Fixing the post

Posted on August 18, 2011  /  1 Comments

In the 13 years I lived in the US, I saw the postal service change. It was a horrible, rude bureaucracy when I moved there; and I saw the reengineering at work in the last few years. Counter staff were actually trained to smile and be nice to customers (and those who could not be converted, were sent to back offices where they could “go postal”).

You stood in a line, staff would come up to the line with handheld devices to serve customers with minor needs such as a sheet of stamps, shortening the line for people with complex problems that had to be dealt with at the counter. They started selling wrapping paper and tape and creating spaces for people to wrap gifts according to USPS rules. And it made a difference; USPS started making money.

This gave me hope that government-owned monopolies could be turned around. I knew one terrible weakness in their business model: the reliance on transporting junk mail (flyers, coupons, catalogs). I knew this could not last. But I thought, wrongly it appears, that the business of carrying goods purchased through e commerce would keep them afloat. Letters would go the way of the dodo, but the USPS would make a good living off parcels, I thought.

It is hard to think of a better deal than mailing a letter. In exchange for nothing more than a first-class stamp, the U.S. Postal Service will come to your house, pick up your envelope, and deliver it anywhere in the country. It will bring it from Hawaii to Miami. It will carry it from Bangor, Maine, to Dededo, Guam, a distance of 8,000 miles. If you got the address wrong, it will bring the letter back. These services are completed with extraordinary accuracy and speed. The cost? A mere 44 cents, less if you bought your forever stamps years ago.

America’s postal service is elegant, efficient, even amazing, given the enormous size of the country and the low cost of stamps. But the U.S. Postal Service is a hulking, foundering, money-hemorrhaging bureaucracy. A government watchdog has deemed the whole business unsustainable. Next month, it might actually run out of cash. It raises the question: How is the postal service going to be viable as mailed letters become increasingly obsolete?

And more, in a less-than-inspired (note the retrograde fixation on letters) piece of writing in Slate.

The US is the US. They can solve their own problems. Developing countries need a reliable mode of delivering packages if markets are to be made more efficient and the horrendous pressures on the roads eased. In a recent research project led by Ayesha Zainudeen, we recommended that the postal services be developed as reliable means of delivering items purchased on m commerce platforms, and also pointed to potential that the VPP service had for solving some of the trust problems bedeviling m commerce.

Even if these m commerce dreams were not realizable, one cannot not reform the postal services in our countries. They are not delivering acceptable service and they are hemorrhaging tax payer money. People are adjusting and finding workarounds. If the government waits too long, the workarounds will be norm, and there will be no alternative but to bury the dysfunctional postal service.

1 Comment

  1. I guess postmen are (still) honest in Sri Lanka. You would never think of using the postal service to send anything valuable in Pakistan. It’s liable to be stolen before it reaches the intended recipient.