30 years ago, ombudsman services were established at 3 economic public companies (SNCB, RTT and De Post-La Poste). Even after 30 years, mediating disputes between postal companies and their customers is still very relevant.
The Act of 21 March 1991 "on the reform of some economic public companies" created the framework for three ombudsman services; this was part of the zeitgeist to reduce the gap between citizens and politics. In 1993, the Ombudsman Service at La Poste was effectively created with Elie Bockstal and Xavier Godefroid. These ombudsmen worked independently of the company and with eight employees, they were able to investigate complaints in an objective manner. They stood strong even then on their independence which was enshrined in law. Since then, both De Post, the postal and parcel transport sector and the ombudsman service have evolved enormously.
In 1993, for the first time, citizens and users of postal services had a listening ear for their minor and major concerns about De Post-La Poste's universal postal service and other services. A body that acted as a mediator among the large organisations was new to citizens who otherwise did not always find their way to a solution to their dispute.
In addition to investigating and mediating individual disputes, the ombudsman service always sought to suggest structural improvements. De Post was initially legally exempted from any liability (except for a specific situation with a registered letter); but partly due to the efforts of the ombudsmen, this was revised and bpost is subject to general legal and sometimes postal/transportation-specific liability rules. The company then took the first steps towards drafting General Terms and Conditions.
In February 2007 came the next major change. The legislator decided that the ombudsman became competent for the entire postal and parcels sector. The Ombudsman Service at The Post Office was transformed into the Ombudsman Service for the Postal Sector. The ombudsmen were appointed for a renewable 5-year mandate by the Council of Ministers and continued to operate completely independently of the regulator and the government, and of course of the postal sector itself.
Three European directives concerning the postal sector regulated but legislated user protection. The directives aimed to improve quality through open competition, but also set conditions to ensure this regular and reliable service for every user. Each postal operator should be easily accessible to users and customers through a customer service. In doing so, Europe emphasised the rights of the addressee. The addressee of a parcel, a letter or a registered mail item must also be able to reach the postal company concerned easily and inexpensively to ask a question or lodge a complaint. To this day, Ombudsman Poste continues to insist strongly on the correct observance of these conditions and we notice that the " " approach is gaining more and more acceptance in the minds of some people in charge.
The last directive dates from 2008, just before the rise of e-commerce, which boomed during the Covidlockdowns. The European Commission is therefore currently working on a new text. ombudsma n poste continues to fight for the rights of all users of postal services: senders and recipients. The increasing popularity of online shopping means that the quality of service and the rights of the addressee become even more important. After all, how can a buyer/consignee defend itself if the seller/sender refers to a wrong delivery status to avoid having to intervene?
Our organisation, led from 2017 by ombudsmen: Katelijne Exelmans and Paul De Maeyer, is committed to further professionalisation. Our file managers use a high-performance online complaint handling system to follow up files and investigate complaints, but also remain strongly committed to a personal approach to customers. Meanwhile, postal knowledge is expanding with expertise in e-commerce, customs processing of goods from countries outside the European Union and consumer protection. After all, complaints follow social evolutions. The first complaints were about ordinary and registered letters, untraceable parcels and financial postal services. Although citizens and organisations still report problems about the delivery of mail, Ombudsman poste now sees many more complaints about parcels, which are traceable to a more or lesser extent. Many of these goods are transported across national borders - within and outside the EU - and the application of international law rules is, meanwhile, part of our expertise.
Spurred by Europe, the contours of the out-of-court dispute resolution scheme in Belgium were further developed. A royal decree appeared in 2015 listing the conditions a mediator must meet to be considered a "qualified entity for out-of-court settlement of consumer disputes". Independence and impartiality are also basic requirements for a mediator under out-of-court dispute resolution (ADR). The Postal Ombudsman Service became a qualified entity in 2015.
Over the past 30 years, we also see reaching resolution in individual disputes and making structural recommendations (for postal and parcel carriers, the industry and policy bodies) remain the mission of ombudsman poste. Our service also remains low-threshold and accessible. A complainant pays nothing for our service and can reach us via website, e-mail, letter or visit in our offices. By phone, anyone can get info.
Besides the increase in the number of complaints over the years, we see different trends in our cooperation with companies. The first 14 years with bpost; since February 2007 with the other companies in the sector. In the early years, we went to the field ourselves, where the cooperation of the local employee and person in charge was very important to conduct an investigation and settle a dispute.
Despite the major changes that have taken place during the last 30 years and the current evolutions, there is and remains one red line; our commitment to mediate between customer and company, thus contributing to the trust of citizens, associations and companies in our postal and courier companies.
In the coming years, ombudsman poste will continue to invest in a committed team dedicated to users. Specific attention will certainly go to the rights of consignees and clear liability rules. In the changing and competitive postal and parcel world, as an independent and impartial ombudsman service, we will continue to strive for an amicable solution in each individual dispute.