April 7, 2013
Postmaster General Donahoe gave one of his State of the Postal Service talks earlier this week. The PMG wanted clear up what he characterized as “mixed messages." Apparently there are folks out there — the media, the unions, postal workers, someone — saying things that are incorrect and misinformed. Fortunately, the PMG was ready and willing to straighten out his employees on these mixed messages.
On Saturday delivery
One thing that the PMG said “just amazes me” is when people say, “Well, first it's five-day, then it's going to be four [days of delivery, then] three, two, one.” The PMG went on to say, “Unless their routes have no mail in them, I don't know how in the world you would deliver less than five days a week. Five-day delivery is going to be critical for business mail, for commercial first-class, and it's very critical to keep our costs down overall when you deliver packages. That's a big advantage that we have…. So the idea that there's plans on moving from six to five and then four, three, two — there's nothing to that.”
It’s hard to imagine where anyone would have gotten the idea that the Postal Service might go beyond eliminating Saturday delivery to something like three-day delivery.
On July 19, 2011, USA Today ran an article reporting on an interview with the Postmaster General. One of the topics was the likelihood of ending Saturday delivery. It has "a much better chance today than a year ago,” said the PMG, but “I don't know if I'd say 'likely' yet."
Asked about the long term, the PMG told USA Today, "At some point, we'll have to move to three days a week of mail delivery, possibly in 15 years.”
On the legality issue
When the PMG announced his plan to move to five-day delivery in August, he suggested that current law permits the Postal Service to make the change, so he didn't need to wait for new legislation. “We think we’re on good footing with this,” he said. “We think right now the opportunity exists to make the changes on our own.”
That came as a surprise to many. For years, the Postal Service has been saying that it wanted to eliminate Saturday delivery but needed Congressional approval first. In fact, the Postal Service's five-year business plan presented in February 2012 describes five-day delivery as "requiring legislative changes to achieve," and the USPS FAQ page on five-day still says, “Congress must elect not to renew the legislation requiring the Postal Service to deliver six days a week.”
A couple of weeks ago, the GAO confirmed that view in a letter to Congressman Gerald Connoly saying that the Postal Service continues to be bound by legislation requiring delivery six days a week.
In his talk last week, the PMG might have cleared things up by saying where he stood on the issue now that the GAO and several members of Congress have weighed in. Instead, he simply said, “There's a lot of discussion about whether we are prohibited from moving in that direction. I will tell you this. We have a board meeting coming up in a couple weeks. The board of governors will discuss the next moves that we've got to make and we'll go from there.”
In order to clarify matters, then, the PMG suggested that maybe the BOG will stick by its new position that the Postal Service can act on its own, or maybe it will shift back to its original position that Congressional approval is required, or maybe the Board will come up with a completely new move.
April 1, 2013
About three weeks from now, postal insiders and innovative outsiders will convene in Washington DC for the PostalVision 2020/3.0 conference to discuss the future of the Postal Service. Called "Positioning America for the New Millennium,” the event will focus on "a constructive approach to re-inventing today’s broken Postal Service model for future generations."
Among the headliners speaking at the event will be David M. Walker, a former Comptroller General, the first President and CEO of the libertarian Peter G. Peterson Foundation, and currently Founder and CEO of the Comeback America Initiative, which promotes fiscal responsibility (by cutting social programs).
Mr. Walker will probably devote much of his talk to discussing the privatization of the Postal Service. That’s because he is the chair of a five-member panel that the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) asked to review a recent proposal on privatization.
The proposal is called “Restructuring the U.S. Postal Service: The Case for a Hybrid Public-Private Partnership.” It describes a postal system in which the private sector would take care of the “upstream” — the retail and mail processing work — while the public sector would remain responsible for the “downstream” — delivering the mail through its network of “trusted letter carriers," the “feet on the street,” as the proposal puts it.
NAPA has a long-standing interest in postal matters, and its President and CEO is Dan Blair, a former member of the Postal Regulatory Commission, so it’s not surprising that NAPA would focus on the Postal Service right now. With funding support from Pitney Bowes, NAPA assembled a panel to subject the proposal to what it describes as a “rigorous evaluation.”
Despite the apparent conflict of interest involved with taking money from a key player in the mail industry, a company that would profit significantly from privatization (as discussed in this earlier post), the NAPA report is officially titled “An Independent Review of a Thought-Leader Concept to Reform the U.S. Postal Service.”
When the panel was first announced, the NAPA website provided brief biographies for the participants, and in the bio for one member of the study team, the review was referred to as “the Pitney Bowes study.” That bio was subsequently revised and the reference to Pitney Bowes purged. In the discussion that follows, we’ll refer to the original proposal as the Thought-Leader Concept, and we’ll refer to Mr. Walker’s review of the proposal as the NAPA/Pitney Bowes study.
The retail end of the upstream
The NAPA/Pitney Bowes report runs to over 50 pages, but very little of it examines one of the key parts of the Thought-Leader Concept — the privatization of the retail end of the Postal Service’s operations. All told, there are maybe two pages’ worth of discussion on this topic.
The Thought-Leader Concept says that “the new postal system” being envisioned “will reinvent the concept of retail access for consumers.” Under the new system, “there will be an explosion of options for the public to conduct postal business.” You’ll be able to do postal business at retail stores, gas stations, schools, coffee shops, movie theaters, or any other location that is interested and meets USPS requirements.
The proposal also suggests that the Postal Service would continue to operate a small number of retail centers, for locations where no other postal options are available or where it is more beneficial to maintain the USPS offices.
In its review of the proposal, the NAPA/Pitney Bowes study has little more to say about this reinvention of the retail system. It explains that Contract Postal Units (CPUs) and Village Post Offices (VPOs) are postal operations housed in private businesses, and it provides a few numbers (drawn from a recent GAO report) about how many there are right now. There's also reference to the fact that some people have recommended creating a BRAC-like commission to help close facilities (it adds, in bold, “Congressional action would help”).
But that’s about it. There’s no discussion of how much money privatization of the retail network might save, nothing about how postal services might decline and push away revenues, nothing about how small businesses might suffer, and so on. We're just supposed to imagine an "explosion of options" that will make it much easier for people to do postal business.
March 8, 2013
The New York Times has an excellent front-page article by Robin Pogrebin about the Postal Service’s push to sell off its historic post office buildings. It includes a great photo scroll, and it's getting lots of very lively comments.
As the Times explains, the Postal Service owns nearly a quarter of its 31,000 post offices (it leases space for the rest), and over 1,100 of them were built during the 1930s by FDR's New Deal. There are over 2,000 post offices either on or eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.
Now all of these post offices are all in danger of being sold off to private businesses. In its annual report to Congress, the Postal Service says it has earmarked 600 properties for disposal. It doesn't say how many are historic.
About a dozen of these historic post offices have been sold recently, and another 40 are listed as for sale or about to be put on the market. Here's a map showing where they're located:
As the Times notes, historic preservationists are concerned about how the Postal Service is going about the sales and what happens to the buildings after they're sold.
“Our biggest concern is the way they’re going about it isn’t transparent,” said Chris Morris, a senior field officer for the National Trust and project manager for post office buildings. “A lot of us are very confused about the process.”
Advocates say there have been too few public discussions or assurances that prized buildings will be protected. Concerns about the post offices “are overwhelming the state historic preservation offices,” said Carol Lemlein, president of the Santa Monica Conservancy.
“There is very little confidence in the Postal Service’s ability to execute a process in a manner that will really protect the buildings,” she added.
The other problem is what happens after the building is sold. In 2009, the New Deal post office in Virginia Beach was torn down to make room for a Walgreens (which is now an “authorized postal provider” selling stamps).
More often, the post office is turned into a commercial space, like a high-end boutique, or private offices, like a real estate company. As the Times points out, historic preservations are concerned that “when these post offices close … important public buildings become private preserves.”
There's more about the legal issues involved in the Postal Service's disposal process in this post from earlier in the week. To learn more about the country’s legacy of historic post offices and the fire sale going on, check out this resource page.
November 1, 2012
BY MARK JAMISON
Over the last several months the situation surrounding the fate of the Postal Service has become increasingly clear.
How can that possibly be the case, when Congress has utterly failed in its efforts to pass postal reform legislation, when mail volumes continue to drop, when troubling news about financial losses continue to appear, and when the agency has now reached its borrowing limit with the Treasury? How can such an unsettled and unsettling situation seem so clear?
The situation is clear because no matter what Congress eventually does, Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe and the Board of Governors have already won. Their views of what the Postal Service should be, whom it should serve, and how it should serve them have prevailed. The reality is that as the Postal Service has moved forward with initiatives like POST Plan and the “rationalization” of the mail processing system, the PMG and the BOG have degraded the network and its potential in such a way as to make a change in course not just expensive but impossible.
The initiatives to degrade and dismantle the network have worked in conjunction with a business plan focused almost entirely on advertising mail. The leaders of the Postal Service have set the course in a direction that cannot be easily changed. The Postal Service has always been an example of inertia; like a massive oil tanker, it changes direction neither quickly nor easily. The PMG and the BOG have displayed outright disregard for the advice of their regulator and total contempt for providing service to the American public. They have put the postal ship on a course that will inevitably result in fewer jobs, decreased service, and ultimately privatization.
Ignoring the public interest
The politicians both in Congress and in the Administration have essentially abandoned the American people in their handling of the Postal Service. They have allowed the stilted vision of the BOG — a vision born of the same views that have fostered the growth of inequality throughout our economy — to take precedence over the needs and welfare of the American public. They have sanctioned a continued attack on American labor through policies that destroy good middle-class jobs and replace them with temporary and part-time jobs with no benefits. They have set the stage for millions of Americans to lose essential services and an essential infrastructure, while creating the potential for abuse by a predatory financial services industry.
It should come as no surprise that most of those in Congress are willing to sacrifice the Postal Service to limited business interests. These are the same folks that have almost universally perpetuated the myth that “entitlements” — a term that insidiously demeans what ought to be basic social responsibilities of a civilized nation — are the source of our economic policies. These are the folks that insult and assault public workers as if a job in the public sector — one that provides useful and necessary public goods — is somehow less valuable or less important than a job in the private sector.
Politicians of both parties have embraced macroeconomic policies that result in the decline of incomes for the vast majority of Americans while ensuring that the benefits of society are unequally reserved for the few at the top. They degrade the quality of life and economic opportunities for the vast majority of Americans with policies designed primarily to satisfy the financiers.
October 6, 2012
BY MARK JAMISON
On September 30, 2001, the management of the Postal Service published a document entitled Outline for Discussion: Concepts for Postal Transformation. As the title suggests, this document described the terms of future discussions about what the Postal Service was and what it should become. In April of 2002, the Postal Service issued another document, this one entitled simply Transformation Plan 2002.
In light of the current problems facing the service and particularly the problems raised by the recent advisory opinion issued by the PRC regarding Mail Processing Network Rationalization (MPNR), looking back at these two reports is instructive. Both documents question the very basis of universal service, and they are laser focused on a future model of the United States Postal Service as a privatized entity.
What becomes apparent from the 2002 plan, as well as subsequent documents that address the progress of implementing the plan, is that the senior management of the Postal Service saw the future in terms of a greatly reduced network. From the standpoint of retail, Postmaster Jack Potter and then Patrick Donahoe called for the closure of as many as 15,000 post offices. For the mail processing network, the vision suggested that the future was in outsourcing much of the mail processing network through worksharing and similar initiatives.
Finding love in all the wrong places
March 25, 1984 — my second night working for the Postal Service. I’m sent to the basement of the old WPA-era post office for scheme training, the exercise of memorizing the local office’s delivery network so I can sort mail to routes. The basement of the building is a confusing labyrinth of offices, locker rooms, mechanical rooms and the like. Having only been down there once, the night before, I get turned around on my way to the designated room.
I turn a corner and walk into what appears to be a break room off of a boiler room, and before me I see the Superintendent of Delivery Operations having sex with one of the female clerks. I back out of the room quickly before anyone sees me and find the room where I’m supposed to be. Needless to say, my hour-long memorization session isn’t very fruitful. My concentration is somewhat distracted.
During my nine years at that office, the events of that second night come to seem less and less extraordinary. I see a number of fellow employees fired for theft of either mail or postage stock. I see supervisors who appear to be drunk on the job, and more than a few employees have chronic substance abuse and attendance problems. There isn’t much discipline and there isn’t much organization. Those who work, whether they be carriers or clerks, are rewarded with more work, while those who slough off seem to escape much if any scrutiny. Often it seems that promotions to supervisory positions are based on getting the most unproductive employees off the floor.