a crucial tool in overcoming institutional and other obstacles.

Above all, I will try to lead by good example. This is the only way to motivate employees who, when it comes to the service industry, are more important than the users in my opinion. If you do not know how to sell bread, you will fail, even though bread is an essential food.

You have been in the office for several months now. What are your first impressions of the International Bureau and what are some of your first priorities as Deputy Director General?

Since I arrived, I have been learning, meeting and getting to know my new colleagues and, above all, listening. This is how I have been sorting out my priorities as a Deputy Director General. While my list may be different by the end of the year, initially, I want to restore trust in this organization and to raise the level of communication to one that is honest and respectful. At the same time, we must not forget sustainable development or those undeveloped members of the UPU that need our help. I believe that we are all aware that the time we will spend here is limited and that others will follow in our place. I will do everything in my power to make sure that those following us will be better off, not worse.

You have advocated postal development for the least advanced countries while encouraging more advanced countries to forge ahead. In your view, how will UPU help ensure no country is left behind as the sector transforms?

It is true. I want to highlight good practices as well as responsible ownership. Fortunately, within our industry, there is still a certain degree of solidarity. This means that responsible operators and owners share their experience and good solutions with other developing postal operators. Deploying new models and solutions is easier and more cost effective. Moreover, responsible owners know what they want to do with their national post, how they want to position postal services in society, what the role of postal services is today and what it will be in the future. Global transformation is simpler than we imagine today – it just needs to be articulated correctly.

How do you plan to increase the engagement of postal stakeholders in the work of the UPU?

The Union – the organization itself – needs to become more efficient. This is what I believe to be the most important step in increasing engagement. We are here because of our members and not the other way around. To put it more explicitly ‒ we are not here for our own sake.

Let me try to illustrate with the UPU’s goals and objectives, where we have achieved 99% or even 100% in the past. I am always afraid of such results. I have doubts, either about the measurement or the goals themselves – maybe they are set too low. This needs to be clear and transparent to the UPU’s stakeholders.

External stakeholders are equally important to me. The fact is that we have missed opportunities in the past – financial services are one example. In Europe in particular, with some rare exceptions, traditional postal banks have unfortunately completely lost their significance. I do not know which model our members will find most suitable in terms of engaging external stakeholders, but I do think we need to be present in the financial segment as well. I expect external stakeholders to articulate their demands and expectations more clearly in the future. Of course, this means that we would have to let them in.

I do not know what concept will prove to be the best for this Union in the end, but I know that I will do my best to ensure whatever decisions is made is adopted with the consensus of all members.

Since your election, you have emphasized the importance of management innovations, transparency and business ethics under your leadership. How will you improve or adjust UPU’s operating processes to make them more transparent and future-oriented?

Every improvement takes time. The Director General and I have an open, communicative relationship and I am very grateful to him for always considering my opinion when we are talking about short-term as well as long-term measures and changes. I believe that our relationship, which is one based on honesty, will make it easier for us to take difficult decisions.

I have also met with our senior colleagues, some of whom I knew from before. Together, we will try to motivate our employees by setting a good example and with clear and correct communication. My colleague Metoki-san and I have already introduced some changes, some are still waiting for us. I have already said that we need to listen to our members and understand their problems. That is the foundation. Our employees simply need to have a better understanding in how this organization can help its responsible members with technological solutions, legislation, standards, regulations and measures. That is where I see our role.

This article first appeared in the Spring 2022 edition of Union Postale magazine.