How the Postal Service foundered: Parceling out the responsibility


November 1, 2012

BY MARK JAMISON

Over the last several months the situation surrounding the fate of the Postal Service has become increasingly clear.

How can that possibly be the case, when Congress has utterly failed in its efforts to pass postal reform legislation, when mail volumes continue to drop, when troubling news about financial losses continue to appear, and when the agency has now reached its borrowing limit with the Treasury?  How can such an unsettled and unsettling situation seem so clear?

The situation is clear because no matter what Congress eventually does, Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe and the Board of Governors have already won.  Their views of what the Postal Service should be, whom it should serve, and how it should serve them have prevailed.  The reality is that as the Postal Service has moved forward with initiatives like POST Plan and the “rationalization” of the mail processing system, the PMG and the BOG have degraded the network and its potential in such a way as to make a change in course not just expensive but impossible.

The initiatives to degrade and dismantle the network have worked in conjunction with a business plan focused almost entirely on advertising mail.  The leaders of the Postal Service have set the course in a direction that cannot be easily changed. The Postal Service has always been an example of inertia; like a massive oil tanker, it changes direction neither quickly nor easily.  The PMG and the BOG have displayed outright disregard for the advice of their regulator and total contempt for providing service to the American public.  They have put the postal ship on a course that will inevitably result in fewer jobs, decreased service, and ultimately privatization.

 

Ignoring the public interest

The politicians both in Congress and in the Administration have essentially abandoned the American people in their handling of the Postal Service.  They have allowed the stilted vision of the BOG — a vision born of the same views that have fostered the growth of inequality throughout our economy — to take precedence over the needs and welfare of the American public.  They have sanctioned a continued attack on American labor through policies that destroy good middle-class jobs and replace them with temporary and part-time jobs with no benefits.  They have set the stage for millions of Americans to lose essential services and an essential infrastructure, while creating the potential for abuse by a predatory financial services industry.

It should come as no surprise that most of those in Congress are willing to sacrifice the Postal Service to limited business interests.  These are the same folks that have almost universally perpetuated the myth that “entitlements” — a term that insidiously demeans what ought to be basic social responsibilities of a civilized nation — are the source of our economic policies.  These are the folks that insult and assault public workers as if a job in the public sector — one that provides useful and necessary public goods — is somehow less valuable or less important than a job in the private sector.

Politicians of both parties have embraced macroeconomic policies that result in the decline of incomes for the vast majority of Americans while ensuring that the benefits of society are unequally reserved for the few at the top.  They degrade the quality of life and economic opportunities for the vast majority of Americans with policies designed primarily to satisfy the financiers.

Putting buyouts above the institution

While the politicians bear the brunt of the criticism for the decline of the Postal Service, for placing it in irresponsible and greedy hands, they are not the only ones with dirty hands.

The unions and the management organizations that represent the employees of the Postal Service have failed miserably.  They have failed to publicize or address the defective and toxic management culture of the organization, and instead have often simply become intertwined facilitators of that culture.  They have accepted some of the basic premises that the BOG and the PMG have used to direct the Postal Service down its disastrous path.  Just to cite a few examples:

NALC hired Lazard, a Wall Street firm of insiders, as a consultant.  Lazard’s white paper read like endorsements of the plans of the BOG, with the only differences being in detail and degree.  Fred Rolando, the union’s president, has offered negotiating positions that would abandon FEHB, thereby undermining an insurance exchange that actually works well.

The APWU signed one of the worst negotiated contracts in the history of labor, giving back years of gains and benefits while endorsing the false narrative being peddled by Donahoe.  Their leaders continue to accept the damaging and dishonest premise that the wages of postal workers are solely connected to the ratepayers of the direct mail and advertising industry.  This destructive fiction continues to promote the idea that the Postal Service is owned by its stakeholders rather than by the American public.

The various employee organizations seem more interested in negotiating buyouts for their members than in preserving an institution that has provided meaningful employment for millions.  Instead of advocating for labor, the leaders of these organizations act like rats escaping a sinking ship, looking for the most comfortable lifeboat.

All of the organizations have taken the narrowest views possible of their interests, and in doing so have often abandoned the overall interests of the institution and certainly their obligations to the American public — and yes, as employees of a national institution and an important piece of the national infrastructure, they have a higher obligation.  Postal employees are or ought to be servants of the people.  If the employee organizations had any integrity, they would have put aside their individual limited interests and banded together to face a common threat together.  They could have stood for the integrity of the Postal Service as a treasured and necessary expression of our national principles and commitment to the general welfare.

 

Looking for a seat at the table

The most stringent criticism must be reserved for the two postmaster organizations, NAPUS and the League of Postmasters.  For years the leaders of these two organizations played fast and loose with the interests of their members.  They were so enamored with their place at the table, with their supposed connection to senior management, that they willingly averted their glance from the toxic and destructive culture that burdened the Postal Service.

They allowed their members in smaller offices to be victimized by this culture, by abusive POOMs and District Managers — all in order to be part of “the company.”  Worse, they turned their eyes when members in larger offices became perpetuators of the toxic and destructive culture.  Too many postmasters in higher-level offices failed to learn from the abusive system and willingly became participants in that system. Too many of their members became POOMs and DMs and raised that culture to an even more destructive level.  And the leaders of these organizations did worse than look away, they endorsed the unjustifiable.

For years the postmasters organizations claimed to be the protectors of the tradition of the American postal system, raising hosannas to the rural and small town postmaster, but when the time came to stand up and be counted, the two organizations sold their members out and endorsed a plan to destroy postal services to rural America.  Worse, they allowed their silence to be bought so when the plan came before the PRC, they sat on their hands and allowed everything they supposedly stood for to be destroyed.

NAPUS and the League justified their act of betrayal by claiming that it was the best deal they could get, that by participating in the process they had a voice. This was simply a delusional rationalization that had no basis in reality.  As the Postal Service downgrades offices, disrupts lives and communities, and continues to suspend and close offices with impunity, how can one remotely claim any positive impact?

What does it say when the lead attorney for one of these organizations was also a member of a consulting firm with folks in the mailing industry who were advocating these policies of destruction? What does it say when his next job was to join a postal lobbying firm?

Shame and betrayal are words too kind to be attached to these organizations.

 

The regulator

And what of the postal regulator, the Postal Regulatory Commission?  I believe these folks are earnest in their efforts to hold the Postal Service accountable to the terms of the applicable laws.  As government regulating agencies go, they are thorough and fair in their practice.  Nevertheless, they appear to suffer from the same political pressures as everyone else in Washington.  Witness the bald attempt by Senator Tom Carper to intimidate Chairman Goldway with his nonsensical ravings about her travels, or consider the confirmation hearing of Commissioner Hammond during which the issue of how long PRC opinions take was raised repeatedly, to the exclusion of almost any other topic.  Despite the fact that the delays in opinions can be attributed almost entirely to the Postal Service, it was clear that an effort was being made to marginalize the PRC’s work.  

Quite frankly some of the folks at the PRC seem to be as detached from the rest of the country as those in Washington, and that means both Democrats and Republicans.

The folks at the PRC do their job well enough, but the law they operate under gives them very little impact.  There is little they can do and less they are willing to do to compel the Postal Service to listen to them.  Just this past week a mailer filed a motion in a rate docket to compel the Postal Service to comply with past decisions of both the PRC and the courts.  Much of the contention in the filing is that the Postal Service simply does what it wants regardless of standing procedure.

We’ve certainly seen that with respect to the Advisory Opinions issued by the PRC.  The Postal Service has ignored good advice, advice that corrected errors in numbers the Postal Service submitted and that reflected more detailed and thorough work than the Postal Service offered.  In some cases the Postal Service continues to cite discredited numbers like the amounts to be saved by going to five-day delivery.

The PRC is earnest but ineffectual.  In the POST Plan docket, the Commission had little choice but to endorse the Postal Service’s plans.  The League and NAPUS sat out the proceedings, meaning that the only real advocate for the American people was the PRC’s Public Representative, and he did the absolute minimum in presenting a credible case.

I submitted comments in that case, which were critical of the docket and the Postal Service.  It was apparent to anyone with half a brain that POST Plan was little more than a sop to Congress, a way to give political cover for small office closings.  The Postal Service’s plans were poorly fleshed out and they were at best a cynical way to create a path towards closures.

That’s been proven true.  We’ve seen offices suspended or closed with the slightest justification. Closures related to lease negotiations seem to be proceeding as in the past. The POST Plan meetings are pro forma. In Webster, my former office, the meeting was advertised as an opportunity for the community to discuss how the new six-hour day would be distributed, yet the information sheet passed out by the Postal Service representatives already had the hours published.

The Postal Service did not tell folks that the office would be evaluated yearly and likely face further downgrades. They simply lied when folks asked if box up hours would change and they lied about who and how the office would be staffed.

There is little the PRC can do about all of this unless someone files a formal complaint, but who has the resources to do that, especially with the League and NAPUS voluntarily sidelined?  The complaint filed by the APWU in the MPNR case was dismissed without meaningful action.  The PRC really had no other choice than to allow itself to be willingly woven into the Postal Service’s deceptions.  No one there was going to stand up and say what was obvious to everyone, that POST Plan was an out and out fraud.

The Postal Service hides information from the PRC.  It distorts its numbers and information.  When it suits the Postal Service it simply ignores the PRC.  I have tremendous respect for the people who work at the PRC, but the simple fact is they have been placed in an untenable situation.  There is little respect for regulators generally.  Look how the SEC and other agencies were bulldozed and blindsided by the financial crisis, and the vast partisan divide in Washington takes its toll on what should be objective processes. The Postal Service isn’t listening and the industry is only interested in capturing the process and getting what appears to be in its best short-term interest.

 

The alphabet soup of postal world

The USPS OIG has done a reasonably good job of providing thoughtful and reliable information and policy alternatives through its white paper process, but it too deserves criticism for its willingness to give postal management the seal of approval as being responsive to audit deficiencies.

Look through the various audits of the implementation of IMB, the expensive system that eventually will allow the Postal Service to self report data on delivery standards. There is an ongoing failure to implement the system according to the original guidelines of the program, yet we keep being told that management is responsive.  The OIG allows itself to be willingly lied to and rarely if ever puts its foot down.

For years those within the system have known that the Postal Service runs expensive shadow networks to support what would otherwise be dismal EXFC scores.  The OIG has done what appears to be one audit in this area, an audit of a shadow Priority mail network in the Dallas Fort Worth area that found the Postal Service was misusing resources to cover up poor practices.

Despite reams of anecdotal information that managers were abusing the system, the OIG has failed to initiate any serious audits or take steps to correct deficient processes. The OIG is good but should be better. It seems they would rather not address the fallout from a culture that is often rooted in deception and duplicity.

Other Federal agencies like the OPM, GAO, and CBO must come in for serious criticism.  For example, the Office of Personnel Management has steadfastly, some might say obtusely, stood in the way of correcting the serious problem of vast overpayments to the retirement system.  Some of the fault for this lies with rules set up by Congress, but it is a national disgrace that the OPM — the agency charged with maintaining the retirement systems — cannot devise a system of review to ensure that actuarial best procedures are followed. It’s also disgraceful that agencies can’t work together to solve problems, instead preferring to defend their individual turf.  Perhaps the worst disgrace is that OPM insists on adhering to arcane, ineffective, arbitrary, and poorly conceived accounting rules rather than considering the interests of the American public.

Besides the OPM, the Congressional Budget Office and the Government Accountability Office have failed to provide good, clear, objective information about the Postal Service.  Some of that may be a result of partisan spin, but the GAO in particular has taken a one-sided, prejudicial tack towards the Postal Service.  Rather than providing the American public with accurate information that would lead to non-ideological decision-making, the GAO has become little more than a biased think tank churning out reports that suit its masters in Congress.

When Senator Carper or Representative Issa needs a point of view that buttresses their preferred course of action, they turn to the GAO.  Rather than producing objective information and analysis, the GAO accepts a set of premises and ground rules while ignoring all other possibilities and discounting information or ideas that do not buttress preferred outcomes.  Government, by its very nature, is a political animal, but agencies like the OPM, GAO, and CBO exist to provide technical or objective information, and they should remain apart from the political process.

All of these agencies and Congress have been far too lenient in allowing the Postal Service to hide information and keep it out of the public’s hands.  The Postal Service is a public agency and its business should be public.  Its contracts and business deals should be broadly open for inspection, and its leaders should remain broadly accountable.

Instead we have a convoluted system that allows far too much of the Postal Service’s business to be concealed under justifications of proprietary business reasons. This was forcefully demonstrated during the hearings and mark up related to S.1789, when Senator Carl Levin discussed the fact that the Postal Service contracts with Fed Ex were so secretive that outside of one staffer in the House of Representatives no one had legal access to this information.

This is wholly unacceptable.

 

Slanted and lazy

Finally we turn to the Fourth Estate.  There is no question that the quality of journalism has deteriorated badly in this country.  Too much of what passes for journalism is nothing other partisan-based entertainment.  I suppose it’s not unrealistic to expect that from Fox News or MSNBC, although there should be some basic standards of fact checking and honesty that Fox particularly seems to find foreign.

More disturbing is the utter failure of print journalists to do anything that actually resembles reporting.  The Washington Post is probably the worst example of this. Its parent company appears to have several business interests that are impacted by the Postal Service. That seems to show through on its news pages, as the Post has repeatedly mischaracterized postal losses and failed to do any serious reporting on postal issues or provide anything resembling context.

On its editorial pages the Post has turned its writers loose and allowed them to repeat information that is simply wrong or to recast facts in ways that seem to favor the paper’s business interests.  For example, editorial writer Charles Lane recently wrote a piece about the Valassis NSA that was little more than a diatribe suggesting that the Washington Post’s business interests were being insufficiently served by the Postal Service and the PRC.

Despite the fact that the Post has editorialized for the Postal Service to act more like a private business, Lane took great exception when the Postal Service concluded an agreement with Valassis that seemed to demonstrate management’s commitment to be more businesslike.  Somehow, though, in this case, the competition negatively affected the Post.

The Washington Post has been the worst offender, clearly expressing disdain for postal workers and tailoring its reporting to avoid relevant facts, but others in the print media, like the New York Times, have been nearly as bad.  Much of the problem is not necessarily slanted reporting but simple laziness, a failure to provide context, or a willingness to accept unsupportable contention as fact —just plain sloppy journalism.

 

Postal workers weigh in

I’ve written about twenty pieces for Save the Post Office over the past couple of years.  I have tried to draw attention to the dysfunctional and counter-productive culture of the institution.  I have tried to express a positive vision of what the Postal Service has been and what it could be.  I’ve tried to correct some of the myths surrounding the postal crisis, and I’ve repeatedly observed that much of the crisis is little more than accounting shenanigans created by Congress and that what isn’t attributable to poor legislation can be laid directly at the feet of a postal leadership that has gone out of its way to evade its obligations to the American public.  I have also tried to give voice to postal workers and communities that are frustrated with the assault on jobs and the deterioration of an essential service.

Early on I chose to publish my e-mail address so those who wished to could contact me, and I’ve heard from hundreds of folks, mostly postal workers but also people who are concerned about the destruction of a cherished institution.  The postal workers and retirees who have contacted me come from all levels of the organization. Two or three people with jobs at headquarters or area offices have told me that my characterizations of postal culture are spot on.

One fellow told me of his experiences over thirty-seven years at the Postal Service, many of which were spent as a Labor Relations specialist.  The story he told made some of the things I’ve observed seem tame.

I also exchanged notes with a postal inspector, and we discussed some questions I had about revenue protection.  I’d heard from many clerks and postmasters and even mailhandlers at plants who were concerned about all the items that flow through the system short-paid. In the new, supposedly efficient Postal Service, customers — from large commercial mailers to people using Click and Ship — have the opportunity to insert mail into the system with very little checking.

I was told that because of the complexity of the rate systems, there are no standard procedures for evaluating whether mailers are evading proper payment. I asked the OIG about these auditing systems and was offered nothing other than some individual audits that seemed to confirm that there were no systems in place to ensure the Postal Service was receiving proper payment.  It’s clear that in its rush to drive retail customers through alternate channels and away from post offices, the Postal Service has failed to take basic steps to ensure it receives proper revenue.

I’ve also heard from many city carriers who wanted to share their stories about the culture of abuse and harassment and the shear waste of resources and incompetence.  Many of them have been forced to work tons of overtime because FSS systems don’t perform remotely as advertised and DPS quality is not nearly what is claimed.

One carrier in the Northeast wrote me about having gone through several route evaluations as the Postal Service insisted that automation and decreasing volume called for longer routes.  As a union steward, he had access to information that seemed to show that the Postal Service had spent as much as $800,000 to perform three rounds of inspections and evaluations.  Evaluators were brought in, not just from his district but also from all over the country, to do these inspections.  After all of that, carriers in his office still are out ten hours a day, often working into the dark and accumulating penalty overtime.

And of course there were the postmasters impacted by POST Plan. They have told me stories of abusive POOMs and District Managers. They talked about some of the stupid and wasteful measures done supposedly in support of EXFC. They confirmed that the meetings held as part of POST Plan were shams, that customers were basically being ignored.  Few of them had any expectations of Mr. Donahoe’s soft landing.  Instead the process of filling the vacant level 18s was often not in conformance with established policies and rife with cronyism and favoritism.

 

Frustration and resignation

I was especially touched by the e-mails I received from a postmaster in the Southwest named Mary.  She was bright, articulate, and conscientious, but she was concerned that having worked for years at a Level 11 office (now on the POST Plan list) she might not have the skills to manage a Level 18.  She was sure that she would receive neither training nor assistance and certainly not the resources needed to manage an office that would administrate as many five of the newly downgraded trainees.

She served as a trainer for PMRs and was horrified that people right off the street were being given three days training and then sent out to run offices by themselves.  These people weren’t even making the paltry $11.76 an hour the Postal Service was advertising.  Instead, in an effort to save money, her District was paying their PMRs just $9.45 an hour.

When she was assigned to a new office, Mary’s existing office was not downgraded to part-time hours.  Instead, the office was simply closed by emergency suspension.  Like many postmasters, Mary had built up strong connections with the people in the community that she served.  She was concerned about their fate. The email she wrote me about her final day was particularly disturbing. Customers were given virtually no notice of the suspension, and the check out procedure was haphazard and far from that specified.

Ultimately, rather than endure the ongoing mess and the prospect of not being able to properly serve her customers or be true to herself, Mary simply resigned from the Postal Service. I admire her integrity and the integrity of all those who are struggling to serve their customers while working for an organization that seems actively interested in alienating customers and employees.

 

How it plays out

Webster’s defines “corruption” as (a) impairment of integrity, virtue or moral principle; (b) decay or decomposition; and (c) a departure from the original or from what is pure or correct.

Under its current leadership, the Postal Service would seem to meet each of these definitions.  Certainly when we look at the institutional culture of the institution, we see a lack of integrity, virtue, or adherence to moral principle.  As I wrote in my previous post, the senior leadership of the Postal Service has turned its back on a plethora of dysfunctional behaviors, behaviors that undermine the performance of the organizations and worse.

As we look at how the postal network is being dismantled and the likelihood that service and delivery standards will suffer, we clearly see the decay and decomposition of an important and still potentially useful national institution.

And surely as we watch Mr. Donahoe jump into the arms of the advertising mailing community, we see a departure from the original and correct vision of the purpose of the Postal Service — binding the nation together.

The future of the Postal Service becomes clearer every day.  As offices close or are degraded across the country, as plants close and delivery standards are reduced, as the focus of the institution swerves from universal service towards simply a delivery medium for advertising, as all these things happen and as the current leadership and model remain in place, it becomes increasingly clear how this plays out.

 

The new Gilded Age

It’s clear that Patrick Donahoe and the Board of Governors have won the battle over the future of the Postal Service. They are taking the organization down a path that may or may not lead to privatization but is certainly guaranteed to drastically reduce the quality of postal services in this country. 

Maybe the critics are right and it’s time for an anachronism like the Postal Service to just fade away, but I can’t help thinking that what’s happening is a microcosm of what is ailing our country.  It isn’t class warfare to point out the economic divisions in this country. The simple fact of the matter is that we have rolled back economic opportunity to a place not seen since the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century.  That was a time when big business and the financiers controlled much of the country. It was a time when a few were able to accumulate vast fortunes while the rest of the country was left to survive as best as it could.  It was a time of excessive greed and financial panic.  It was also a time when government was virtually non-existent.

Today we face a situation where most of the wealth generated by this country goes to fewer and fewer hands.  Today labor and those who work for a living are treated with contempt and disdain. Today we cynically attack government and public employees. Today, for the first time in generations, we question our basic responsibilities to each other.  We call programs like Social Security and Medicare “entitlements,” as if the idea of a society creating a safety net and an inclusive economy is somehow a negative.

I’m no Socialist but I do believe in public goods, and what the post office has been and what it could be is an absolute public good.  The concept of binding the nation together is not some ideological trope.  It is an expression of our basic founding principles. The Postal Service is basic foundational infrastructure.  The idea of universal service is an idea of inclusion and opportunity.

We are now watching the evisceration of the postal network and the undermining of first class mail.  By the end of next year, it is likely that a half a million good jobs will have disappeared from the Postal Service over a five or six year period. And for what?  Cheap rates for advertising mailers?

 

Down the wrong road

The leadership of the Postal Service has abandoned its responsibilities to the American public.  They have actively sought to undermine the value of first class mail as a means of undermining the premise of universal service. In doing so, they are creating circumstances that may leave millions of Americans subject to the whims of predators in the financial services industry.  What happens when folks no longer have a viable way of paying their bills?  It isn’t hard to see which enterprises will benefit from charging fees just to pay a bill.

The leadership of the Postal Service envisions itself as nothing more than a medium for delivering advertising mail.  Advertising mail, in spite of people’s habit of calling it junk, must be an effective marketing tool, or there wouldn’t be much of an industry supporting it.  But part of what makes advertising mail effective is the intangible trust people place in the Postal Service generally. Taking it down the road of a minimally paid work force with a limited network won’t enhance productivity, it won’t sustain cheap rates, and it won’t raise the public’s desire for receiving junk mail. Effective or not, the value of advertising mail will decline precipitously if the Postal Service relinquishes its role as a public institution.

Mr. Donahoe and the BOG, with a big assist from Congress, have taken the Postal Service down a road that appears to be irrevocable. They have taken the Postal Service down a road that is damaging, destroying an essential public institution.  It is a road that leaves everyone, and that includes the mailing industry, worse off. The worst part of all this is that when we finally realize what we have allowed to happen it will be too late to salvage anything of value.

We will only be able to mourn our loss.


[Mr. Jamison recently retired as a postmaster for the US Postal Service.  He can be reached at  Mij455@gmail.com.]

[Image credits: Post Office sketches by Kyle Durrie at Tiny Post Offices]

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