Adapting the Postal Service to prosper in the digital age

Postal workers overcome all sorts of adversity to deliver the mail: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” But what about the Internet?

The United States Postal Service is having something of an identity crisis as it tries to figure out how to survive in a digital age of dropping mail volume and battle its way out of an $8.5 billion loss this year. Some have suggested that the Postal Service has become an anachronism, made obsolete by the advent of e-mail. But for Fredric Rolando, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC), the future is rife with opportunities.

“There’s so many things you can do with the most trusted employees and the only universal communications network,” he said, referring to the fact that the USPS “goes to every home, every business, six days a week.”

This delivery infrastructure, he suggested, lends itself to “working with the businesses that work out of their homes, becoming the only delivery vehicle with a green vehicle fleet throughout the country, using sophisticated scanners to provide other services, using sensors on the vehicles to work with the Red Cross or Homeland Security.”

With post offices themselves, he proposed, working with the government to maybe issue driver’s licenses. Or, he said, “we could do things like a national infrastructure bank, rather than borrowing money from China.”

The USPS is taking a different tack. In the next few weeks, the Postal Service will thin out its management ranks, close some underperforming post offices, and there are even plans to eliminate Saturday delivery.

Rolando is not a fan of this last proposal, and he doesn’t mince any words, calling the idea of five-day delivery “insane.”

“It’s just nuts to take this network and start to dismantle it,” he said. “If anything, it would be ideal if you could expand it to seven days.”

It’s a slippery slope, he said, because though it will save money in the short term, it will ultimately decrease revenue. “And then what? We’re having a bad year here, so let’s not think smarter, innovative, let’s cut Tuesdays out,” he said, exasperated. “It’s just stupid. It’s just plain stupid. It’s — stupid’s not a nice word. It’s short-term vision, is what it is.”

But it’s easy to see how a short-term solution would look appealing. The Postal Service is required to pre-fund retiree benefits to the tune of $5.5 billion a year. If things keep going as they are, the USPS has said they won’t have the money to pay come September when the payment is due.

However, the USPS has a surplus in its Civil Service Retirement System account, having overpaid it to the tune of $75 billion. Rolando, and others, hope to access that money and use it to right the USPS’s financial situation. It would be an easy fix, but gaining access to that money requires permission from the Office of Personnel Management, Congress, or the White House, and Rolando foresees some difficulties in navigating the politics.