A post office worth preserving


January 18, 2012

BY MARK JAMISON

[Mr. Jamison serves the town of Webster in the mountains of North Carolina as its postmaster.  He has written extensively on postal issues.  In keeping with the USPS Administrative Support Manual, Mr. Jamison does not "speak for or act on behalf of the Postal Service."  These are his thoughts on where things stand and where we ought to be headed.  Mr. Jamison can be reached at Mij455@gmail.com. —Ed.]

FOR MANY MONTHS NOW, postal management and a chorus of pundits have delivered one message: Out-of-control deficits are dooming the Postal Service, and it will survive only if management is given the authority to radically downsize the system.  Half the country's post offices and processing plants must close, Saturday delivery must go, service must be reduced, and over two hundred thousand jobs must be cut.  

These steps, however, will not ensure the survival of the Postal Service.  This is not a vision for the future.  It's an invitation to a funeral.  

After Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe spoke at the National Press Club at the end of November, it should have been clear to anyone following the trials and tribulations of the USPS exactly what vision postal senior management had for the future of the institution.  Mr.  Donahoe stated that it was his goal to wring $20 billion of costs out of the system within the next few years.  He essentially demanded free rein from Congress to disassemble the postal network as we know it.

The vision expressed by Mr. Donahoe was one of declining mail volumes, an entity that had outlived its relevancy in a technological age, and the need for a business model which transformed an institution of national infrastructure into simply another player in the mailing and delivery business.  He spoke of a future that consigned the purpose and the past of a national treasure to the dustbin of failed business models, right next to the graveyard of buggy whip makers.

The plans advanced by senior postal management involve shedding much of the current retail network and well over half of the plant facility network.  In addition, the service standards that have made the Postal Service useful and reliable were to be revised downward in what appeared to be a relentless quest for mediocrity.

The plans also involved eliminating tens of thousands of good, middle-class jobs and replacing many more with low-wage casual workers, while also dismantling retirement and health benefit systems that have served generations of workers well.

What Mr. Donahoe offered was a vision that has become popular among a small segment of the American political class.   It is a vision of an impotent public sector, a downsized, out-sourced, minimum-wage work force, and it shows a complete disregard for infrastructure.   It is a view of globalization come full circle, America as a third-world country.

Not long after Mr. Donahoe’s speech, several members of Congress awoke from their slumber and began seeing the future Mr. Donahoe proposed.  As calls from their communities became more alarming, telling of closed post offices and shuttered plant facilities, and as it became apparent that the proposed changes were not merely a matter of rightsizing postal operations but dismantling them and denigrating service, Congress began showing heightened interest, eventually demanding a moratorium on some of the proposed changes.

Yet even after agreeing to a moratorium on plant and post office closings, the Postal Service continued with the procedures and steps needed to close facilities.  Even after the Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC) found in its Advisory Opinion on the Retail Access Optimization Initiative (RAOI) that the Postal Service’s plans to rationalize the network had very little foundation, the Postal Service continued with requests for vendors to take over the hub-and-spoke operations that would be eliminated by plant closings.

The fact is the PRC found, as many of us have been saying all along, that the Postal Service’s plans were less about finding a successful business model than they were about simply carving up the postal network into bite-size chunks.  The RAOI decision returned to many of the same points raised in previous decisions, like the exigent rate case and the five-day delivery case — primarily that the Postal Service’s plans lacked substance. 

The plans espoused by the management of the Postal Service appear less the articulation of a successful outcome, the re-envisioning of a successful business model, than they are the actions a vulture capital firm might undertake when dissolving a business by extracting whatever value might exist and leaving the rest to “creative destruction.”  No one from the Postal Service has yet offered a picture of what a successful outcome might be.  Actually that isn’t terribly astonishing since it would be awfully hard to describe success when your every action is built towards taking the enterprise apart.

 

AT THIS POINT, the story is clear in terms of what got the Postal Service in these straits.  We know the excessive extraction of funds from the Postal Service by the poorly conceived 2006 Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (PAEA) has resulted in non-operational deficits.  We know too that various retirement accounts have been over subscribed and that other accounting devices, like accounting for workman’s compensation obligations, have been rigged to transfer funds from the Postal Service to the Treasury.

We know too that volumes have dropped, and while some of that may be due to changing technology, a good bit is due to the ongoing recession and some may even be due to the continual atmosphere of crisis that the postal management has ginned up.

But we also know that the Postal Service is essential infrastructure.  We know the postal network has provided the pathways that have not only connected Americans and bound them together but also given many businesses and industries an affordable and reliable delivery network.  The direct mail and marketing industries exist because of the reach and viability of the postal network.  Parcel delivery companies are more profitable and can provide better service because the universal service mandate has led to the development of a robust last-mile network.  We know that the Postal Service delivers nearly half the world’s mail and does so at the lowest prices of any developed nation.  And it does this while providing solid middle-class employment to hundreds of thousands, not at the cheapest wages possible but at good living wages with good benefits.

And we know that without the excessive demands that have been placed on this venerable institution that its model is sustainable and offers promise for providing essential services to the American people.

Postal management says it has a plan.  We know about the parts of the plan that include closing post offices and plants while reducing service.  What about the other elements of the plan?  How do they describe a successful future?

Last year at this time the Postmaster General announced what was termed a major restructuring of senior management.  The ensuing changes resulted in the elimination of one area office and the consolidation of a few district offices but there was very little change in the actual structure of the organization.  No layers of management were eliminated.  There are still 38 vice-president positions that pay in excess of $200,000 per year.  In what is undeniably a top-down, rigidly autocratic system, there are still multiple layers of senior managers.

While the senior structure of the organization hasn’t changed much, we are repeatedly treated to stories in the media of mail carriers delivering mail at night with the aid of miner’s lamps.  All across the country small town postmaster positions remain vacant, filled by casual or temporary employees, many of whom are unable to complete even basic transactions.  This appears to be a plan designed to ensure irrelevancy.

The Postmaster General has spoken often of declining mail volumes.  Under the circumstances one would expect that the visionaries in charge of the organization would seek alternate means of keeping the institution relevant.  There are two answers to declining mail volumes.  One would be to seek to increase volumes, but the very arguments made by senior management that mail is increasingly endangered by technology would seem to make that approach a fool’s game.  The other answer to declining mail volumes would be to seek areas where the postal network could be utilized to provide other services that sustain its universal character and maintain its relevancy to the American people.

What has the Postal Service offered? The big product offering of the last year has been Every Door Direct Mail.  This is a product that allows anyone to become a saturation mailer just like Val-Pak.  However, unlike the big mailers who pay millions of dollars in permit fees, the little guy can walk into his local post office and with very little effort and fourteen cents per piece he can paper everybody in town.

Millions of dollars have been spent promoting this product, thousands of hours have been spent bringing employees up to speed on this magnificent marketing tool, and a great deal of effort has been put forth in developing web sites and support partnerships with those in the advertising community.  An early success story that was circulated shortly after the product’s introduction told of a young man who brought a poster of Spot, the missing family pet, into the post office asking if he could hang it on the bulletin board.  The alert Sales and Service Associate saw this for the opportunity it was, and soon the young man had forked over fifty dollars to put Spot’s poster in each of the office’s post office boxes.  Spot was found, thus proving that heartwarming stories and commerce can intersect.

Now you can’t deny that this product might have some utility for a small businessman or the owner of a lost dog, but it does undercut those already in the mailing industry, and at a few cents a piece, this doesn’t sound like the fundamental paradigm shift that is going to ensure postal sustainability.

Another of the new services being promoted is the Competitive Post Office Box.  Now your local post office can act more like a Mail Boxes Etc., and for many more dollars you can get a few extra services like an e-mail each day telling you there’s mail in your box.

The answer, it appears, is rather simple — take apart the network, make what’s left give less service for higher prices, and get rid of as many employees as possible.  It shouldn’t take a Board of Governors, a Postmaster General, and thirty-eight vice-presidents to come up with that plan.

 

THERE IS A BETTER VISION for the United States Postal Service.  There is a future and a vision for this important institution that builds on the extensive investment in infrastructure that we already have, that recognizes the value of people, that understands that universal service is not a burden but an opportunity.

First we must withdraw from this continual crisis mode.  The burdens created by PAEA may be at the bottom of the crisis, but the facilitator of our current problems is a postal management that has become sclerotic and blinded by its obsession with evading the promise of the institution in favor of withdrawal.

The finances of the Postal Service are not nearly in as bad a shape as some would have us believe.  Absent the mandated retiree health payment, there are no deficits.  There seems to be consensus in Congress that FECA must be addressed.  There is also consensus that there are at least $11 billion of over payments into the FERS fund and possibly over payments into CSRS.

Address those issues and the immediate financial stability of the Postal Service is assured.

A couple of years ago Ruth Goldway, chairman of the Postal Regulatory Commission, issued a call for a national conversation on the future of postal services in this country.  It was a wise and thoughtful idea.  For too long, about the only people talking about the future of the Postal Service were the ideologues obsessed with shrinking government to the size of a bathtub and the usual suspects who keep designing “the solution.”  Now that the problems of the Postal Service have attracted the attention of many in Congress, maybe we can actually have that conversation.

Maybe it’s time we reminded ourselves why our forefathers banded together to found this nation.  Maybe it’s time we recognized that government has a valid role in promoting the general welfare.  The Founders created the role of the post office and gave it importance because they saw the need for both physical and intellectual infrastructure.  The Postal Service is an institution that serves both those roles, and it has done so brilliantly.  The problem now is not a failure in that original ideal or that changing technology has made it irrelevant.  Good ideas do not lose relevance.

So let’s have that conversation.  Let’s understand both the value of universal service and that it comes with a cost.  Let’s remember that county newspapers rely on that service and the postal network, and that they are still an essential part of sustaining our democratic ideals.  Let’s remember that we give non-profits a discount for a reason and that we give special treatment to media mail because it says something very important about what we hold important.  We’ve given special treatment to several classes of mail for various reasons, most of them good.  The direction we’re headed will change that and may bring the death of a type of intercourse that comes through periodicals and books, and that would be unfortunate.

So, yes, let’s have that conversation and let’s find out if we still understand what binding the nation together means.  I wonder, can we still talk to each other?  Because at its essence that is what is meant by binding the nation together.

I think if we have that conversation, we’ll find that not every idea or concept can be shoehorned into a successful business model.  The Postal Service began as a government entity because it fulfilled an essential role in a neutral manner that was equally essential.  Infrastructure must be sustainable, viable, and cost effective, but there is an essential character to infrastructure that simply does not lend itself to a solely competitive business-oriented model.

We have a basic structure that works well.  We’ve developed a useful network that has provided huge and profitable opportunity for commercial enterprises while at the same time providing broad universal access.  Rather than find ways to shrink that asset, we must find ways to adapt it.  We also should marvel at the ability the network has had to enhance people and human capital.  Not many years ago, there were 800,000 postal workers.  They were paid, not through taxes, but through the efficient operation of the system.  Their wages were solidly middle class, allowing them to participate in and enhance the economies of their communities.  They earned, and earned is an essentially important word, they earned benefits that were a model, benefits that allowed them to face illness and old age with dignity, as still valued members of the economies of their communities.

 

WHAT CHANGED THAT IDEA?  What made it outmoded or out of date?  Technology reduced the volume of mail but that really isn’t what changed.  Something else happened.  As a society we’ve begun looking at the world with a jaundiced eye.  Anytime we find the idea of employing people profitably and usefully to be unsound, then we must be jaundiced.  In the 1980’s, we stopped paying for the costs of universal service and those important things that we understood were necessary for the Postal Service to provide.  Prior to that time reasonable contributions of about a half billion dollars per year paid for that broad service and those special rates.  Maybe it’s time we began paying for the things that are important to us.

When the Postal Service became nothing other than a business proposition, it began thinking differently.  That’s how we came up with a rate system with thousands of rates and a complexity that breeds both obfuscation and limited advantage.  It’s also how we lost sight of the idea of bringing service to the American public.  Today our best new ideas for the Postal Service are for more saturation mail, but what if we allowed ourselves to have better ideas?

The Postal Service has thousands of trucks on the road.  Many papers have been written about the benefits of equipping these vehicles with sensors to collect data or perhaps read meters for utilities.

The Postal Service has thousands of locations in small towns and urban communities across the country.  In many cases these are the only places people actually connect with their government.  Why can’t we get a hunting license or a fishing license or download a form or connect with our state and local governments through these facilities we trust and appreciate?

They say mail is dying but like notices of Mark Twain’s death that may be a premature judgment.  Many localities are moving towards voting by mail, which saves gas and congestion and conceivably saves local governments money.  Why can’t the Postal Service work more closely with local governments to assist in tasks of this nature?  Surely we can find a mutually beneficial financial arrangement that actually saves taxpayers money.

The Census Bureau mails out millions of forms, many of which are returned as undeliverable.  Why can’t the census work more closely with the Postal Service?  Maybe, given the fact that the Postal Service has the largest address database in the world, the census ought to be part of the Postal Service?

Up until the late 1960’s there was a postal bank.  Today more than nine million people at the edge of society do without banking services.  Thirty million more need better, simpler services.  With thousands of locations in nearly every community, why can’t the Postal Service provide this service?  

Millions don’t have access to the internet but would benefit from it.  The Postal Service has a huge data presence.  Why can’t it find a cost-effective way to help these folks into the internet age?

Millions of people buy postal money orders to pay bills.  Many are the same ones that don’t have or don’t use the internet.  Surely we can devise a profitable system where folks receive their utility bills electronically through an e-mail address maintained by the Postal Service so they can pay those bills electronically through the Postal Service.  A smaller model of that same system works in every post office to pay the office’s bills.  A bill-presentment-and-payment system would save consumers and businesses millions of dollars while letting the Postal Service take advantage of the very trends that are supposed to be the cause of its death.

 

I'VE BEEN A POSTMASTER in a small rural community for the last sixteen years.  I’ve worked in larger urban settings and in plant settings as well, but for the last several years I’ve had the honor to serve a small community.  

I think this idea of serving the community is valid in virtually any setting, and I’ve seen the same thing when I worked in an urban community or among friends who were city carriers.  Maybe it’s just easier to associate these kinds of ideas with small town rural America. 

In the last three months I’ve been to three funerals for elderly patrons who have passed away.  The most recent was like the others.  Family members who had come from all over the country were introduced to me.  They heard my name and shook my hand without recognition but when the person doing the introduction would add, “He’s the postmaster,” the person would react often with a hug and often repeating some kindness I had done for their loved one.  People know the postmaster.

I'm not a very sociable person, and while I take care of the folks in my community, I am neither unique nor extraordinary among my colleagues, some of whom are much more involved and go much further than I do.  It's virtually impossible to quantify what the job of postmaster does to people, what it does to those in the community who rely on their local post office and to those who hold the job and perhaps become better than they ever thought they could be because of the faith and trust and need their neighbors place upon them.  It's not just postmasters either.  I've seen the same with both rural and city carriers — “He's the mailman,” or “She's the mail lady.”

The Postal Service has people in every town, street, and borough in this country.  Some of them just go to work and pick up a paycheck.  Lately, as the Postal Service has relied more on casual labor and contractors, there may not be as much connection with community, but that connection, that very important relationship, is still there for many.  The Postal Service has an immense reserve of human capital and surely that tremendous asset is worth preserving and putting to use.

Yes, there’s a conversation we ought to have about postal services in this country.  There are a hundred positive ways to use the assets we’ve built and fix the current problems we have.  That seems like a hard thing to do, but there is not only appreciable economic potential in the postal network — there is also a value that speaks to our identity as a people and a nation.

The hard part of fixing the post office is in the conversation we must have.  It’s becoming harder and harder to talk to each other in this country.  It’s easier to take things apart, to make “business” decisions.  That may be so but we don’t seem to be getting much for all our cynical efficiency, regardless of what the spreadsheets are coaxed into reporting.

Calvin Coolidge is quoted as saying, "The business of America is business" and that seems to be the ethic we are striving towards, a cold approximation of risk and reward, profit and loss.  We are, I think, more than that, or at least we used to be.  Jacques Barzun's famous quote, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball” could just as easily have been recast as, Whoever wants to know the heart and mind (and soul) of America should go to the post office.

We have something in the post office that is worth fixing.

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