On March 16, 2020, the Universal Postal Union (UPU) shuttered its headquarters and postponed travel abroad as a result of Covid-19.
One month later, it took the tough decision, along with the Government of Côte d’Ivoire, to postpone the 27th Universal Postal Congress to August 2021.
Today, just over a year since the world experienced the first effects of Covid-19, the UPU’s offices remain closed – only staff considered essential to the critical services of the UPU can enter the building – and the majority of travel remains off limits. The pandemic, which has resulted in the largest number of lockdowns worldwide at the same time in history, has had a great impact on the UPU and on the postal sector in general. But, it is not all bad news.
Bishar A Hussein, UPU Director General, says, “Almost every postal operator has been able to adapt and change their business model during this crisis. That is an incredible achievement. If we continue that spirit of innovation, I believe the momentum from the Covid-19 pandemic will drive the industry forward long after the crisis has ended.”
The UPU has supported its members throughout the year with the right tools, programmes and knowledge to embrace that spirit of innovation and to tackle Covid-19 head on.
During the pandemic’s early days, the UPU quickly started receiving messages from posts regarding restricted or suspended services through the Emergency Information System (EmIS). The UPU acted quickly to ensure it had the right support in place for its members.
In March, it created the Operational Continuity Unit (OCU) within its Directorate of Postal Operations (DOP) to coordinate its response to Covid-19.
Abdelilah Bousseta, UPU’s director of postal operations, heads up the unit. “The unit coordinates all operational activities related to Covid-19, including the provision of guidance and tools, as well as dissemination of information in response to members’ needs during the pandemic.”
To date, OCU has published more than 700 Covid-19-related messages through the EmIS. It has continuously monitored and provided information on the different international transport options for cross border delivery, published the EmIS on Transport capacity issues and the EmIS status reports in relation to Covid-19. The OCU has also worked closely with the World Customs Organization (WCO) to share data on the global postal supply chain, and consolidated best practices relating to social services and financial services.
“Covid-19 has put unprecedented pressure on the international postal network,” Bousseta says. “The UPU has received urgent messages from nearly 71 per cent of member countries in relation to the pandemic. The messages have signaled service disruptions related to measures taken to halt the spread of Covid-19, such as flight cancellations and social distancing. This has lengthened delivery times in some postal corridors and closed others altogether. This is having an effect on global postal volumes and quality of service.”
Cross border mail
International mail flows have been the hardest hit during the pandemic, as a result of the grounding of numerous passenger flights. The OCU team has explored alternative transport options for operators: “A table consolidating information on the availability of certain routes served by cargo carriers is now available to interested operators. They can access it via the Quality Control System’s (QCS) big data tools,” he explains.
The UPU also strengthened its relationships with the International Air Transport Association, the International Civil Aviation Organization, European Cargo Services and The International Cargo Association, to encourage member states and posts to use more cargo planes for cross border delivery. Vietnam Post is a great example of a post that has entered into partnerships with cargo airlines and private carriers to forge new routes and supply chains for mail delivery.
“We also worked closely with postal operators and railway organizations to turn pilot studies into a viable reality,” Bousseta continues. “At present, given the current situation, the train network is one of the very best solutions for moving the huge volumes of mail between Asia and Europe. Between the middle of March and today (February 18), 21 mail-only block trains have transported nearly 8,000 tons of mail,” he continues.
DOP has continued to implement projects to strengthen the postal network. “Thirty projects amounting to US$11.3m have been launched to ensure the continuity of the global postal network,” says Bousseta. “Among them was the launch of the Electronic Advance Data project involving 143 postal operators from all regions of the world. We plan to accelerate this project over the next year, using our Customs Declaration System (CDS), International Postal System and other IT tools, to ensure more operators are complying with all standards worldwide.”
Meanwhile, the OCU has now transitioned to a DOP Management Committee. It plans to continue working to enhance the developed tools since the outbreak and maintain the EmIS database. “We are also continuing to work with WCO to encourage customs authorities to be flexible and accept postal shipments with any of the accompanying legitimate UPU documentation,” Bousseta says.
Technology at heart
The UPU’s Postal Technology Center (PTC) has assisted the OCU to achieve its goals over the past year. PTC’s first task when the pandemic hit was to support the UPU’s 250 staff to work remotely. It also had to implement new virtual ways to support the UPU community remotely.
PTC’s director, Lati Matata, says, “The PTC has always maintained very close physical contact with the UPU community via onsite missions and technical training workshops. The travel restrictions due to Covid-19 had a devastating effect on this activity. To compensate, PTC deployment experts immediately switched to using remote access tools. The PTC’s Regional Technical Centres, located in Bangkok, Dar es Salaam, Montevideo, Moscow, Rabat and Tunis, adopted the same approach to support the postal operators in their region. I am pleased to note the PTC and the Regional Technical Centers provided 63 remote deployment and support missions in 2020,” he adds.
The PTC also launched a new modern e-Learning platform (training.ptc.post or formation.ptc.post) to supplement lost training options. To support the rapid digitization of the postal processes, the PTC accelerated projects to deliver IT tools for the gaps in the postal supply chain. “This includes mobile apps for customer customs declaration data capture, the Domestic Postal System (DPS) and IT integration capabilities with commercial and public regional networks for transport, customs handling and postal payments,” Matata explains.
One of PTC’s most important network monitoring IT tools is the Quality Control System (QCS). “The PTC maintains the UPU IT network, Post*NET, which transfers postal item data between every postal operator,” explains Matata. “This data, representing billions of data sets exchanged every year, is stored in a secure platform maintained by PTC. The QCS, which is built on top of this big data platform, provides reports and measurements on postal operators’ performance at every step of a postal item’s international collection and delivery cycle.”
According to Matata, QCS is well placed to provide very deep insights into the health of the postal supply chain. “QCS highlighted, for example, how the cessation of international postal transport lines had a devastating impact on UPU’s global postal supply chain, especially for our smaller postal volume posts located in the developing and least developed countries,” Matata says.
According to Matata, QCS is now enhanced with reports and tools to support the healthy functioning of the postal supply chain, highlighting transport delays and volumetric variations. “QCS is well placed to provide further value into the new domains of postal security and customs, such as the identification of dangerous goods, and the electronic advanced data checks for postal items in transit respectively,” he says. “Finally, the big data platform’s support for advanced data analytics and machine learning technologies combined with the QCS reporting shows great potential for predictive reporting in the next UPU cycle.”
The PTC has now begun piloting an Innovation and Partnership development programme to drive the focus to new services it can offer customers. “One tangible benefit for members is the integration of market leading third party providers of harmonized customs codes in the UPU CDS, further expediting the postal customs clearance process with accurate product classification information,” explains Matata.
“Additionally, to support the efficient collection and delivery within national borders, the DPS will be available for wide deployment in 2021. This will allow UPU postal operators to process domestic and international postal items in a digitally integrated suite of systems from door-to-door. This is the final step in ensuring a complete digitization of the entire UPU postal supply chain,” he concludes.
This article appeared in Union Postale No.1 2021: https://bit.ly/3wT7lFI