The surprise behind today's Doodle: Google does its part to save the post office

April 14, 2015

Check out the ending of this video about the making of today's Doodle celebrating the anniversary of the Pony Express.  Looks like even Google wants to help save the post office.

Another kind of tax: The Postal Service cuts back at a post office deep in the hood

April 10, 2015

The Postal Service is extending collection hours at many post offices on April 15th for Tax Day, but there's at least one post office in California that's getting a lot less than extended hours.  Customers of the Marcus Foster post office, located on International Boulevard in the heart of Deep East Oakland, have been experiencing a range of cutbacks, and one local writer says the cuts amount to a kind of Hood Tax.

According to an excellent piece written by J. Douglas Allen-Taylor, the Postal Service has been cutting back services at Marcus Foster in some very noticeable ways.  The piece appears on his website, Safero.org, here, and there's a follow-up post from earlier this week, here

Allen-Taylor is an Oakland journalist and political commentator who’s written for several Bay Area newspapers.  He’s also the author of a novel, Sugaree Rising (which gets some great reviews on Amazon).  In 2013, the PEN Oakland writers' organization honored him with a lifetime achievement award.

Allen-Taylor describes the cuts in service at the Marcus Foster post office as a type of “Hood tax.”  That’s a reference to the way prices are often inflated in small stores in low-income neighborhoods populated by minority groups.  Or, as he puts more eloquently, an “inconvenience applied to folks enacted for the privilege of living within the confines of areas we once called ‘the ghetto.’”

The Marcus Foster station is not a big office, just over 2,000 square feet, but it can be a very busy place, with a line of ten or more customers waiting at the counter.

Some time ago, Allen-Taylor noted that the Postal Service had reduced the staff from three clerks to one.  There may be plans to bring back a second clerk, he says, but in the meantime, lately there’s been only one clerk at the post office.

That means longer lines, of course, and it may also be the reason that the post office has been closing for over an hour for lunch everyday.  The sign on the door doesn’t provide any explanation, just “closed for lunch.”

The USPS.com Find Locations page currently says the post office is open 9 to 5, and there’s nothing about closing for lunch, so it’s hard to say what that’s all about and how long it will go on.

There have been other cutbacks as well.  Some time ago, the Postal Service removed the two blue boxes outside the post office.  (One was in front on the street, and the other was a drive-up box in the parking lot.)   Presumably the boxes got culled for being under-utilized.  Now you have to go into the post office to mail something. 

That’s not all.   A few months ago, the post office also eliminated package pickup services, as well as pickup for certified and registered mail, for anyone who does not have a post office box at Marcus Foster.  Everyone else needs to go to the post office out near the Oakland airport, on Pardee Drive. 

According to Google Maps, the Airport post office is 2.8 miles from the Marcus Foster office.  If you have a car, it’s a 9-minute drive (without traffic).  If you take the bus, it’s 29 minutes, and if you’re on foot, it’s a 51-minute walk. 

It’s not clear if the Postal Service changed the policy about package pickup in order to be able to reduce the staff, or if it’s having problems staffing the office and had to reduce services because there was only one clerk.  Allen-Taylor suspects that the Postal Service is trying out the one-clerk system to see if the station can get by that way permanently.

The Postal Service owns this facility, and there’s been a post office there since 1982.  (It may have leased the property at some point before owning it.)  There’s no indication at this point that the Postal Service has plans to close the post office and sell the building.

Allen-Taylor is concerned, though, that the cutbacks are prelude to something more — “a test run towards a closing of the Marcus Foster Branch altogether, on the theory that it will get less attention and, therefore, political kickback than, say, selling off the main post office branch in Berkeley.”

The post office is named after Marcus Aurelius Foster (1923 – 1973), an African-American educator who served for many years as Oakland school superintendent and who had a national reputation for educational excellence.  Foster was murdered in 1973 by members of the Symbionese Liberation Army because of his alleged support of a plan to create a student identification card system in Oakland.  In reality, he had opposed the ID cards.  (There's more on Wikipedia.)

Allen-Taylor writes that the Marcus Foster post office “sits in the middle of one of Oakland’s ‘Forgotten Lands,’ those depressed neighborhoods where city officials, the media, and the rest of the city’s resident tend to look when bad things happen.”

He sees the neighborhood differently.  He describes the area, which is called the Elmhurst District, as “made of many good people attempting to raise their families and build a community.”

The people in Elmhurst don't deserve to be forgotten.  They certainly don't deserve a post office that's not properly staffed with full services — like package pickup for everyone, collection boxes outside, and open all day and not closed for lunch.

(Photo credits: Marcus Foster PO on Google Street Views; closed sign on front door)

How long does the mail take? Let the Postal Service count the days

April 9, 2015

The Postal Service is proposing to change the way it measures the on-time service performance of First Class Mail.  Instead of contracting a third-party to evaluate how long it takes for the mail to be delivered, the Postal Service wants to count the days itself.  The change requires the approval of the Postal Regulatory Commission, and yesterday several stakeholders and postal watchdogs filed comments to PRC Docket PI2015-1.

The current system is called External First-Class Measurement (EXFC).  The Postal Service has been using this system since 1990.  As the Postal Service explains on one of its quarterly performance reports:

“EXFC is a rigorous external sampling system measuring the time it takes from deposit of mail into a collection box or lobby chute until its delivery to a home or business.  EXFC measures the transit time for single-piece rate First- Class cards, letters, and flat envelopes and compares this actual service against service standards.”

The EXFC system is conducted by an external independent third-party — IBM — and it measures the end-to-end length of time it takes for mail to be delivered.  The participants, known as droppers and reporters, are supposed to be kept confidential, and the whole process is supposed to be conducted without managers and workers knowing which pieces are being tested.  The test mail is statistically analyzed based on sample volume, mail characteristics, and the location where the mail was entered and delivered. 

The results of the EXFC tests are published quarterly on the USPS website here.  (For previous quarters, just change the dates in the URL.)  

The results typically show that the Postal Service is meeting its targets for First Class mail, with about 95 percent being delivered within the service standard for overnight and 2-day mail and about 85 percent for 3-5-day mail. 

It should be noted that this high level of performance may be declining as a result of the new service standards that were introduced at the beginning of this year, which allowed the Postal Service to make significant changes in how mail is processed.  There have been many anecdotal reports of delays, and it’s likely that less mail is meeting the service standards. 

In a motion filed yesterday, the APWU says just that: “At this time the new degraded service standards that went into effect on January 5, 2015, have not been met by most of the mail processing facilities across the country, including the losing and gaining facilities on the list for Consolidations or Closures. The EXFC scores show after 12 weeks that mail is being delayed.”

The service performance results for the second quarter of the fiscal year (January-March) have not been released yet, but they're likely to show exactly what the APWU alleges.

 

The new measurement system

For various reasons, the Postal Service wants to change the measuring system from EXFC to what it calls Service Performance Measurement (SPM). Under the proposed system, the Postal Service would do the measuring itself, rather than using an external third-party, and it would take advantage of the fact that much of the mail is now barcoded.

Letter carriers would scan barcoded mailpieces from randomly selected collection points (collection boxes and office building chutes). Instead of having a reporter mark down when a piece of mail is received, the carrier would scan the barcode to mark the delivery time.  The collection and delivery points would be selected based on a statistical design to make sure they’re representative of the population being measured.  (The details of the new system are described in the plan submitted by the USPS to the PRC here.)

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:

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