February 26, 2013
Last week the Postal Service announced that it is partnering with Wahconah, a Cleveland-based clothing manufacturer, to develop a new line of "smart apparel" (also known as "wearable electronics") called “Rain Heat & Snow.”
The USPS press release about the announcement can be found on the Wahconah site, but for some reason it has disappeared from the USPS website, leaving a trail of broken links in several news articles. (Update: Dead Tree Edition has the explanation.)
The press release says the new line will “leverage the intellectual property” of the Postal Service. That’s a fancy way of saying that postal management wants to exploit the USPS brand — and all the trust associated with it — to make a few bucks in the rag trade.
Many postal workers commenting on the postal news websites thought the idea was a joke, and Citizens Against Government Waste, a right-wing advocacy group, headlined its story: "CAGW on USPS Clothing Line: Could Be Ripped from the Headlines of 'The Onion.'" CAWG proceeds to describe the idea as a "make-work" project for "hundreds of thousands of excess USPS employees."
That's completely wrong, of course — the clothes will be manufactured by Wahconah, not postal workers (and there aren't "hundreds of thousands" of unnecessary postal workers) — but CAWG is right about one thing: "The project will certainly create jobs in the writers’ rooms of late night comedians who need material for their monologues."
Save the Post Office had its fun with the idea in this slideshow, and the announcement was greeted with a considerable amount of derision elsewhere in the media as well:
“Haute couture by the postman” (Washington Times)
“Desperate U.S. Postal Service Tries to Find its 'Cool' Factor” (Reuters)
“USPS "Rain, Heat & Snow" clothing line but not on Saturday” (Breitbart Feed)
"Forget Marc Jacobs: The Postal Service is Hot This Spring" (Corporate Intelligence)
“USPS clothing line: Dress like the mailman?” (Christian Science Monitor)
While the Postal Service is to be commended for experimenting with new ways to make money, the clothing idea is pretty ridiculous. There are enough companies selling clothes, and there’s no reason for the Postal Service to get into the fashion business.
But in terms of “leveraging intellectual property,” there’s a lot to consider and many other possibilities worth exploring.
The potential financial value of USPS assets
The Postal Service owns vast amounts of intellectual property — its brand and logos, the New Deal murals and sculptures in post offices, photos and historic materials, trademarks and images, patents and copyrights, trade secrets, and so on.
There’s been some debate about whether or not the Postal Service is taking full advantage of the value of this intellectual property (IP). Some argue that the Postal Service should be doing more to capitalize on its IP to bring in much-needed revenue. This article, for example, explores "How recognizing the increasing importance of IP in the postal/parcel industry and harnessing the power of disruptive innovation can revivify the USPS." It's all about the Postal Service could monetize the untapped potential of its intellectual property.
Others argue that the Postal Service, as a government agency, ought to be sharing its intellectual property as a public service. Why should the Postal Service prevent someone (as it sometimes does) from taking photographs of the murals in a New Deal post office? They belong to the public realm and shouldn't be seen as proprietary.
On the other hand, many businesses capitalize on USPS intellectual property for their own profit, with the Postal Service basically giving away valuable assets just for the asking. That may be problematic at a time when the Postal Service needs to find new sources of revenue.
The USPS OIG recently opened a discussion about intellectual property on its "Pushing the Envelope" blog. The OIG notes that compared to other industries, such as information technology and wireless communications, “the Postal Service has not significantly leveraged its intellectual property or fully recognized the potential financial and strategic value of these assets.”
A 2011 OIG report focused specifically on USPS patents and found that “the Postal Service currently does not manage its portfolio of patents to maximize commercial significance.” The report is heavily redacted with most of the interesting details blacked out, but the bottom line is significant.
The OIG estimated that the USPS commercial patents could be worth about a half billion dollars annually. That’s just about how much the Postal Service says it will save by reducing hours at 13,000 post offices under POStPlan.
February 24, 2013
The Postal Service is plowing ahead with its community meetings on POStPlan. As of Friday, it had held 6,741 meetings, and it has scheduled an additional 474 through March 15.
That’s a total of 7,215 meetings — well more than half the list of 13,000 post offices that are seeing their hours reduced. Before last week, implementation was complete at about 2,800 post offices. On Saturday, another 737 joined the list, bringing the total number of post offices that have seen their hours reduced to over 3,500. (The weekly meeting lists are posted on the USPS website here; you can see the entire list as a table here and spreadsheet here. The implementation dates can be found here and here.)
About 3,500 of the meetings were held at the local post office. These are usually rural post offices with small lobbies, so many of the meetings have been held with patrons crowded together and standing up.
Not that the meetings have lasted very long. There's not much to talk about. The decision to reduce the hours was made almost a year ago, and what the new hours will be comes as an announcement, not a matter for discussion. There’s no need for a lot of talk about the options because there aren’t any. It’s either reduce the hours or close the post office.
The meetings are really just an opportunity for the Postal Service spokesperson to drive home the point that the agency is losing $25 million a day and billions every year so it must make cuts in service like reducing the hours.
The local newspaper dutifully repeats what the Postal Service has said. In most articles, there’s also a quote or two from citizens saying they're concerned about how reducing the hours will hurt some members of the community but it's better than losing the post office altogether. The headlines say that the post office has been “spared” or “saved" or "will stay open" — as if closing it were really a possibility, even though virtually none of the 13,000 POStPlan post offices will close.
When the Postal Service witness for POStPlan, Jeffrey Day, was questioned by the Postal Regulatory Commission for its advisory opinion on POStPlan, he testified that while post offices would be reviewed annually to see if they needed to be upgraded or downgraded based on their revenues and workload, the meetings would not be repeated because "community meetings are very expensive." When asked how much the Postal Service had budgeted for the surveys and meetings, he said he "didn't have that number offhand," and he couldn't even say if it was in the millions of dollars.
One wonders how much money the Postal Service has spent on these seven thousand meetings (with another six thousand to go). Whatever they cost, it was a waste of money, at least in terms of getting feedback from citizens. The outcome never depended on surveys and meetings. The decisions were made in postal headquarters long before an average American weighed in.
But that's not what the meetings are about. They are a publicity strategy to make it seem that the Postal Service is “listening” to its customers. (The page on the USPS website about the POStPlan meetings is titled "We're listening.")
Even more, the meetings serve as a staged public relations event designed to get a message out: The Postal Service is hemorrhaging billions, and the public must endure cuts in service if the agency is to survive.
The meetings go hand in hand with the Postmaster General's trip to Montana last May — a publicity tour to show he was "listening" to people in small towns who were concerned about their post office closing. (At the time, the PMG had already decided not to close post offices and to do POStPlan instead.)
The Postal Service has been doing a great job controlling the message. We hear constantly about how everyone is using the the Internet and email, how declining mail volumes are pushing the agency deeper and deeper in debt, and how management has no choice but to reduce costs by whatever means necessary — closing plants and slowing down the mail, ending Saturday delivery, shifting over to cluster boxes, cutting hours at the post office.
We don't hear anything about the possibility that these service cutbacks are actually about keeping postal rates down for large business mailers and dismantling the country's postal system so that corporate interests can grab a bigger piece of the pie.
When you consider how much it would have cost to place ads in thousands of community newspapers and on hundreds of local TV channels, the Postal Service has probably found a bargain. Whatever they cost to hold, the POStPlan meetings have provided great free publicity. They were a perfect way to control the message. And that’s probably what postal management was thinking when it decided to hold them.
February 24, 2013
Last week, the Postal Service released a survey it had commissioned with IPSOS, a Paris-based market-research company, showing that 80 percent of Americans supported the Postal Service's decision to end Saturday delivery. Save the Post Office conducted its own survey over the past week, and it shows something completely different: 84 percent were strongly opposed to moving to five-day delivery. (Thanks to all of you who took the time to fill out the survey.)
We conducted this survey because the Postal Service’s survey seemed biased. The first question informed respondents of last year's $16 billion deficit without providing any context for why the deficit exists (over $11 billion of it was due to the retiree health care prefunding). Plus, some of the questions suggested that if the Postal Service did not move to five-day, it might need to raise postage rates, seek a taxpayer bailout, or even suspend services. Such questions seemed intentionally designed to elicit a favorable response toward ending Saturday delivery as a better alternative to other options, none of which is likely to occur.
The Save the Post Office also used loaded questions, but they were loaded with facts, like the fact that 80 percent of the $40 billion deficit is due to the healthcare prefunding mandate (as this table shows), the fact that ending Saturday delivery could drive away over $1 billion in business (as the PRC advisory opinion concluded), the fact that ending Saturday delivery will not save taxpayers a dime (because the Postal Service is entirely self-supporting), and so on.
Over 6,000 people responded to the STPO survey. Here are the results on the two key questions about Saturday delivery.
Those results are a lot different from what the Postal Service’s survey showed. According to its survey, 80 percent support ending Saturday delivery, while 20 percent oppose it. In the USPS survey, 8 percent said they would be personally impacted a great deal, 24 said somewhat, 46 said not very much, and 22 percent said not at all.
It looks as though survey results like these all depend on how you pose the questions and to whom you pose them.
Both surveys were conducted online, so they excluded the people who most depend on the mail and Saturday delivery — seniors and people in rural areas where there’s no decent Internet. The USPS survey used a panel of selected participants, and we don’t know anything about how the panel was composed.
One hopes that the Postal Service’s market research company did a good job making sure the respondents were a representative sample of the entire country. The STPO survey was obviously not representative.
If you’re reading Save the Post Office and the postal news websites that linked to the survey, you’re probably a postal worker, or you have a postal worker in the family, or you’re in the mailing industry, or you're focused on postal issues for other reasons. You’re not an average American when it comes to the Postal Service.
Another problem with the STPO survey is that it was conducted using Google Forms, and there was no way to prevent someone from submitting multiple responses. One individual could fill out the survey several times, and a few people did just that.
One person, in fact, was so passionate in his support for ending Saturday delivery that he responded to the survey over 5,000 times. To make his work easier, he skipped all the questions but # 9 and #10 and didn’t write any comments, but it still took him many, many hours last Sunday to make his contribution. Hopefully, he figured out a way to get his computer to enter the responses automatically and didn't do all that work manually.
Once we discovered that some people were doing multiple responses in the extreme like that, we changed the survey to require a comment, but that didn't stop some people, like the guy who copied and pasted the same comment (“FIRE THE POSTMASTER GENERAL”) a hundred times in a row.
Of the 13,000 responses, half were clearly duplicates, so we deleted all of them, and ended up with a sample of about 6,200 — not a scientifically representative sample of the country, but probably a good measure of where postal workers and others with an above-average interest in the fate of the Postal Service are at.
Here’s a summary of the responses to all ten questions on the survey. The comments are here. You can see all 13,000 survey results (including those that weren't counted) here, and you can see a table with the 6,200 that were included in the results, here.
February 20, 2013
February 18, 2013
BY MARK JAMISON
On Wednesday, February 7, Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe stood before members of the press and the American people to announce that the Postal Service would end Saturday mail delivery and collections in August. An announcement like this was inevitable. No one who has followed the travails of the Postal Service over the past few years could have been surprised that at some point the agency would take a step so contrary to law and procedure that it would be the very epitome of hubris.
Over the past six years the Board of Governors and senior management of the Postal Service have conducted themselves with unabashed arrogance. They have manipulated what is essentially a crisis of bad accounting policy to pursue a long-held desire to shrink the breadth and meaning of universal service while eviscerating and degrading the postal network.
The actions of postal leadership over the past six years have headed the agency, probably irrevocably, on a path that will either lead directly to privatization or to at least de facto control of this national infrastructure by a few large corporations. The ideologues who have targeted the Postal Service for privatization will soon have their day.
A license to kill jobs
In leading us down this path, Donahoe and the BOG have demonstrated an unrestrained contempt for Congress, the rule of law, and most importantly, the American people. The senior leadership of the Postal Service has championed an attitude that views average Americans — and especially working Americans — with complete and utter disdain.
Over the years the Postal Service has been an entry into the middle class for millions of Americans, particularly minorities and veterans. In his press conference, Mr. Donahoe bragged — and there is no other suitable word for it — that there are 193,000 fewer workers than six years ago. Based on reported percentages of the work force, that means there are about 50,000 fewer veterans employed by the Postal Service, of which nearly 17,000 were disabled. Mr. Donahoe considers that progress.
While it is true that Congress has utterly and completely failed in its responsibilities to the American people with respect to many issues, including the direction of the Postal Service, that does not give Mr. Donahoe or the BOG the authority or license to co-opt a great institution. Congress may deserve our contempt, but this does not excuse Mr. Donahoe’s arrogance or his willingness to manipulate the law, the facts, and the American public in pursuit of unaccountable goals.
While Mr. Donahoe would probably like to see himself as a captain of industry, maybe even an inspirational visionary, he’s basically a plodder following orders. Behind him are some very practiced and practical schemers who see an asset held in common by the American people and believe that it should be theirs. They are determined to take this asset from what they view as an undeserving public and to put it to their private and profitable use. Pat Donahoe is simply following an irrevocable course set by others, “an errand boy sent by grocery clerks to collect a bill.”
The BOG: Who’s who and what are they up to?
At the quarterly meeting of the Postal Board of Governors, two days following the announcement eliminating Saturday delivery, Mickey Barnett, the current chair of the BOG, reiterated the Board’s strong support for the current policy. Mr. Barnett referred to the Board’s instruction to postal management in January to accelerate cost cutting, citing Saturday delivery as the first step in an aggressive series of steps. “We must run the Postal Service as a business,” insisted Mr. Barnett, and Congress, he said, must provide comprehensive legislation allowing the BOG to do that. Last year the Board indicated that it felt that the legislation passed by the Senate was too weak and insufficient in giving the BOG proper control and authority.
The Postal Board of Governors consists of nine members selected by the President and confirmed by the Senate. The appointed members then select the final two members of the Board — the Postmaster General and the Deputy Postmaster General. At any time no more than five of the Presidential appointees may be from a particular political party.
The BOG currently has five sitting members plus the PMG and the DPMG. There are thus four vacancies. Two of the members are politically connected attorneys; the third is the former chair of the Kentucky Republican Party; the fourth is the former chair of a large defense contractor; and the fifth was a senior aide to Vice President Biden. The President has selected three candidates to fill the four vacancies; two are academics, and the other is James Miller, a former BOG member who has advocated vociferously in his writings and testimony before Congress for privatization of the Postal Service. Confirmation for these appointees has languished in the Senate for at least six months.
Looking at the current members of the BOG, the appointees awaiting confirmation, and those who have served on the board in the past, it is striking how insular a board this has been, filled primarily with political operatives and insiders, folks who seem detached from everyday America.
It is also curious that there does not ever seem to have been a board member who comes from labor. We are often reminded that 80% of the costs of the Postal Service are related to labor and that the labor agreements are a large part of the current problems. Never mind that both of those claims are misguided. It does seem that an organization that is the second largest employer in the United States would benefit from a Board member who had a background in labor.