Caught in the Spin

As everyone involved in commercial mail production realizes, we’re heading into a second atypical fall mailing season.  Supplies of the essential raw material – paper – are tight, trucking companies are busy moving backlogged shipments from ports, drivers are still in short supply, and companies are struggling to find workers despite high unemployment.

Concurrently, the Postal Service is reworking its processing and logistics networks – consolidating some operations while adding annexes and installing package sorting equipment – and planning to move more mail by truck and reduce its service commitments.

Meanwhile, clients of traditional mail producers are reassessing their mailing plans in reaction to both slower service and the higher prices imposed by the USPS last month.

The story

Over the past several months, the Postal Service has increased its use of publicity, not to be more transparent about any aspect of its finances, operations, or other business practices, but to promote the 10-year Plan issued by the Postmaster-General last March.  A reference to The Plan has become a required element that the agency’s publicists work into every available public statement.

As a result, the usually taciturn agency has been promoting an optimistic story predicting a smooth and successful peak season, citing The Plan as fundamental to its fulfillment.  The acquisition of additional equipment, more people, added facilities – everything that would be the typically-expected supplementary resources assembled for any other peak season – are this year being credited to The Plan.

At the same time, the Postal Service’s propagandists continue to issue weekly announcements claiming improved service compared to past benchmarks, even though the numbers they cite are generalized and reflect neither the “steady improvement” that’s claimed nor the attainment of established standards.

However, it’s doubtful that the weekly messages are meant to provide real evidence of anything, but rather to reinforce the story that service is improving.  Readers are supposed to believe the story and not look into whether what they’re being told is reflected by other facts.

Of course, all the hype soon enough will be supplanted by the realities of the next three or four months.  By mid-January, it will be obvious whether the Postal Service’s performance lived up to the rosy promises made in late summer.  Commercial mailers and their clients may wonder whether their individual experiences were consistent with overall USPS performance, but likely will be told how well the agency did – thanks to The Plan.

The facts

The sole reliable source for objective service performance data is the quarterly reporting required by the Postal Regulatory Commission, but those are an ironic presence in the context of available information, and one the USPS may like to see devalued.

The current format of the reports is based on the management structure in place until last year – seven areas and 67 districts – but last February the Postal Service unilaterally decided to start reporting based on the reorganized structure it implemented in late 2019: two regions and (then) twelve divisions.  The loss of data granularity from this change was obvious, and the PRC quickly directed the USPS to stick with the 7x67 format.  The Postal Service objected, naturally, claiming that retaining the old format was “burdensome” and steered its “limited agency resources away from the focus at hand.”

Ironically, however, the USPS can gin up data about service every week when that serves its purposes.  It’s no secret that the agency has volumes of detailed underlying data about facility performance and can produce whatever reports it wants whenever it wants so that “responsible officials can be held accountable.”  Nonetheless, it persists in claiming that making such data publicly available, or providing it to the regulator, is too much work.

Unfortunately, the model for current Postal Service information sharing seems to be a former president’s axiom that “if you say it enough and keep saying it, they’ll start to believe you.”  Whether hyping The Plan or spinning service scores, the agency seems to believe that appearances trump reality.  Hopefully, as far as service reporting is concerned, the PRC will set them straight.

 

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