Adapting the Postal Service to prosper in the digital age

Alexis Levinson Political Reporter
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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.

First of all, there is the problem that the public may perceive this as a taxpayer bailout of the Postal Service, though he says this is the Postal Service’s own money. In the heightened polarization of the current political environment, Rolando says, the Postal Service has been turned into a partisan issue.

People who traditionally were supportive of this plan, he said, “all of a sudden coming in to the midterms did 180 degrees because they had to be bipartisan because of the political atmosphere.”

As an example, he pointed to California Rep. Darrell Issa, the Republican chairman of the House Oversight Committee, which has jurisdiction over the USPS. Issa “has been great with us the past few years with understanding what we needed to do and what we need to do for innovation and how we need to transfer the money,” Rolando said. “And all of a sudden at the midterms, he started characterizing us as a taxpayer bailout, and it was like, what? Is that the same guy?”

Nonetheless, Rolando is optimistic that the USPS will ultimately get this money.

“I’m hoping, as we move on, we can sit down with him and say, ok, midterms are over. Let’s deal with reality again.”

The president of NALC is insistent that the short-term solutions cannot diminish the USPS’s capacity to make money in the future, but he is also realistic. His grand plans for transforming the USPS’s business model are not possible if the Postal Service can’t weather its current financial distress.

The plan “long term,” he says, is “the innovation and adapting the business model. And the short-term solution allows us to do that cause you’ve got the breathing room, you’ve got the finances, you’ve got the cash.”

Rolando is not the only one who has suggested such innovative uses of the Postal Service. Michael Ravnitzky, the chief counsel to the chairman of the Postal Regulatory Commission, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times in December suggesting that vehicles could be equipped with “sensors to collect and transmit information about weather or air pollutants.”

“Such a system,” he wrote, “could aid in homeland security by rapidly detecting chemical agents, radiological materials and, eventually, biological attacks; it could also collect detailed data to improve weather forecasts. And it could assess road quality, catalog potholes and provide early warning of unsafe road conditions like black ice.”

The USPS has already taken the first step in this direction, partnering with the Department of Homeland Security on the City Readiness Initiative. Postal workers are given medicines for themselves and their families, and in the event of some kind of crisis, be it a natural disaster or a health crisis of some kind, they will deliver medicines to people in need.

Rolando feels this is a model that could be adapted to other uses and used more widely. Returning to the concept of a “universal communications network,” he explained that the Postal Service is uniquely suited to such a task.

“Nobody else that goes out there,” he says, of an area stricken by some kind of disaster. “We’re mandated to go out there every day. And absent something stopping us from going in there, we’re going. I mean, just history. Our slogan. That’s what we do.”