Between a Rock and a Soft Copy, part 1

Late last year the treasury released a consultation paper on the issue of paper billing. The paper raised the notion of banning, limiting or otherwise pushing back against any companies who were charging customers for opting to receive their bills on paper rather than electronically.

On the surface, this looks like a positive move to protect consumers, while encouraging billers to move towards a digital solution.

But will this really solve our billing problem? Here are my preliminary thoughts.

From one hard choice to another: the rock

It’s great to see the government responding to the changes happening in this area, and the broader transition they are part of. But there is a sense that billers are being pushed from one challenging option to another.

Paper bills can be expensive for the biller, and we’re all aware of the environmental concerns. This is why much of the world is moving towards digital solutions in almost every industry.

And when you think about it, the process is actually quite strange: information is transferred out of a digital system (the biller’s payment system) to be physically posted through the mail and then eventually put back into a digital payment method (the bill payer’s online banking). Crazy!

However, there is a backhanded advantage to paper billing that keeps some billers (and bill payers) holding on: because it costs time and resources to send a letter, we receive far fewer of them.

This means there’s no spam filter snagging paper bills, and generally less chance of us missing them in a crowded inbox. And missing email bills can result in a failure to pay on time, leading to interrupted cash flow for billers, and late payment fees for bill payers… making paper billing look slightly more attractive for both parties after all. So, it’s quite the dilemma.

A not-so-digital alternative: the soft copy

And on the flipside, what exactly are these “electronic” bills?

The email itself is not the bill, but has a pdf attachment which simulates a physical letter and from which data must be manually extracted and inputted into a different online location. This process is almost identical to what is required when receiving a paper bill.

Replacing the physical paper bill with a PDF copy is undoubtedly a positive first step. But it does demonstrate how far we have yet to come. True transformation into the frictionless world of digital technology will require more than simply creating a soft-copy version of the old way of doing things.

Just as the switch to motorised vehicles from animal powered transport required a whole new regulatory framework, the government is right to apply new legislative frameworks to guide a fair transition from paper to digital billing.

But instead of applying these frameworks to our old horse-drawn carriages, we need to look for ways to lay down tarmac first. Only then will it be time to consider speed limits.

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