Reinventing the post office

You’ve heard this story before: Business is down, obligations to retired employees are growing and management is considering layoffs and service shutdowns one day a week. In this case, the organization in trouble is the United States Postal Service, which is projected to lose $7 billion this year and as much as $238 billion over the next decade. After commissioning several financial and management studies, the Postal Service is asking Congress for permission to end Saturday delivery.

Postal Service customers -- virtually everyone in the United States -- should take a harder-headed look at the situation. A service that once was a vital link between citizens has been overtaken by time and technology. Written communication is instantaneous on hand-held devices that are smaller than postcards. More people pay their bills, send family photos and write love letters without ever licking (or, rather, peeling) a stamp or using the services of the federal government. People who can’t afford or don’t want to buy computers or smartphones can do all those things by using the Internet at the local library. In 2006, people sent 213 billion pieces of mail. By 2009, that was down to 177 billion.

Meanwhile, even as letter carriers are delivering less actual mail, they must visit an increasing number of mailboxes to drop off the advertisements, also known as junk mail, that are becoming an increasing proportion of their load. Expenses are rising, revenue is dropping and the service provided is no longer the necessity it once was. It’s time for a far broader rethinking than simply eliminating Saturday delivery.


What would be lost, for example, by delivering first-class mail perhaps three times a week, and advertising and magazines only on, say, Mondays? Could post offices better serve their customers as communications centers, providing public Internet service? How can the government make better use of the unparalleled contacts that letter carriers have with every resident and business in the nation?

The American people no longer subsidize mail delivery because the Postal Service responded well to earlier challenges. Times are now changing even more rapidly, though, and it’s no longer enough to cut costs by cutting service. Ending Saturday delivery may be enough for a few years, but with volume continuing to decrease, more service cuts are inevitable.

The Postal Service is to be commended for commissioning outside studies and asking for recommendations, but the scope of thought has been too small. It’s time now for a real study -- one that more seriously contemplates a first-class reinventing of the agency’s mission.