Postal Service Must Meet High Standards

There is an overabundance of riches lately for those who follow the fortunes of the U.S. Postal Service (USPS).

It is virtually impossible to engage with media in any form without encountering coverage about mail service or opinions regarding the future of USPS. Perhaps because we are heading into the final stages of a hard-fought Presidential election, while simultaneously bungling the most dangerous pandemic in one hundred years, coverage of the Postal Service sometimes becomes wildly exaggerated if not downright erroneous.

The likely reason for hyperbolic coverage is more prosaic. The political and social climate has heightened interest in the Postal Service, and in response coverage expands to include reporting by intelligent individuals who are not steeped in postal arcana.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the reaction to internal USPS memos on overtime and unscheduled transportation trips. The policies seemed like a typical move for a new chief executive officer — take decisive action to signal to management that operational discipline is the new order of the day.

In fact, a succession of reports by the USPS Inspector General’s Office have documented there is no shortage of slack in postal operations. Cost containment is essential and long overdue. Unfortunately, those policies quickly became fodder for speculation about conspiracies to undermine the Postal Service, mail-in voting, and democracy itself.

The Postal Service must shoulder some blame here. USPS has not been forthcoming regarding its plans, so the sudden appearance of the internal memos surprised customers. Many USPS supporters found themselves having to explain to their clients or management why service performance for all products has suddenly tanked.

The USPS failure to engage and respond helped create an information vacuum that postal unions, legislators, and opinion leaders were quick to fill. It did not take long for an internal stand-up talk – instructing carriers to leave on time – to be reimagined as evidence that USPS violated the law by failing to get an advisory opinion from the Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC) before changing service standards.

This was entirely predictable. A sudden elimination of overtime and extra trips was bound to trigger service failures which are an open invitation for Congressional inquiry. USPS responded to a letter from Representative Maloney (D-NY) demanding an explanation by pointing out that “the operational efforts at issue do not constitute service standard changes.”

In the meantime, mailers are experiencing and documenting significant deterioration in service performance across all products and shapes. If that situation persists, the distinction between service performance and service standards will matter only to USPS attorneys. Commercial mailers, frustrated by service failures and lack of USPS responsiveness, are already ramping up efforts to convert to digital substitutes. The longer service performance remains poor, the less relevant are the standards themselves.

With the Postal Service poised to play an outsized role in the fall elections while the President questions the legitimacy of mail-in ballots, the noise surrounding USPS will get louder, and the scrutiny on service performance will intensify. If the Postal Service continues to keep its customers in the dark and rely on lawyerly rebuttals to Congress, the detractors alleging cronyism will continue to have a field day.

But the most important step for the Postal Service is to adjust operating plans to restore service performance. That is the core of their mission and would go a long way in restoring the confidence of their customers, suppliers, and employees. It would also do more to restore sanity to postal reporting than anything they – or I – could say.

Michael Plunkett is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Association for Postal Commerce (PostCom).

Michael Plunkett