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Adapting the Post Office To the Digital Age 299

Hugh Pickens writes "Paul B. Carroll and Chunka Mui write in the Washington Post that with projected deficits through 2020 of $238 billion, the debate over potential changes at the US Postal Service is like a fight over the dessert bar on the Titanic: email has already supplanted letters, more people will send money via PayPal rather than mail checks, people will download their movies and books, check their bills online, and receive information about their investments electronically. Delivery volume for first-class mail fell 22 percent from 1998 through 2007, tumbled an additional 13 percent last year and was down 3 percent in the first half of this year despite heavy mailings from the Census Bureau. USPS's future lies in things that need to be delivered physically: shoes, computers and other objects, and the USPS has assets that could let it take on UPS and FedEx. 'USPS needs to start with the future and work backward to the present,' write Carroll and Mui. 'It needs to forecast volumes for all types of its business five, 10 and 15 years out and design a business model that will thrive under those scenarios. Only then can it figure out what radical changes need to be made now.'"
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Adapting the Post Office To the Digital Age

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  • The post office is again talking about canceling Saturday delivery. To me, that is one of the best things they have going for them. Sure, UPS and FedEx will delivery on Saturdays, but for an additional cost. USPS delivers Saturday for the same cost as any other day of the week. Take no-extra-charge Saturday delivery and better rates for many pertinent deliveries than UPS or FedEx and frankly I'm not sure why more people don't ship through them.

    But if they cancel Saturdays then they aren't as advantageous.
  • by Nutria ( 679911 ) on Saturday July 24, 2010 @12:36PM (#33014150)

    realize this, but there's still a whole lot of people who live out in the country and small rural towns where the population density isn't high enough for UPS, FedEx and broadband to be profitable enough to serve these citizens.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday July 24, 2010 @12:38PM (#33014162)

    Saturday Delivery is only meaningful to people that work Monday through Friday and are impatient about getting their toys delivered to them quick and on their day off.

  • And then remove their union contract that states that they can never decrease their workforce, even if they don't need as many workers due to reduced volume.

    I don't know where you got that notion from but it simply doesn't match reality as I have seen. Post Offices in small towns have closed recently due to decreased volume and the employees from those offices have been let go. Existing offices are not hiring, even to replace retiring workers.

  • by kimvette ( 919543 ) on Saturday July 24, 2010 @12:43PM (#33014206) Homepage Journal

    And then remove their union contract that states that they can never decrease their workforce, even if they don't need as many workers due to reduced volume.

    You cannot convince me they never decrease their workforce. For ten years local post offices with 2 to 6 service windows consistently have only one customer service person on staff at any given time, even through the holiday times. The only time they seem to add anyone on any more is tax day.

  • by PrimaryConsult ( 1546585 ) on Saturday July 24, 2010 @12:44PM (#33014216)

    A lot of that "inefficiency" is that mailing a letter from a rural village in the south to a similar village in Alaska costs the same (and has roughly the same quality of service) as mailing a letter from one side of a major city to the other. If you break up the monopoly and allow USPS to exit markets it finds unprofitable, a whole lot of places will stop getting mail. If you break up the monopoly but do not allow USPS to exit markets, then their revenue will reduce even further as the popular ones are taken by competitors.

    Also as far as USPS is concerned, a county made up mostly of farms that sees 15 pieces of legitimate mail a month is not worth their time. But when those 15 pieces of legitimate mail are vital to our food supply...

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday July 24, 2010 @12:56PM (#33014306)

    Responding to your strawman:

    Even if the 'Political Left' says the government can be the perfect master of fairness, this doesn't mean that unions are useless. It is only because you don't understand unions that you would say this. Unions have started strikes and opposed policies of their employers when it was needed. But this isn't the only thing that unions do. Unions provide a forum for workers of similar skills, set rules of seniority and advancement, and negotiate their contracts from the point of view of the worker. They also handle discipline issues and take care of people in trouble (illnesses, deaths, etc.). As such, they are often very useful to an employer. I work in a nuclear plant and we are almost completely unionized. I work in management (non-union) and I find the unions to be incredibly helpful, not the least of which is because unions do not tolerate safety issues. The fact that unions will go out of their way to protect their workers from safety issues is more useful to me than I can describe. It is my opinion that if there would have been an effective union on the Deepwater Horizon rig, the management shortcuts wouldn't have been tolerated.

  • by ColdWetDog ( 752185 ) on Saturday July 24, 2010 @01:01PM (#33014362) Homepage

    realize this, but there's still a whole lot of people who live out in the country and small rural towns where the population density isn't high enough for UPS, FedEx and broadband to be profitable enough to serve these citizens.

    True enough, but then you have to frame the argument as a social issue. Is it a desirable social end for people in rural areas to have services that cannot be developed economically by the 'regular' market? Traditionally (pretty much since the inception of the US) it was felt that subsidizing mail to everyone was worth the cost as it help expand the country and thus the market. In the 1930's the rural electrification [feri.org] expanded AC power to the hinterlands, again as an effort to improve the economy of these areas (and as part of the New Deal).

    So the argument really boils down to whether or not it is worth it in a societal sense to subsidize postal service for rural populations. Of course, then you get to the literally hundreds of cross subsidies that the US (and likely every other government) gives for everything from peanuts to gasoline.

    Then my eyes glaze over and my head asplode.

  • Legal Protection (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday July 24, 2010 @01:07PM (#33014426)

    UPS/FedEx can open your mail pretty much on a whim. The USPS needs a warrant.

  • junk mail (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday July 24, 2010 @01:15PM (#33014482)

    Part of the problem for me is junk mail. I don't look forward to getting the mail these days because a very small chunk of the pile makes me happy. Junk mail doesn't affect real mail's credibility, but it does degrade the "user-experience" of First Class mail. The USPS is about the least fun way to communicate these days. It's no fun to send anything more complicated than a simple pre-stamped envelope. On the receiving end, the USPS themselves gave away the charm that "getting the mail" held when they decided it was good business to deliver things that say "current resident" or (like the wad of newsprint coupons) don't even have my address on it at all. Eventually, we end up finding more fun ways to communicate personally and, when we do, we start doing all of our business communications that way too.

  • by GKThursday ( 952030 ) on Saturday July 24, 2010 @01:19PM (#33014514)
    The thing is that the USPS wouldn't been doing as bad if congress wasn't constantly meddling.
    They set up "retirement health benefits pre-funding" at approx $5.5 billion a year. Now pre-funding retirement benefits is a good idea, but that's not what this money is used for. That $5.5 billion goes into the federal coffers. This is after the USPS was forced to overfund their previous pension by $75 billion.
    USPS would have been profitable in 3 of the last 4 years without the pre-funding requirement.
    I work as a "Postal liaison" for a commercial printer. Which pretty much means I have to watch every minute detail of the USPS in the news. I think they are headed for a hard fall, but not because their business model is broken, but because of the meddling of 536 "CEOs".
  • Re:USPS (Score:3, Interesting)

    by value_added ( 719364 ) on Saturday July 24, 2010 @01:37PM (#33014658)

    USPS will never recover and or be profitable, their labor and benefits costs are way too high.

    Should we care about profitability and labour/benefit costs?

    Seems to me if someone has a good job with real job security and some kind of pension thrown into the bargain, we should pause for a moment and realise that most of us will never haver anything like it, and we should be envious.

    Schoolteachers, firefighters, postmen, these are the kinds of people that represent the middle class (or what's left of it). Personally, I don't give a damn if the departments they fall under aren't run as efficiently as possible, just so as long as they meet a "mostly works" criteria.

  • by afabbro ( 33948 ) on Saturday July 24, 2010 @01:44PM (#33014730) Homepage

    ...and am a very heavy user, for an individual. I mail 6-8 letters/postcards/packages a day, none of which is ebay or anything like that. That's what you get from having friends all over the place, Postcrossing [postcrossing.com], etc.

    I like my postman, and I like the fact that in Portland I am usually near a post office or postbox. I have many fond memories of going to the PO when I was a kid, I used to collect stamps, etc. However...

    • The USPS needs to get away from banker's hours. Hell, banks need to get away from banker's hours! We all work 9-5. The airport office here is open until 10pm (yes, counter service at USPS at 10pm!), but that is a very rare post office. And you have to drive to the airport which is a pretty good drive for me even though I live near the airport.
    • I am continuously offended by the asinine idiocy of "you must take all packages weighing 16 oz or more to the counter". This is supposedly a Unibomber-era security regulation but in reality it's a way for the union to keep window staff high.

    The real problem with USPS is the union. High, inflexible labor costs. No ability to terminate people without an Act of Congress, no ability to do layoffs, etc. By all accounts (some of them quite entertaining [wikipedia.org]), the Post Office is an awful place to work: management that's rotted in place, hip-deep paperwork and bureaucracy, bitter people who do the barest minimum to avoid being fired, no incentives to do better, etc.

  • by dammy ( 131759 ) on Saturday July 24, 2010 @01:57PM (#33014814)

    As a former USPS Rural Carrier PFT (Part Time Flex), I can tell you two things that are indeed causing USPS to be highly inefficient. First is the huge number of middle managers that are there to create paperwork to justify their and their superior's jobs. Lets gut middle management that are the bane of reports that are forced on Post Masters and Customer Service Supervisors. Post Master should have complete control over their office, they are the front line managers that need to be empowered and not hobbled management wise. Second is the unions, Rural Carriers have their own, City Carriers have their own, Clerks have their own, so do Maintence, what's left of them that haven't been subcontracted out. I can't remember if the mail handlers have their own or not or apart of the clerks, wouldn't surprise me if they did. There needs to be one union and that's it, not separate unions each with their own contracts that say what can and can not be done.

    No, I was not a member of National Rural Letter Carriers' Association, I refused to join when I realized that as a RCA (before I became career as a RC PTF), the National Rural Letter Carriers' Association didn't give a rat's ass about us Rural Carrier Associates (RCAs), we were just a poker chip in their weak ass negotiations with USPS, we got zero health care benefits nor did we get other major perks that the Rural Carriers got. I've never heard of a union not insuring their apprentices receive health care benefits, but that is how they treat their apprentices (RCAs). Even City Carrier union made sure their substitute carriers got insurance and full benefits.

    USPS is a mess, it needs radical changes to make it into a effective and money making business. It's losing money because their cash cow, Business Bulk Mail, volume is in the toilet along with the first class mail. It will take congress to get them sorted out and we know how well they are doing with budgets...

  • by Third Position ( 1725934 ) on Saturday July 24, 2010 @02:55PM (#33015264)

    Yeah, but all of that goes out of the window for international shipping. I sent a laptop to China with UPS, and the damn thing sat in a depot in Shenzhen for six weeks due to one bureaucratic snafu after another, not to mention the cost of shipping was something like $300. The next time I shipped something there, I used USPS International Shipping and it was there in 2 days, and it cost me less than half of what UPS charged.

    But yeah, for domestic shipping, I'd go with UPS.

  • by PopeRatzo ( 965947 ) * on Saturday July 24, 2010 @03:54PM (#33015626) Journal

    Would you hire additional workers if you were forced to do so only on the condition that you could never fire any of them without closing down entirely?

    Sorry, but the USPS is perfectly capable of reducing their work force without "closing down entirely". I'm not sure where you got the notion that it's otherwise.

  • by PopeRatzo ( 965947 ) * on Saturday July 24, 2010 @04:56PM (#33016148) Journal

    Then how is UPS able to provide domestic letter services? I'm not talking about their USPS affiliations, but simple "document in an envelope" delivery"?

    I have one of these envelopes right here on my desk, in which a proposal was sent and delivered to me by UPS.

    It doesn't say "urgent" anywhere on it, nor did it require an immediate reply.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday July 24, 2010 @07:19PM (#33017202)

    > A lot of that "inefficiency" is that mailing a letter from a rural village in the south to a similar village in Alaska costs the same (and has roughly the same quality of service) as mailing a letter from one side of a major city to the other.

    And even that "inefficiency" isn't very inefficient. It's a little further from the village to the nearest postal shipping center than it would be for a larger community, but that's about it. Since the post office has to handle the mail for the whole village, there's enough bulk to still make it worthwhile. (Especially in a remote village - they send and receive a lot more packages than a city dweller would, and that IS a net win to have it all come in one truck instead of a hundred people driving themselves individually the same distance).

    Does it cost more for the extreme corner case letter than average? Sure, but very little of the US population is really that rural anymore. Given that the vast bulk of mail the USPS moves is much shorter distances, I doubt cutting the rural stuff out of the picture would drop our stamp prices even one whole cent. Most of the travel is over the same infrastructure as everything else, it's only that last hour on the truck that makes the rural mailbox any different from mine.

    Also, keep supply and demand in mind too; since the USPS is only charging us the average breakeven price on postage to run their entire organization, we obviously use the service a lot more than we would if it was more expensive.

  • by Shakrai ( 717556 ) * on Saturday July 24, 2010 @08:54PM (#33017850) Journal

    Why should tax money from the wealthy go to the poor?

    It shouldn't.

    Now I'll get modded troll for having the nerve to disagree with this assumption.....

  • by AK Marc ( 707885 ) on Sunday July 25, 2010 @05:31AM (#33019728)
    What do you need in the mail that comes every day? Why can't the mail delivery people send an email when something comes in with the name of who sent it, so you know you don't need to burn gas going in for a bill you can get online anyway? Or charge a slightly larger fee for rural delivery and make deliveries two or three times a week? There are lots of solutions to the problem, all with different benefits and drawbacks.

The absent ones are always at fault.