walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
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The Post Office Can Survive, But It Can't Stay Blue

The decline of the USPS – one of America’s oldest and best-known institutions – is one of the most visible examples of the fall of the Blue Social Model. The financial collapse of the Postal Service has been one of the main stories of the past few weeks, generating a number of proposals to fix the organization’s woes. Dominic Basulto has some hopeful suggestions in the Washington Post:

Internet-enabled communication — specifically, e-mail — is not going away anytime soon. The USPS may have been late to the e-mail game, but there are still ways to profit from the way that people use the Web. Some futurists have even called for the creation of a national e-mail address that people get when they are born, similar to a social security number. Instead of a Gmail address, for example, people would have a USPS address. In addition, each branch location of the USPS could offer fee-based communications services from an Internet-enabled kiosk. Stopping in to buy a pack of stamps for snail mail? Why not conduct a quick Skype video chat session on a government-owned laptop for a small fee?

As part of being a modern communications giant, the United States Postal Service must also embrace the digital mail revolution, which is making it possible for participants to receive digital versions of real-world, physical mail. Two of the more popular options for “digital mail” include Zumbox and Earth Class Mail. In places like Washington, DC, New York City and San Francisco, it is now possible to participate in a “paperless alternative to the postal system.” Anyone with a physical address and a virtual e-mail address can receive digital mail from government agencies and corporations around the country.

Of course, the “paperless” mail system does not apply to care packages and gifts that you might want to send to loved ones across the country throughout the year. If the USPS is really intent on wringing costs out of the system, it will re-think the power of logistics. Amazon, recognizing the impact that a potential USPS shutdown would have on its ability to deliver packages around the country, has been experimenting with a “locker box” operation at 7-11 convenience stores in the Seattle area. Customers expecting a package would need to stop by an ATM-like installation at a local 7-11 and pick up the item from a special locker box with a pin code. In a similar way, the USPS can embrace an expansion of its services to kiosks within different physical retail locations, while shutting down more expensive branch offices.

While I can’t speak to the wisdom of these individual plans, this is the sort of thinking the institution will need if it wishes to survive into the 21st century.  Technological innovations such as email and Skype have already eroded the demand for snail mail — unless the Postal Service embraces these technologies it will be closing its doors before too many years go by. Survival will require a drastic shift in the way the USPS conducts its business.

In order to make these changes, both the unions and Congress are going to have to move over.  A Postal Service that can survive will need to be able to pursue new business opportunities without saying “Congress, may I?” at every turn.  Lifetime work guarantees, seniority preferences and rigid rules and roles will go out the window in a nimble organization whose business model and technological base will frequently change.

Right now the chief stakeholders in USPS — its congressional patrons and the labor unions — want the impossible: they want business as usual to continue while the public pumps more and more money into an outdated organization with no viable mission or plan.  That dog won’t hunt in this economic climate; let’s hope the stakeholders don’t block change until it is too late.

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  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    The monopoly on first class mail needs to be broken, just as AT&T was broken up. With the feedback of competition, the mail and door to door shipping costs would drop and service would improve. Things like RFID and automated loading and sorting would replace antiquated systems, and new services would be introduced.

  • Jordan

    Yes, that’s exactly what I want, all my mail to be digital. Securely and can delete it with a single click. Right now snail mail is so annoying, all I get is junk (since bills are already online) and I have to take the time to blot-out the personal information or shred it. So without ever or rarely sending anything, the USPS costs me time (and some money) every day. I’m no lawyer, but this kind of a seems like a nuisance to me.

    In order for the USPS to transform into the organization you envision, it would need more than just the agreement of Congress and the unions. It would need a new postmaster general with the skills and experience of a high-tech start-up CEO. And to Wig Wag’s previous comment, all you talented software engineers who are interested in working for the USPS, please raise your hand. (I see no hands).

    I would have more sympathy for the plight of the USPS except it has been an annoyance for quite some time and they did nothing about it. So tough, welcome to the free market — the same free market that my job is subject to every day — and experience the result of [unhappy] customers.

  • Toni

    “While I can’t speak to the wisdom of these individual plans, this is the sort of thinking the institution will need if it wishes to survive into the 21st century…unless the Postal Service embraces these technologies it will be closing its doors before too many years go by.”

    I beg to differ.

    The primary mission of the Postal Service was to ensure that physical mail could flow from every nook and cranny of the US to every other nook and cranny. That ought to remain its primary mission.

    Technologically, the Postal Service has only been playing catch-up to the innovations of Fedex, UPS and other Internet merchants. Adapting private-sector innovations to its needs (e.g., Internet sales of postage and services) is all it’s capable of doing. It does so slowly. Big Government is not nimble.

    Adding to the Postal Service’s mission makes no sense. Whether email, Skype or Amazonian “lock boxes,” me-too services will require me-too technology adapted at a Big Government pace. By the time it’s developed those me-too services, communications technology will have headed off in other new directions. The Postal Service would never catch up.

    Taxpayers don’t want to put up the risk capital for the Postal Service to mimic the private sector. Better to shrink it to smaller, more focused niches that the private sector can’t or won’t do. A good way to find out what those are would be to let Fedex, UPS and other competitors bid to take over various Postal Service functions.

    We’re better off closing government doors wherever government services are no longer needed.

  • DirtyJobsGuy

    I got a package from an online retailer a while back that was shipped by UPS via their service where the final mile is done by the USPS. I marveled at this for a moment, what’s the deal? UPS shipped the long distance part of the delivery, while the USPS did the rest from a regional PO. If the USPS rate was so low for a small package, why not use them the whole way? Clearly this was a deal between UPS and USPS to bulk USPS volume. The last mile is where the USPS can survive.

    (Also my grandfather worked at the Post Office in one of his various jobs during the 1930s to 1960’s, pre-union the USPS was pretty well run and efficient)

  • Kenny

    The Postal Service can survive but not all those presnetly in it.

  • Nissen

    Either there is a big big problem or there is not.

    Dithering implies “crying wolf.” Get on with the no Saturday service, raise the rates for junk mail, with a special deal for mail in windowed envelopes (lessens ripping out of labels for shredding), etc. etc. see where that goes, and proceed on from there.

  • MARK A FONSECA

    With M.C.P.T THE POST OFFICE CAN PROFIT.

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