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.