The Post-Election Postal Service

As of this writing, it seems fairly clear who will be the president as of next January.  That person will materially impact the Postal Service by his support or opposition on a variety of issues relevant to it – such as eliminating (or not) the prefunding mandate, advancing (or resisting) postal reform legislation, and appointing additional members to the Board of Governors.  Regardless, the Postal Service can do little to avoid always being at the mercy of him or other politicians and what they may choose (or fail) to do.

Despite this fact of life, the agency isn’t without opportunities to improve its circumstances on its own and, in the wake of the election, and after the anxiety over possible delays in delivering mailed ballots has subsided, the USPS might want to reflect on what went well or not and what it should consider doing differently in the future.

Premises

Any comment about what the Postal Service could or should do needs to be in the context of certain environmental conditions that will persist no matter who’s in the White House:

  • The pandemic will continue to impact the postal workforce, and the resulting level of absenteeism will impair operations and delivery for months, likely well into 2021.
  • Long-haul transportation will continue to be impacted by the reduced availability of air capacity and, in turn, will impede the achievement of service standards between facilities not usually linked by ground transportation.
  • Parcel volume will remain above pre-pandemic levels and will challenge postal facilities not designed or equipped to handle it.
  • The volume of letter and flat mail will continue to decline and, if forecasts made by the USPS last spring are accurate, will not return to what would have been pre-pandemic levels.
  • Revenues will remain below costs, especially when those costs include uncontrollable expenses like the workers compensation liability and externally-imposed requirements to pre-fund future pension and health care costs.
  • Price increases will remain limited by the CPI cap.
  • Postal labor will continue to enjoy contractual terms and benefits originally negotiated decades ago that are increasingly infeasible for the contemporary USPS to support.

Opportunities

Having framed what the Postal Service could or should do by those limitations and conditions, the agency remains capable of taking steps to help itself.  In management-speak, those “opportunities” include:

  • Congressional relations.  The agency has no political leverage; it has no PAC from which to contribute to candidates and has to win politicians’ support solely by persuasion and the force of reason – to the extent that’s of interest to persons accustomed to trading in political currency.  The USPS recently brought aboard Peter Pastre, an experienced lobbyist, and should use his introduction to Congress as the opportunity to reform its image in the mind of legislators.  Rather than being obtuse, incoherent, and inarticulate, the Postal Service should be candid, forthright, and direct in explaining its condition and what needs to be done.  Whether dealing with elected officials or their staffs, providing full disclosure and complete facts may be a risk in some situations, but being disliked for being blunt or impolitic might be better than being disliked for being evasive or disingenuous.

  • Communications.  Something the Postal Service missed earlier this year, and likely will in the future, is the “optics” of what it’s doing and the consequent need to communicate.  Consistently, and to its detriment, the USPS is indifferent (or oblivious) to how what it does can be (mis)interpreted and, accordingly, neither explains the reasons for its actions in advance nor clarifies misinformed reports when they’re published.

    If there’s one thing the Postal Service has not done well over the past eight months, it’s communicate.  Perhaps the Postal Service shouldn’t have to explain its operational decisions, but given this year’s experience, it should be better prepared in the future to anticipate criticism and defend its actions.  As we’ve editorialized before – to no effect – the agency is so circumspect about what it says that it effectively says nothing, at least not in a timely manner, and not adequately to convey the facts.

    Just as it must improve how it communicates with Congress, the USPS should realize that it’s preferable to tell its own story than to let others – with their own spin – tell it for them.  Time and again, the media has repeated what it’s told by union representatives or employees without any factual correction or clarification from the USPS.  The purpose and facts about all the initiatives that were started and stopped over the summer were not explained by the Postal Service; instead, the agency let others offer their own views and perspectives, shaping both public and Congressional perceptions along the way.

    For example, though it has well-known absenteeism and transportation challenges, the Postal Service says nothing to explain the role of those factors in service performance.  Though its pervasive data systems give it a ubiquitous view of mail conditions nationwide, the agency does not alert commercial mailers about facilities having higher levels of absenteeism or city pairs between which transportation has been particularly challenging, leaving them – and their ratepaying customers –uninformed about what to expect regarding service.

    Though too much “transparency” can be invasive and overreaching, there are times when it’s vastly better to being stolid and opaque.
  • Election mail.  It may be safe to say that no-one, including the Postal Service, anticipated having to deal with an election in the middle of a pandemic, and that voting by mail would become a key method for citizens to use.  As a result, the USPS was understandably unprepared to educate thousands of election board workers about how to design, produce, and enter what was essentially a bulk mailing.  Moreover, given its quiescence in communications and political situations, the agency was unprepared to deal with the politicization of its every action or the exceptional scrutiny it was receiving as concerns over mail delivery led to litigation.

    Accordingly, with the mid-term election cycle only two years away, the Postal Service might use the interim to educate the originators of election mail about the finer points of automated mail preparation, mailpiece tracking, and the scheduling of mailings.  At the same time, the USPS should consider establishing specific criteria for what is called “election mail,” especially ballots, to ensure uniformity of preparation and enable mailstream visibility.  Establishing election-related mail as a separate product (with or without discrete prices) would require a filing with the Postal Regulatory Commission.

    Lastly, the USPS should formulate a plan – including robust and articulate communications – to keep the public and Congress apprised of its plans and achievements in handling election mail, and deliver its message clearly and consistently...

Tomorrow, in Part II - how facility performance and operational initiatives factor into these recommendations. 

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