A Bill of Rights for the Post Office

December 7, 2015

Some people just love to complain about the Postal Service, but the vast majority of Americans are pretty happy with the service they receive at their post office.  In fact, several new surveys show once again that people think the post office is just fine.

According to a new Gallup poll, Americans rank the customer service they receive at post offices among the best in the nation — third behind banks and pharmacies. The survey found that 30 percent of adults say they received “excellent” service at a post office they visited during the past month, and another 49 percent said the service was “good.”

Another new survey by Pew Charitable Trust found that 84% of Americans have a favorable view of the Postal Service – the highest rating among 17 agencies and departments tested.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Customer Experience Index (a product of Forrester Research) similarly found that the Postal Service was at the top of the list for federal agencies. 

As Jim Nemec, vice president of Consumer and Industry Affairs at the Postal Service, told Nextgov.com in an article this week, “With customers, with employees — especially our mail carriers — we’re obsessed with customers and gaining their trust.  Everyone has a vested interest in being customer-centric.”

While postal employees may be doing a great job gaining the trust of customers, the Postal Service is not doing all it could to improve things at the place where most people experience the Postal Service — their neighborhood post office.  Unfortunately, the Postal Service doesn’t always give post offices the attention they deserve. 

After all, the big mailers (who are responsible for the vast majority of mail volumes) drop their mail at processing facilities and don’t use post offices.  In fact, the Postal Service would prefer that regular retail customers found other ways to do postal business, like online at USPS.com or at a private shipping company or at a counter in a Staples store — all of which are cheaper ways to bring in retail revenues than post offices.  (There’s more on that in this previous post.)

As a result, the Postal Service puts a lot of money and effort into encouraging customers to “migrate” from post offices to the alternative channels.  But vast numbers continue to use the post office anyway.


Visits to the post office

While the news is filled with stories and opinion pieces about how the Postal Service is becoming "obsolete," the number of people who use the post office continues to be immense.

The USPS 2014 Household Diary Study states that “in spite of a declining frequency of visits over the past several years, the use of post offices for mailing services continues to dominate the mail service industry.”  The survey found that 53 percent of all U.S. households patronize a post office at least once a month, and over 24 percent visit the post office three or more times a month.  

That translates into a huge number of visits.  According to a 2015 OIG report entitled "Window Retail Customer Service," in fiscal year 2012, the retail network had 840 million customers who conducted 1.7 billion transactions.  

Along similar lines, the USPS 2014 Postal Facts reports that there were nearly one billion “retail customer visits” to the post office in 2013.  That number doesn’t include all the other types of visits that don't involve a retail transaction, like picking up mail at a PO box or receiving a package at the window.

By the way, it’s interesting to note that the 2015 Postal Facts no longer includes data on customer visits to the post office.  The new Postal Facts instead emphasizes how many people are using online services — yet another indication of how the Postal Service encourages customers to migrate from the post office to alternative channels.

While the Postal Service may one day succeed in making post offices obsolete, we're a long way from that dubious goal right now.  Millions of people still depend on the post office, and use of the post office “continues to dominate the mail service industry.”   The Postal Service should therefore be doing everything it can to ensure that every post office is functioning as effectively as possible.


The 1967 Postal Bill of Rights

Improving service at the post office has been on the agenda for a long time.  Back in 1967, as part of a mandate from President Johnson to improve service at all federal agencies, the Postmaster General, Larry O’Brien, implemented a Postal Customer’s Bill of Rights.  

O'Brien, by the way, was instrumental in transitioning the Department of the Post Office into the quasi-independent Postal Service.  After serving as PMG (1965-68), he returned to work for the Democratic Party, and in 1972 his offices in the Watergate complex were burglarized.  He'd go on to become commissioner of the NBA.  

According to news reports at the time, O'Brien's Postal Bill of Rights was to be displayed on posters in the post office lobby and at service counters.  Its ten points specified the kind of treatment customers had a right to expect at the post office: 

Photographing the post offices of Michigan's Upper Peninsula

November 27, 2015

Upper Peninsula Post Offices

For over four years, from 2011 to 2015, Lucy and Lina Blair traveled through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula photographing each and every one of its 134 post offices.  It was a way to bring them to each town in the U.P. so they could get to know their region better. They’ve put together a book of the photos, and they've shared many of them on Flickr.   There’s also a nice story about their project on the Stateside radio show, here.  (Scroll over the image at the top to begin a slideshow.)

When Lucy and Lina began their project, the Postal Service was talking about closing thousands of post offices, twenty of them in the U.P.  As it turned out, post offices didn’t up getting closed, but about 85 of the U.P. post offices had their hours reduced under POStPlan. 

The U.P.’s only mail processing center is still in danger.  The Iron Mountain P&DF in Kingsford has already seen some of its mail moved to Green Bay, but the major part of the consolidation was supposed to happen this past summer.  That plan is currently on hold, along with about 80 other consolidations around the country.

Lucy and Lina started out thinking that photographing post offices was simply something to do as as they explored the U.P., and they weren't really thinking about post offices per se.  But as they talked to people going in and out of their post office, they grew to understand just how important the post office is in a small town.  As Lucy writes in the introduction to their book, post offices "are crucial to the connectivity of rural towns."  

“Right or wrong,” writes Lucy, “the environment of the USPS is changing in the Upper Peninsula, and Lina and I feel lucky to have captured that evolution between 2011 and 2015. These pictures show that change, but they also show the wonderful simplicity and beauty of the communities from De Tour to Ironwood. I hope they also show, in a way, our gratitude to live here and call this beautiful place home.”

Measure to Measure: Data, management, and the reliability of the mail

November 16, 2015


Reliable.  It seems like a simple and straightforward word.  It conveys, if not a very specific meaning, at least a pretty concrete sense of satisfying expectations.  In some contexts, like certain forms of statistics and technical applications, reliable and reliability refer to the overall consistency of a measurement or the accuracy of the data being measured.  

But when we're talking about the postal system, the word reliable means much more than mere consistency.  The reliability of the mail goes to the heart of what we expect of the postal system, especially a public postal network based on a promise of universal service.  But what does reliable mean in this context?

For example, if for years it took two days for your mortgage payment to be delivered to the bank, but now that service standards have changed it consistently takes five days, would that be considered reliable?  The Postal Service seems to think so, and it has produced marketing surveys showing that customers care less about the speed of delivery than they do about knowing the mail will arrive when the Postal Service says it will (even if that’s days later than in the past).

Or, to take another example, the news is filled with stories about people complaining that their mail is arriving much later than it used to.  We might all agree that such anecdotes aren’t as reliable as scientific data, but if a system designed to measure performance ignores customer feedback or shunts complaints off into some nebulous customer satisfaction index, aren’t we missing an opportunity to identify problems? 

The issue of reliability in the postal system involves a host of related questions:

If we choose a narrow and technical means to measure performance, is it enough to say the network is providing reliable service, regardless of other evidence? 

Should we just look at a statistical measure and check to see if the results have the proper p value and demonstrate some acceptable probability of being accurate, and then conclude that the network is reliable and give ourselves a pat on the back and move on?

If we replace a longstanding, well accepted, relatively straightforward, and externally conducted system for measuring on-time performance with a new system that’s conducted internally using complex statistical sampling, how will it affect customers’ perception of the reliability of the mail?

Can the success or failure of a public postal network be defined by simple statistical measurements?  What happens when the measuring becomes an end in itself?  


A shift of focus

For almost ten years now, we have been defining the success or failure of the Postal Service by an arbitrary concept of profit and loss that is based on the false premises of the 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (PAEA).  These values may be suitable for a corporate entity, but they are not appropriate for a public infrastructure.  Now the chickens have come home to roost.  

In response to the mandate of PAEA to act like a business and focus on the bottom line, the Postal Service has focused on a two-pronged strategy — cutting costs and shifting the focus of the institution. 

To cut expenses, the Postal Service has reduced service standards, closed facilities, eliminated hundreds of thousands of good jobs, and become more and more dependent on part-time workers and cheap temporary labor.

As damaging as these cuts have been, the shift in the institution’s focus has had even more destructive consequences.  We have witnessed the transformation of a public network with a mission of universal service into a corporatized delivery company that treats this mission as an unwanted burden.

Lately many members of Congress have been raising questions about the Postal Service’s on-time delivery performance.  What percentage of the mail is being delivered within a particular service standard (two-days or three-to-five)?  Are rural areas getting worse performance than urban and suburban areas?  What measuring systems are being used to determine the percentages?

Rather than focusing on such questions, we should be talking about what the reliability of the mail really means.  Rather than worrying about the numbers, we should be looking at how the mistaken assumptions and false premises embedded in PAEA have undermined the public mission of the Postal Service.

But here we are.  If we can’t fix the ills of PAEA, if we can’t acknowledge that constant cost cutting and abandoning the basic principles of universal service together lead logically to deteriorating service, then maybe we can at least learn something from the recent focus on service performance measurement.


The Postal Service's "Retail Channel Strategy": A blueprint for privatizing the post office

November 12, 2015

It’s been clear for a long time that the Postal Service is in the process of privatizing itself by shifting processing operations to companies like Pitney Bowes through the workshare system and contracting out billions of dollars of work to private corporations (over $12 billion in 2014).  The Postal Service has also been working to privatize its retail operations by creating a vast network of alternative retail channels.  

This transformation of the retail system is the subject of a revealing and recently unearthed PowerPoint presentation entitled “Retail Channel Strategy."  The presentation was prepared as a "discussion document" for the Postal Service by McKinsey & Company back in March 2012.  It's about how the Postal Service could save billions a year by shifting its retail business from low-traffic post offices to alternatives like private retailers, self-service kiosks, and digital platforms.

The presentation is dated a month after the Postal Service published its five-year plan, "Plan to Profitability," which was prepared by several other consulting firms, based on previous work by McKinsey (as discussed in this previous post).  The five-year plan indicated that the Postal Service would save $2 billion a year thanks to changes in its retail operations, but it provided no details about how that could happen.

The McKinsey presentation explains how.  It shows that putting postal counters in 1,500 Staples stores is just the beginning.  The ultimate goal is to create 12,000 to 22,000 new retail partner outlets by 2020 and thereby cut business at USPS post offices in half.  

The leaders of the Postal Service have consistently denied that they are interested in privatization, but what else do you call it when the goal is to drive customers from post offices to private retailers?


Demonstrating financial stewardship

According to the McKinsey presentation, traditional post offices are not a cost-efficient way to bring in revenue.  The Postal Service, it says, would demonstrate “financial stewardship by optimizing the network to migrate customers to the lowest-cost channels,” i.e., private retailers, automated kiosks, and online sources like USPS.com and Stamps.com.

The presentation says it costs 47 cents to bring in a dollar at a post office, while it costs 20 cents at a postal counter in a private retailer, 15 cents at a contract postal unit, 8 cents at a kiosk, and 2 cents at USPS.com.  By shifting over to these less expensive channels and introducing other changes, says the presentation, the Postal Service could save $2.6 billion a year by 2020. 

The presentation also sets a specific goal for migrating revenues from the post office to alternative channels.  In 2011, 65 percent of retail revenues came in through post offices, and the remaining 33 percent came in from the alternatives.  By 2020, the presentation says that 67 percent of retail revenues could flow through alternative channels.  That would cut business at post offices in half.

This goal would be accomplished primarily by creating 12,000 to 22,000 new retail partner outlets.  The presentation describes “multiple options” for these new partnerships.


Multiple options

One format is called “store-in-store.”  That’s when there’s a “postal outlet located in a dedicated space at a partner retailer, operated by a dedicated staff (employed by the partner), offering a full set of postal products and services.”  This is the model that was initially used for the Staples initiative.

A second type of retail partnership is called “over the counter.”  That’s when USPS products and services are “sold through existing retailer space (retail till or customer service desk) leveraging existing retailer staff (not dedicated to USPS activities).”  This sounds a lot like the Approved Shipper Program adapted to big box retailers, which is essentially what the Staples counters turned into when the program expanded after the pilot phase.

The presentation indicates that at the beginning of fiscal year 2013 (October 2012) the Postal Service planned to launch pilots with four to six retail partners, involving 150 outlets, in order to demonstrate these formats.  It then planned to expand to 2,000 outlets by the third quarter of 2013.

As it happened, the Postal Service did almost that, but it took a little longer and involved fewer partners.  The Staples pilot began in November 2013 with dedicated postal counters in 82 stores, and then in October 2014 it expanded to 1,500 stores under a variation of the Approved Shipper Program (which allows the counters to sell non-USPS products).

The presentation also mentions a couple of other retail partnership formats, both of which use automated machines. 

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