The 10-Year Plan and The Virtual NPF

The unrelenting impact of the pandemic caused the National Postal Forum to be virtual again in 2021 – actually as two online events, one last spring and a second last month that coincided with National PCC Week.

However, the September session’s presentations offered less than the usual wide variety of topics and instead were dominated by a Postal Service multi-part infomercial touting Postmaster General Louis DeJoy’s 10-year Plan.  From the opening session to individual panel discussions, viewers were repeatedly presented with scripted “conversations” in which the PMG was fed softball questions, all designed to elicit planned answers that framed the Plan and its contents in the most favorable terms.

The pitch

In his prepared responses, the PMG revealed his disregard for his predecessors and their management of the USPS.  For example, when asked, “What led you to the realization that the Postal Service needed a plan to move forward?” DeJoy listed several points on which he believed previous PMGs had failed, including that the organization was “poorly structured” and had a “lack of momentum to address service improvements [and] financial improvements.”

Explaining further, he credited “the wisdom of the board,” then constituted solely of his allies, for “having a vision and executing on it.”  To him, the USPS has “to evolve [its] service to cover [its] costs” and “that was in fact what was really not happening as fast as it needed to.”

His Plan, he argued, “avoids the lunacy of standing still while Rome is burning” and “avoids the need for any Congressional bailout,” which sounds like he doesn’t want Congress’ support even though his Plan calls for billions in relief from various obligations.

To him, there were “a lot of things that needed to change and I have a leadership group that’s willing to do that.”  Looking at how the agency’s top ranks have changed, it’s clear that those not fully embracing DeJoy’s Plan aren’t welcome.  That condition was reinforced for viewers by how the executives featured in the panels dutifully cited the wisdom of the Plan and its benefits for their respective parts of the organization.

His view

Despite having been with the USPS for less than a year when he issued his Plan, DeJoy has no doubts he got it all right. 

Again panning his predecessors, he stated that “when you’re in the service business it’s really hard to build a model around what you aspire to do and that’s kind of the metrics we’ve had in the past.”

Continuing, with apparent indifference to his self-congratulatory tone, he added that “it’s not as complex as you may think, at least coming in as an outsider” and that the Postal Service’s trajectory was “all pretty easy for me to recognize.”  To him, it all seemed simple.  “An operational approach in a service business starts [with] defining what your service is” and “act[ing] like a going concern” that “believe[s] that we’re going to be here ten years from now.”

He said he saw “the wealth of talent, the commitment in the organization, the infrastructure in place, and what I really needed to do [was] reorganize, liberate, and focus the organizational leadership to re-energize our employee base.”  In turn, the USPS had “to commit to becoming self-sustaining,” again seeming to contradict his call for Congress’ help.

For starters, he decided to “take off the table any discussion about six-day delivery” even though trimming delivery of letters and flats has been found to be a non-issue for the public and a potential source for reducing costs by over $6 billion.

Somewhat unapologetically, he noted that “none of this comes without uncomfortable endeavors or mistakes.”  One source of discomfort – for ratepayers – would be sharp price increases, which he sees as a good thing because they increase revenue – at least for the short term.

To DeJoy, counting his chickens, the increasing frequency for rate changes “affords us $44 billion over the next 10 years.” 

He showed no interest in easing those increases, either, stating “after 14 years of a lack of pricing flexibility ... I’m going to use a lot of it in the first year and probably a lot of it in the second year.  I don’t know in year 8 if I’m going to use everything that we need to use, I promise to use it judiciously,” again indicating his definition of “judicious” is far different than that of the ratepayers enduring the rate hikes.

More issues

Adding to the list of the many things he found wrong with the USPS, DeJoy claimed that it is “15 years behind where we need to be in our information processing,” that the agency’s capital spending plan is “a little random,” and that “we’re recovering from years of underinvestment.”

DeJoy is obviously convinced of his Plan’s sagacity and certain success.  For example, he observed that “we’ve come to the conclusion that the changes we’re making in our service will enable us at a reasonable cost to achieve them at a high reliability – 95% – and I think ... we’ll be able to improve our mail product and also capture an increasing proportion of the package business.”

To DeJoy, his USPS is “committed to running a precise and cost-effective organization” that will “achieve service excellence and 95% reliability.”  There’s “a new excitement around the Postal Service,” he claimed.

Notwithstanding the public criticism he’s heard from legislators, the PMG asserted that “we have a good working relationship with Congress, both sides of the aisle.”

DeJoy repeated his Plan’s rosy expectations for package volume, stating that he hopes USPS Connect “will bring $24 billion in revenue over the next ten years.”  Beyond that, regarding his Plan’s package strategies, “there are opportunities there to fill our trucks which run at a very low percentage of utilization and put more in our carriers’ hands.”

Despite the significant proportion of total USPS cost that’s represented by labor, DeJoy has been aggressively adding career workers, committing to long-term costs even as mail volume ebbs.  Again reflecting his disagreement with past PMGs – who were trimming the postal workforce – DeJoy boasted that he’s “converted close to 40,000 non-career employees into career employees – and we’ve not done that for a long time – since January.”

Ironically, on the panel that included Chief Human Resources Office (and Deputy PMG) Doug Tulino, it was remarked that, with the addition of tens of thousands of career employees, “we’re able to move forward and do better quality work with less people.  A stable and engaged workforce is going to culminate in better service to the American public and less cost to us.”  How 40,000 more career workers equates to “less people” and “less cost” wasn’t explained.

Moreover, one panelist, speaking about the addition of seasonal help, confessed that “actually we’re overhiring,” seeming to both reflect that the agency is quite optimistic about the workload the season will represent, and acknowledge the problem it has in retaining non-career employees.

Naysayers

DeJoy’s contempt for anyone who disagrees with him was kept mostly under control in his comments, but it was still obvious.

For example, obliquely referring to the mailing industry’s reaction to his Plan, he stated that there were “a lot of opinions as to what we should do ... usually single-interest opinions ... those were not solutions.”

Later, he was more direct, adding that there was “a lot of noise and the roar of alternatives that to me are not really credible in terms of being a solution for the conditions that we’re in, and much of what I hear is to continue doing what we’re doing just try harder, but we’d been down that path and it hasn’t worked, and trying harder at a losing plan is not something I care to engage in.”

The PCCs

While Postal Service communications have become singularly focused on promoting the PMG’s Plan and praising its every aspect, the agency also seems keen to use a long-standing customer relations venue – the Postal Customer Councils – as another platform from which to hype the Plan.

In the segment broadcast on National PCC Day, DeJoy was unabashedly expectant that PCCs would become outlets for and promoters of his Plan.  To him, the PCCs “are an extension of the Postal Service” that should “promote their relationship with the evolving Postal Service.”  In turn, the USPS will “leverage that to communicate and implement the Plan.”

Though he previously referred to customers as being in the “mailing and shipping industry,” he was aware that during his visit with the PCC leaders he should demonstrate some interest in hard-copy mail – that otherwise was largely overlooked in his Plan.  Solicitously, he stated that “we all need to be advocates of mail” and “we need to promote the ROI of mail vs other media.”  The structured discussion did not include any discordant references to how price increases and service cuts would work against those actions.

Observations

There’s always a theme for a National Postal Forum that’s central to the general sessions and the speeches by top USPS brass.  For September 2021, viewers can judge for themselves – recordings of the NPF’s sessions will be available through October 20 – but to some observers, it seemed that the year’s second NPF had been hijacked for use as a days-long paean to the PMG’s Plan.  DeJoy was ever-present, whether being asked leading questions in an interview or listening to the prepared remarks of wooden executives during staged panel discussions.  Even the panel with the PCC’s national leadership was carefully scripted to stay on-message.

Given the close relationship between the National Postal Forum and the Postal Service, and the NPF’s need for support from the agency, it’s hardly surprising that DeJoy was able to leverage the event to advertise his Plan.

Moreover, as virtual sessions, the hours of positive messaging could be delivered without interruption by the annoying questions that a live presentation would have enabled.  Even better for the aloof PMG, there were none of the usual NPF social events and other opportunities for interaction.  That saved DeJoy from the risk of actually hearing directly from ratepayers and commercial mail producers who might bluntly differ with him, or take him to task for his pricing strategy or reductions in service.  Of course, it’s doubtful that such “opinions” and “noise” would make a difference.

 

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