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December 8, 2011

The Wrong Path to Efficiency

Blaine R. Young

I am not one of the people who engage in habitual bashing of the United States Postal Service (USPS) and post office employees. Like everyone else, I have used the U.S. Mail my entire life, and continue to do so.


Growing up on Frederick’s 14th Street, the neighborhood mailman was – in many respects – a neighbor. He knew everyone on the street by name and we all knew him.


The United States Postal Service has a proud history in this country. Benjamin Franklin was appointed the first postmaster general in 1775, well prior to the drafting of our Constitution in 1787, and even prior to the Declaration of Independence in 1776. This was during the Second Continental Congress, which had been convened under the Articles of Confederation.


The Post Office Department became a cabinet level department during George Washington’s first term as president. From there we progressed through mail delivery by pony express, transcontinental railroad, and airmail. Even I remember the days when my mother would write “Airmail” on an envelope and use a special airmail stamp to ensure that the letter went by plane rather than by truck or train.


Recently we have all been reading about the problems presently facing the post office, particularly the fact that the USPS loses huge amounts of money year after year after year. Some of the reasons are obvious.


With private parcel services and email, the post office now has competition it didn’t have 50 – or even 25 – years ago. Postal employees for years had one of the sweetest benefit packages – not only in government, but in any business in this country, and the cost of making good on these retirement promises has gotten out of control. This is a problem facing government everywhere, not to mention quasi-governmental operations like the post office.


But none of this is what got my attention this week as I read stories about post office problems and the current plans to address them. What I really don’t understand about all this is how you can have a service business that thinks it is going to improve its financial situation by cutting the quality of its service and raising the price.


That’s right! That’s what the geniuses who run this business have come up with.


Has anyone in Frederick noticed how long it takes to get a letter sent from one side of the city to the other? If I hand our mailman a letter in my office on East Church Street addressed to a business across the street, the letter will go first to our post office in Frederick, and then be put on a truck for Baltimore. It will be sorted there and brought back here. Not very efficient, is it?


But what really got me thinking that we need to change the whole management structure of the USPS came in another story. Since 1971 the post office has had a policy (often violated, but at least strived for) that a first class, stamped letter mailed one day would arrive the next day. In my experience this is a goal that was often met to the point where many of us in business were actually surprised that a letter took more than one day to reach its recipient.


In their infinite wisdom, the people who manage the post office have decided to do away with next-day delivery. At the same time they tell us the cost of a first class stamp will increase in the near future, they tell us they are intentionally going to slow down the service.


Well, I don’t know about anyone else, but in my business if I try to raise taxi fares while at the same time telling people I am going to slow down the service, I would not be in business very much longer. What the USPS needs to figure out is a way to provide better service more efficiently, not provide worse service more expensively.


Federal Express, United Parcel Service, and other private delivery services have turned into multi-billion dollars enterprises with great reputations for service. At the same time, the post office has gone the other way.


We need to look at the entire business model of the post office and consider what private sector initiatives would improve the service of an institution which is as much a part of the history of the United States as any other institution we know.


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