Bad News Comes in Threes: How Congress, Industry, and Management Have Made a Mess Out of Things


November 11, 2011

By Mark Jamison

[The author is a postmaster for the USPS. In keeping with the USPS Administrative Support Manual, section 363, Mr. Jamison does not "speak for or act on behalf of the Postal Service."  His comments represent his personal views and observations based on 28 years of service, and they are intended for no other purpose than to expand the conversation on an important public issue.—Ed.]

AMIDST THE SOUND AND FURY of ideological punditry and political posturing that passes for thoughtful debate about the future of the Postal Service, three things are becoming clear: Congress is unable to take responsibility and solve problems, the commercial mailing and marketing industry has developed a sense of entitlement that undermines its own interests, and senior postal management has become imprisoned by its own circular thinking.

Watching what’s gone on the past few months can’t help but leave one with a sense of hopelessness.  The legislative sausage grinder turns out compromises that appease politicians who have no real understanding of postal facts, that favor the commercial mail lobby, and that give the Postmaster General the tools he needs to dismantle the Postal Service.  The mail industry encourages the dismantling, pressures the Postal Service for favorable discounts, and lobbies Congress for legislation that protects its profits.  Postal management tries to keep the industry and Congress happy, but neglects the interests of its employees and the average citizen.  Congress, the industry, and management are all in it together, but let’s take them one by one.

 

The People’s Representatives

With each passing day it becomes painfully more obvious that Congress is completely out of touch with the problems of the American people.  Worse, the politics of Washington has become so aggressively dysfunctional that our elected representatives are no longer capable of examining a problem from any perspective other than the one supplied by their most favored lobbyists.

Most of what passes for action in Washington is political posturing designed to get a senator or congressman positively portrayed in the media spotlight while abjuring them of the need to take any responsibility for the consequences of their positions or actions.  Our elected representatives advocate for policies that often blow up, but they never pay the cost of their errors — their salaries, benefits, and institutional entitlements continue to flow.  More often than not, the politician doesn’t even pay an electoral price since our hyper-partisan atmosphere causes most of us to vote for “our side” rather than considering character and intellect.

I would like to think that the folks who represent us in Washington bear some basic similarities to the rest of us.  Politicians, despite their profession, are still human beings.  They love their dogs and their families, and they are capable of expressing some warmth of human emotion or kindness.  Even the most rabid ideologues must occasionally feel remorse for the harm they might have caused another person.  They must feel a little shame, or at least some confusion, when they express a hypocritical thought. 

But what are we to think when we hear politicians like Congressmen Darrel Issa from California and Dennis Ross from Florida make comments about the Postal Service that are so patently false?  Do they know they are lying or at least grossly distorting the facts when they completely dismiss the fact that there are financial inconsistencies in the way the Postal Service has been treated?

If Mr. Issa and Mr. Ross were to stand up and proclaim that they believed that the American people would be better served by a privatized postal service, I would heartily disagree, but I would respect their willingness to express and pursue their ends openly.  If they would clearly state their belief that we’d be better off with a postal system with a workforce that was not unionized and that paid workers the minimum wage and offered minimal benefits, at least we could have a meaningful discussion about the value of their system and the one I might prefer.  We could at least look at some empirical evidence and allow folks to draw intelligent conclusions.

But instead of making their ultimate goals clear, politicians like Issa and Ross are dissembling about the real causes of the Postal Service’s financial problems, and they are not being straightforward about the true aims of their proposed reforms.  The Postal Reform Act they have put forward would gut the Postal Service and prepare it for being broken up into pieces — “decoupled, bifurcated, and unbundled,” as the current parlance has it — so that it can be privatized.  The aim is clear, but their rhetoric is not.

The Postal Service wallows in crisis today not because of the loss of mail volume but because of the provisions of the 2006 PAEA.  The deficits incurred by the Postal Service over the last several years are virtually equal to the amounts withdrawn by the PAEA. That is a demonstrable fact.  Just take a look at the Postal Service’s 2010 Annual Report, where the Postal Service — rather than blaming the Internet, as it does every time there’s a meeting about a post office closing — provides a chart showing that “retiree health benefits prefunding is driving losses.”

The PAEA also failed to appropriately address other issues of transfers between the Postal Service and the Treasury.  For example, the two retirement systems, FERS and CSRS, have basically become a means to transfer wealth from postal workers to the federal government.  There are similar problems with workers’ compensations laws, specifically FECA, as they have been applied to the Postal service.

The PAEA also codified a complex and often convoluted rate system that is both expensive to manage and philosophically unsustainable.  Senator Susan Collins of Maine was one of the primary sponsors of the PAEA, and at every opportunity she has made it clear that she considers herself an authority on postal matters. She intervened in the exigent rate case before the Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC), and attempted to rewrite PAEA by injecting her version of legislative intent into the proceedings.  While the Senator seems a reasonably intelligent and personable individual, it’s not clear how much of an authority she is on postal issues.  It is clear that among her constituents in Maine are paper manufacturers and at least one very large catalog mailer.

I’ve heard Mrs. Collins make many pronouncements regarding the future of the Postal Service and I’ve seen her stand prominently in front of the cameras and speak seriously about the problems she seeks to solve.  Unfortunately, I’ve never once heard her apologize for the mess she and PAEA created.  Reading the history of PAEA and talking to some of the folks involved at the time, I’ve come to understand that PAEA was the typical legislative sausage making, designed less to solve problems than to ensure that constituent lobbies were properly cared for.

Mrs. Collins can actually articulate a pretty clear rationale for a healthy postal service that provides meaningful universal service across the breadth of this country.  Unfortunately, she often seems to do this in the service of a piece of legislation that further undermines postal services in favor of narrow interests.

 

The Entitled (aka stakeholders)

Over the last twenty years postal legislation has heaped untenable burdens upon the Postal Service and its workers.  It has also created a special class of postal customer — the stakeholder.  The idea of the Postal Service as an essential national infrastructure that serves the American people has been seriously undermined.  This democratic vision has been replaced by the view that the Postal Service is merely another player in the mailing industry, a player whose primary purpose is to facilitate the business model and increase the profits of commercial marketers and mailers.  This has become increasingly clear from the briefs and arguments submitted by these stakeholders in various cases before the PRC.

The industry’s sense of entitlement has never been clearer than in the brief submitted by Valpak in the PRC docket for the Retail Access Optimization Initiative (RAOI).  This document expresses a cynical disdain for rural America by characterizing small post offices as "unnecessary" and "inefficient" retail facilities.  It assures us that the post office confers few “non-postal” benefits, and even if there were some benefits, they are irrelevant to the PRC’s Advisory Opinion about whether the Postal Service should go forward with its plan to close 3,650 post offices, most of them in rural areas of the country.

The brief quotes John Adams comment, “Facts are stubborn things,” as if to show how tough and realistic Valpak’s thinking is, but the brief bases its arguments on one of the greatest myths going: most post offices lose money.  But that’s simply because of how the Postal Service does its accounting: postal facilities receive no credit for the mail they process and deliver.  They only get credit for the postage they sell.  In the case of large mailers like Valpak, that would be a BMEU.  But the way Valpak — along with most of the mail industry and Postal Service management — looks at it, the retail operation and the delivery operation are completely separate.  Revenue is only credited where mail is entered.  But it takes the country’s entire postal infrastructure, including 32,000 post offices, to move that mail. 

In the exigent rate case an organization of mailers calling itself the Affordable Mail Alliance filed a brief that essentially said they were entitled to the lowest rates possible so paying postal workers anything above minimum wage was a burden they should not have to bear.  Valpak reprises that argument and then adds that rural America really isn’t worth serving after all.  And as the comments flow in for the current rate case before the PRC, one can see this kind of thinking repeated over and over by the segment of the mailing community that includes the presort houses, the direct marketers, and the catalog mailers.

The sense of entitlement expressed by some very profitable enterprises probably shouldn’t come as a shock, but it is sadly ironic.  The people who talk “class warfare,” who express nothing but disdain for government entitlement programs, who heap abuse after abuse on the average working person, who see the government’s effort to protect citizens by regulating business as nothing but interference in the marketplace — the truth of it is that these are the same people who are themselves engaging in class warfare, who have the most active sense of entitlement, and who demand the most from the government, through helpful legislation, favorable tariffs, tax breaks, subsidies, and all the other things they lobby for.  Call them the “one percent” or whatever you choose, these people are the best off among us, and the least in need of such help. 

Irony and injustice aside, Valpak and the other mailers are simply wrong when they attack the postal network and postal workers.  The USPS is the largest postal network in the world and covers more addresses and territory than any other postal system in the world.  It delivers 40% of the world’s mail, and it does so at rates that are cheaper than anywhere else in the world.  Without this system, Valpak and most of the other stakeholders wouldn’t even exist.

The postal network was originally designed to bind the nation together, and that meant providing a way to move the mail quickly and efficiently.  Of course that capability assisted commerce, but there were also social and political aims that were equally important, if not more so.  That’s why the development of the postal system was driven primarily by the very democratic concept of universal service.

Cheap ubiquitous service allowed for the development of several new industries, such as direct marketing.  Companies like Valpak couldn’t begin to get the volume and penetration they currently enjoy without the Postal Service.  And just as the Postal Service embraced a business model driven by volume, so did companies like Valpak find that it was easier and cheaper to saturate the market by putting a lot of pieces out there rather than intelligently targeting particular consumers.  Under this model they can rely on a 2% response rate and still make lots of money (which they do).  Presort mailers and catalog mailers receive similar benefits from the vast postal network.

One of the things that rarely gets mentioned in all the talk about what’s wrong with the Postal Service and postal workers is that the mail gets delivered and, by and large, it gets where it’s going.  The physical infrastructure of post offices, processing plants, and vehicles is of course essential, but the mail wouldn’t move without the professional class of people who process, sort, and deliver it.   I can hear people scoff at that observation, and yes, we all have a Seinfeld story about the post office (like the one where Neumann the mailman stores mail in his apartment), and postal workers can tell you horror stories of plant managers hiding or mishandling mail to make numbers.  But by and large the mail gets handled properly and efficiently.

One of the consequences of having a reasonably paid and compensated workforce is that it engenders pride and commitment to the job.  The American worker is constantly criticized, but the fact is that this nation became the most productive on earth because we developed a model that allowed the greatest number possible to share in the success.  We created a model that built pride and commitment to work, and one of the great fallacies today is the idea that beggaring the work force is somehow efficient.

People trust their mail carrier, and people generally trust the post office.  Customers may complain about long lines or a letter in the wrong mailbox, but the system works because of this sense of trust, a trust that’s built on countless daily interactions between citizens and clerks, carriers, and postmasters. 

So here’s a message for the big stakeholders, the mailers and marketers: Change the Postal Service’s successful model and see how folks feel about your product.  They call it “junk mail” and seek “do not mail” lists — make the network and the folks who run it “irrelevant,” and see how much respect your product gets.  Beggar the workforce and replace it with contractors and minimum-wage workers, and you’ll get what you pay for.  Shrink the network by “optimizing” post offices and processing plants out of existence, and you’ll find that it’s your business model that’s irrelevant and extinct. 

 

“Do as I say!”: The autocratic management style

Finally we come to the management of the Postal Service. One need only read the Postal Service’s “initial brief” summarizing its case for closing post offices for the RAOI to realize how hostile and out of touch these managers have become. The brief suggests that only the witnesses for the Postal Service could know the truth, and anyone who presented testimony that contradicted its case must be stupid or prejudiced.  The Postal Service berates witnesses for being insufficiently empirical, as if quantities of meaningless data were more persuasive than the quality of personal experience and first-hand knowledge.

The Postal Service says that all of the community meetings related to post office suspensions and closings were held exactly as the law prescribed.  What then are we to make of the many news reports and appeal petitions to the contrary?  They tell of meetings scheduled at inconvenient times, discontinuance coordinators ill informed about the local community, no postal personnel taking notes of what people say, no manager present at all. 

And while the Postal Service has recently announced that it was permissible to videotape and record community meetings, what are we to make of the fact back in August, a member of the community who tried to record a meeting was ordered by the postal operations manager to stop, and when he refused, the police were called and they escorted him out of the meeting?

Every postal employee can relate an incident of managerial bullying or simple cognitive dissonance.  As a postmaster, I’ve driven an empty mail tub on a ninety mile round trip in the middle of the night to satisfy some nonsensical protocol.  I watched a Plant Manager scream at his floor supervisors until they dissolved into tears.  Postal workers have all seen behavior that ranged from simply boorish to wasteful and outright abusive.

A few weeks ago an article appeared in the Federal Times about the $641 million lost by the USPS in grievances annually.  It’s a common narrative for people to blame things like that on the unions, but the fact is that it is management that violates the contract and it’s management that doesn’t do the basic minimum to get things right.  

Ingrained in the management culture of the Postal Service is a belief that whatever managers say is right “because we said so.”  They act as if employees under their supervision were lazy, stupid, or liars.   The mistrust breeds mistrust.  And then there are all the meaningless forms and checklists and impossible targets that supervisors and postmasters are required to deal with.  While these procedures are intended to ensure that people are doing their jobs, they just contribute to the lack of trust and the lack of real accountability.

I find it nearly impossible to write about this aspect of the Postal Service.  Unless one has worked in the environment and felt the impact of the culture, it's hard to understand the sense of frustration postal workers feel.  But what is even more difficult to grasp is how most postal employees overcome this environment and find tremendous pride and satisfaction in their service.  Often it seems the job gets done in spite of, not because of, senior management.  And make no mistake, this culture, this cancerous attitude, is something that comes from the top because, by any measure, the Postal Service is an organization that is rigidly top down.

The last two postmasters general came out of craft.  Both gentlemen worked their way through the organization.  It is hard to understand how they could not see the damage this culture creates.  Both men seem like they passionately cared for the Postal Service, and yet each seemed imprisoned by this institutionalized behavior.

Perhaps some degree of cognitive dissonance is inevitable when the Postal Service is told to act “like a business” and at the same time required to fulfill the mandate of universal service.  In many ways Congress and the Board of Governors have set an impossible task for the Postal Service and sought to make it something it can never become.

Still, one has to wonder if there is anything that passes for strategic thinking going on in L’Enfant Plaza.  A couple of months ago the Village Post Office concept was going to be the solution to the shrinking of the retail network under the RAOI.  The plan was rolled out with great fanfare, it was an important part of the RAOI plan, and it was the subject of many interrogatories and testimonies. Now as the PMG walks back from the VPO, we are told that the plans were not that serious, that they weren’t fleshed out, and the VPO isn’t going to work in rural America, where many towns don’t even have a place to put a VPO.

One can look back over the years and find any number of instances where a big plan or program like the VPO was rolled out by the Postal Service, only to be scaled back or totally forgotten as time went on.  Whether it was IMB or FSS, technical programs, or other initiatives, big plans often came to little or naught.  Some sloppiness, incoherency, or inconsistency always seems to surface.  Much as it does in its RAOI brief, the approach of the USPS often is simply to impose its will, to assert it correctness, and to deny any evidence to the contrary.

You can tell a rural carrier that EXFC requires her to drive up a snowy mountain road with downed power lines, but that doesn’t make it possible.  You can tell a city carrier that four more swings can still get done in eight, but that doesn’t make it so.  You can plan for a machine to run x pieces per hour, but if the pieces aren’t there or the program isn’t right, it’s just not going to happen.  You can tell a small community that it doesn’t need its post office, but that doesn’t make it true.

I’ve been asked, what could senior management have done better?  Well, they could have been consistent, they could have been realistic, they could have been honest.  They could have recognized the value of the network instead of becoming preoccupied with downsizing and “optimizing.”  They could have focused on quality of service instead of clinging to a system predicated on volume.  They could have thought more about how to serve the general public instead of worrying so much about the big stakeholders.  They could have done more to meet the challenges introduced by the Internet and changing business methods.  They could have addressed a top-heavy Area and District structure. They could have created programs to develop a professional management class, and they could have let those managers manage. They could have created a meaningful employee feedback mechanism instead of one that told them what they wanted to hear.  Instead of driving mail in circles they could let EXFC tell them the truth — at far less cost.

Simply put, they could have listened.

Perhaps if they had, we might not find ourselves facing such a depressing impasse.  Congress isn’t going to change anytime soon.  The mailers (and I guess the 1%) aren’t going to lose their sense of entitlement willingly.  And it’s unlikely that HQ will open the windows and let in some fresh air.

None of this speaks well for the future of postal services in this country.  Still, I can’t help but hope.  Perhaps the deterioration of a cherished institution, the lack of vision demonstrated by our representatives, and the continued attacks on our working population and our sense of community will serve as a wake-up call. 

We’d better wake up soon because there’s more at stake than post offices and postal services.  If jobs can be disposed of so ruthlessly, if communities can be disposed of so cynically, if an institution that helped build the country — and that still helps hold it together — can be disposed of so carelessly, we are all in deep trouble.

(Photo credits: Congress; Valpak in Florida, Google Street View; USPS HQ in L'Enfant Plaza, by Evan Kalish (Going Postal)

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