Alas, poor post office: Newsweek broods on the demise of the Postal Service

April 6, 2015

Last week Newsweek ran an opinion piece entitled “Do We Need a Postal Service?”  It originally appeared on the website of the Brookings Institute with the title, “The U.S. Postal Service’s existential problem.” 

“The U.S. Postal Service has an existential problem,” begins the op-ed, and twice more in the space of just 840 words it refers to the “existential crisis” and “existential question” facing the postal system.

The essay is about how the Postal Service is becoming obsolete and pointless and headed for "a day of reckoning," sooner or later.  “To be clear," it says, "the Postal Service cannot be abolished; at least, not immediately.”   

Some readers consequently thought that the essay was looking forward to that day when we would be done with the Postal Service, but then in response to a reader’s comment, the author backs off and says, “Just to be clear, nothing in my op-ed advocated abolishing USPS.

To abolish or not to abolish, that is the question.

 

R Street and Newsweek

The Newsweek op-ed is by Kevin Kosar, who, as his bio says, is a senior fellow at the R Street Institute.  Before joining R Street, he covered postal issues for the Congressional Research Service (CRS) for more than a decade.  

The R Street Institute is a conservative advocacy group that promotes “free markets and limited, effective government.” It's a spin-off of another conservative think tank called the Heartland Institute.

In 2012 Heartland ran into controversy over an anti-global-warming campaign it had launched featuring Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, Charles Manson, and Fidel Castro, all saying they believed in global warming.  The campaign wasn’t very tasteful, the big Heartland donors withdrew their funding, and several Heartland staffers departed and created R Street (which does not promote climate change skepticism).

One of the founders of R Street was Eli Lehrer, now its president.  Back in 2012, Lehrer wrote a piece on Huffington Post entitled “The Postal Service Should Go … Now.”  According to Lehrer, the Postal Service is simply "useless," most communication these days is digital, and anything the Postal Service can do the private sector can do better.  "There's no need to beat around the bush or talk about preserving some sort of service," concluded Lehrer.  "The Postal Service should go. Now."

As for Newsweek, it still runs a print edition in some foreign markets, and it's back in print in the U.S. after ceasing print publication at the end of 2012, but it's probably printing a small portion of what it printed a few years ago, when its circulation was in the millions. The company is owned by IBT Media, which focuses on online publications.  No wonder, then, that Newsweek might like the message in Kosar’s piece.  One of its underlying themes is basically “print is dead, long live online media.”

The piece has provoked a lively discussion in the comment section, and Kosar has taken the time to respond to many readers.  There are several statements in his op-ed that are worth commenting on, such as the following:

A happy worker is a productive worker: Postal Pulse surveys employee engagement

April 1, 2015

Last week I wrote a post about the Postal Service’s new employee survey, Postal Pulse.  The Pulse replaces the Voice of the Employee (VOE), which the Postal Service has been using for the past 17 years.  The Pulse is now being administered to over 600,000 postal workers, and the Postmaster General is encouraging everyone to fill it out.

My criticisms focused on the fact that the Pulse seemed inferior to the VOE.  The new survey omits many questions in the VOE about workplace diversity and discrimination, safety, and so on, which seemed worthwhile.  The article also described the Pulse questions as being “touchy-feely” and intended to encourage “sensitive, New Age conversations" between management and workers.

Little did I know that I was criticizing the most famous “employee engagement” survey in the world, the Gallup Q12.  Rather than creating its own survey for postal workers, the Postal Service has simply contracted with Gallup to administer the Q12 survey.   

The Postal Pulse survey is here; the Q12 survey is here.  As you'll see in comparing them, the questions are the same, almost word for word.  The only difference is that the Pulse adds an introductory question about how satisfied workers are at the Postal Service.  It's No. 0 so as not to throw off the numbering of the other 12 questions, which correspond, one by one, to the 12 questions on the Gallup Q12.

Since it was developed in the late 1990s, Gallup's Q12 Employee Engagement Survey has been administered to more than 25 million employees in 189 different countries and 69 languages for use by several hundred organizations.  It’s considered the “gold standard” for employee engagement surveys.

Credit for the discovery that the Pulse is simply the Q12 by another name goes to PostalMag.com, which wrote about the scoop in this post.

Now that PostalMag has pointed it out, though, we should have probably noticed that there’s a footnote in small print on the Postal Pulse survey that says, “Gallup and Q12 are trademarks of Gallup.”  Who knew?

 

"Developing" Postal Pulse

It’s not clear why the Postal Service hasn’t come right out and said it is using the Gallup Q12.   It’s a highly respected survey with a lot of social science behind it, and many people would probably be happy to learn that the Postal Service had shifted over to such a well-known product.

For some reason, though, the Postal Service has made it seem as if Postal Pulse is something unique to the USPS and that it helped develop the survey.

For example, in her recent video talk to employees, as PostalMag.com observed, the new Postmaster General Megan Brennan clearly indicated that the Postal Service had helped create the Pulse.  Here’s what she said:

“What’s different about this survey [compared to the VOE] is that it was designed based on your feedback, to make something simpler, more secure, and most important, more actionable.”

It’s hard to see how postal workers could have had any impact on the design of Postal Pulse, considering that the Q12 was created over 15 years ago.

The PMG went on to say, “To develop this survey, we partnered with the Gallup organization, a recognized world leader is research and employee engagement, to design something that will collect your views about our workplace culture.”

That too is a bit misleading.  The Postal Service didn’t “develop” the survey and it didn’t “partner” with Gallup to "design" anything.  The Q12 had already been designed, and the only “partnering” that’s going on is that the Postal Service is paying a hefty fee to Gallup for administering the survey and analyzing the results. 

A USPS press release about the Pulse also made it seem as if the Postal Service helped create the new survey.  It quotes Chief Human Resources Officer Jeff Williamson saying, “The streamlined questions will yield better data that supervisors and managers can use to put employees’ feedback into action.”

That makes it seem as if the Postal Service “streamlined” the survey to improve it, but that’s obviously not the case.  The Postal Service didn’t put any thought into streamlining the new survey.  The only thought that went into it was the decision to hire Gallup and use the Q12.  

While the Postal Service could have developed its own unique survey based on the type of questions in the Q12, that would have defeated one of the main advantages of using the boilerplate Gallup poll.  It was very important that the Postal Service not change the wording of the questions. 

The Q12 database, with its millions of responses, is the largest employee benchmark around, so sticking with the exact same questions allows Gallup and the Postal Service to compare the results for postal workers with the results for other organizations and the benchmark.

This also means that when postal workers fill out a Postal Pulse survey, they aren’t just giving feedback to postal management.  They are also adding their information to the Gallup database.  The PMG has promised to keep each individual’s survey confidential from supervisors, but she didn’t say anything about not sharing the results with Gallup.  

The USPS and PRC ponder the meaning of "post office": The appeal on the Careywood Idaho CPO

March 29, 2015

In December 2011, the Postal Service declared a five-month moratorium on post office closings, and by the time it was over, the plans to close thousands of post offices had been abandoned.  The Postal Regulatory Commission had already dealt with over 200 appeals during the previous two years, and it was expecting an avalanche.  Instead, there was just a handful of new appeals over the coming months, and the Commission resumed its work on the usual matters, like rates and classifications.

As this point it’s been seventeen months since anyone appealed a post office closure to the PRC.  But two appeals were filed recently, and they are both interesting and important cases.

Earlier this month, the mayor of Norwich, Connecticut, filed an appeal concerning the Yantic post office, which was suspended suddenly in February 2012 for safety and security issues associated with the condition of the building.  There’s more about this appeal here.

On the other side of the country, the Postal Service is planning to close a community post office in Careywood, Idaho, a small town northeast of Spokane, near the Coeur D'Alene National Forest.  The closing date is March 31.  On Friday, March 27, the Postal Service began preparing by packing up equipment in the post office and moving out the p.o. boxes.

On March 19, Marrion Banks and a couple of other people in Careywood filed an appeal with the PRC.  The petitioners argue that the Postal Service did not go through the discontinuance procedure required by law.  There were no surveys to elicit comments from customers, no public meeting, no 60-day comment period, and so on. 

Banks also filed an “application for suspension” asking the Commission to order the Postal Service to keep the post office open while the appeal is heard.  On Friday, the day the Postal Service was packing up, she filed an Emergency Request for Injunctive Relief in which she provides further arguments for why the post office should be kept open during the appeals process.

The letters from the folks in Careywood explain that the post office is its hub and center, “the heart of the community."  They point to how much it will cost in time and money for everyone to drive further to another post office, how highway traffic will increase, how people depend on the security of their post office boxes for receiving medications, how much local businesses spend on postage, and so on. 

The community has also done a petition drive and gathered almost 500 signatures.  The petition has been submitted to the PRC by U.S. Senator Mike Crapo, along with his letter urging the PRC to fully consider the appeal.

That may not happen.  On Friday, March 27, the Postal Service filed a Motion to Dismiss in which it argues that the Careywood post office is a contract postal unit, so it has no obligation to do a discontinuance procedure and the Commission has no authority to hear the appeal.  The Postal Service is also fighting the effort to keep the post office open so that it can proceed with the closing on March 31. 

There’s good reason to be concerned that the Commission will indeed dismiss the Careywood appeal.  In order to do so, however, it would need to repudiate its own precedents, which date back to 1983 and which were affirmed numerous times during the 1980s and 1990s. 

There are currently about 3,100 contract post offices.  (A list is here.)  According to the Postal Service, any of these facilities can be closed without following the laws governing post office closings and with no opportunity for appeal.

Careywood is a small place in Idaho, but the Commission’s decision on the Careywood appeal could have huge implications.

The doctor will see you now: The Postal Service takes the pulse of employees

March 27, 2015

The Postal Service has replaced the Voice of the Employee (VOE) survey with a new one called Postal Pulse.  The survey is being administered by Gallup from March 16 to April 3.

You can see the old VOE survey here, and the new Postal Pulse here.  

The Postal Service hasn’t said much publicly about why it decided to discontinue the VOE and develop the Pulse.  A press release simply says the Postal Service “aims to improve postal workplaces by better engaging employees and leveraging their ideas and feedback.”

The VOE survey did the same thing, so that’s not saying much.  The press release also quotes Chief Human Resources Officer Jeff Williamson saying this:

“As Postmaster General Brennan says, our employees are the bedrock of our success, and their ideas and insights are crucial to our future.  Through the Postal Pulse program, we’ll work together to strengthen our workplaces and continue moving our organization forward.”

That’s a worthy sentiment, but again, it doesn’t really explain what was wrong with the VOE and how the Pulse will do a better job getting feedback from employees.

An internal USPS announcement says that VOE has been "retired" and "the new process will help collect employee views about the work place and be used as a tool to help improve the work environment over time."  But this too does not explain why the Pulse will achieve these goals better than the VOE.

One interesting change is that the VOE initially surveyed only career employees, while Postal Pulse, says the announcement, "will survey everyone, career and noncareer."  

That probably a good thing, considering that the USPS workforce, as noted in the February 2015 financial report, now consists of 490,291 career employees and 131,078 non-career.  Why leave out over 21 percent of the workforce, especially when many of them are CCAs working on Sunday for Amazon and delivering Amazon Fresh in the early morning hours (as seen in this video).  Management surely wants to hear what they have to say.

Postmaster General Megan Brennan also discussed Postal Pulse in her latest “Business Focus” video, released yesterday.  “I urge you to take the survey so we can better help you do the best job possible,” said the PMG.  Individual responses aren’t shared with managers or supervisors, she added. “They’re confidential. You have my commitment on that point.”

 

The APWU objects

The APWU, which didn’t like the VOE, has criticized the Pulse and encouraged its members not to complete the survey.  The union believes that these surveys can be used against workers during contract negotiations.  

As an APWU article about the Pulse notes, management first cited employee survey data during bargaining in the 1990s, and the APWU National Executive Board adopted a resolution opposing such surveys.

APWU Vice President Debby Szeredy tells members,  “Remember, management cannot force you to complete the survey.  It’s addressed to you.  I suggest you throw it away and/or notify your steward.”  

AWPU President Mark Dimondstein was disturbed about the fact that management told employees about the new survey on February 19, the opening day of contract talks. He called the timing “insidious.”

The APWU has filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board protesting management’s claim in this USPS announcement that the APWU, along with other unions and management associations, supports the goals of the program.  

Despite all the controversy, the questions in the Postal Pulse seem fairly innocuous.  They’re mostly about how employees feel about whether their contributions are valued by others and whether they’re getting the kind of support they need.  It’s not obvious how the answers to such questions might be used against unions in contract negotiations.  But the APWU probably believes that there's no reason to provide management with anything it could use as leverage.

As one compares the VOE survey with Postal Pulse, it's not hard to see why the APWU would be suspicious.  The changes in the survey don't reflect very well on management's intentions.

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