The End of the Postal Service?

The U.S. Postal Service’s ten-year plan has been a focal point for commentators and legislators for a few weeks now. Presentations to elucidate the plan – or specific parts of it – do not seem to be persuading many of its soundness as many postal stakeholders have become accustomed to the Postal Service coming up short. The plan, both in its creation and its contents, reflects a system that has ceased to serve the needs of the public and is instead focused almost exclusively on the preservation of the agency in its current form, no matter the cost.

The Postal Service has a great last mile network, seemingly inexhaustible public support, and plenty of mail and packages to deliver – for now. With the right plan, it could continue providing reliable, economical service to the American public for decades. The plan that the Postal Service just released will not get there.

This is not a condemnation of Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, or the postal Governors who oversaw the development and issuance of the plan. Calls for their removal by legislators or attention-seekers are misguided scapegoating. Though I have many reservations about the strategic decisions laid out in the plan, I believe that the Board of Governors have put forth a good faith effort to secure the future of the agency they have been chosen to lead.

Nor is it an indictment of the authors of the plan. Though it was produced by “the Postal Service,” I know – and have worked with – many of the postal officials who had a hand in the plan’s creation. I know them to be smart, dedicated professionals who would not do anything but their honest best to plan the future of the postal system. But they are also rational actors with reputations to defend and positions to protect.

Therein lies the problem. Serious, capable individuals – tasked with creating a plan to improve a government agency – knowing that their product would be scrutinized and debated everywhere, concluded that the best approach was to work in isolation for two years to produce a finished product framed as a fait accompli.

Considering how the plan was developed, its glaring weaknesses of an unrealistically pessimistic baseline forecast and a complete failure to address labor costs, make sense. The underlying goal of the plan is the survival of the Postal Service, rather than the long overdue assessment of what kind of postal system the public needs. As such, the results are not surprising, but they are concerning. If this is the best plan for the Postal Service, then we need to ask whether the Postal Service should continue in its current form.

Self-preservation is a natural, universal urge. For corporations working in competitive markets, it can be the impetus for transformational innovation and creativity. But the Postal Service is a government agency with a monopoly on mail service. It must balance often conflicting aims; run like a business while providing public services which require subsidies, whether directly or implicitly. As such, its future cannot be self-determined and must instead be a joint effort involving customers, the government, and employees.

The postal system predates the Constitution, but the Postal Service is barely fifty; created in response to a labor crisis that crippled the mail system in 1970. Five months ago, the mail system was again in gridlock. There were certainly many factors, but the failures of December 2020 revealed structural weaknesses in the postal system that the recently released plan does not appear to confront seriously. It is not too late, if the plan is a starting point rather than the last word.

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

Michael Plunkett