Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Postal's Going?

Day 28 of 46 c Lenten Season 2010

"You’ve got mail!"

Whether the message comes from a computerized voice on your e-mail program or your friendly neighborhood mailman approaching you in your yard, most of us gladly welcome the opportunity to see who wants to communicate with us.

Of course, as quickly as it builds, our enthusiasm usually fades as we see how much junk mail – both the snail-mail and electronic kind – we’ve gotten, and how little person-to-person mail has graced our mailbox. It’s as if the mail provides a form of affirmation for our lives and who we are, and when we don’t get what we're looking for, it seems like a wasted effort, doesn't it?

Bills are just reminders of stuff we’ve already bought, and which probably has already lost its luster.

Credit card applications are just further proof that the people who send us bills have sold our information to other people who want to send us bills, too.

What we’re all looking for when we open our mail is something from somebody we like, or love, or want to love. Maybe we’re looking for something that will benefit us financially, like an approved contract for a business proposal. We’re looking for feedback on something we’ve produced or an idea we’ve suggested.

Postmaster General Franklin

Even before America’s Declaration of Independence, the Second Continental Congress appointed Benjamin Franklin as head of this country’s first postal system. As Postmaster General, Franklin’s responsibilities included providing a national information network that was cutting-edge for its day. This information network included not only post offices, but postal roads connecting them. Indeed, some communities in New England have major highways that trace the routes Franklin’s old postal roads took over 200 years ago.

For a fledgling democracy, the postal service provided a crucial cross-country link that helped businesses and families stay connected as the colonies expanded westward. Post offices served as local gathering spots and the face of government in far-flung places. Men could register for the military at post offices, a person’s official location was registered as a postal address, and even today, your mailbox is technically considered government property.

But the grand objectives of our early postal system have largely been eclipsed by technology, haven’t they? As access to and use of digital information has become virtually universal, the need to mail hard copies of documentation has dwindled. The art of penmanship has practically vanished, the poetry of love letters has eroded to staccato pecking for instant messaging, and even good ol’ reliable bills have gone online for automatic withdrawal convenience.

These days, your letter carrier probably delivers mostly junk mail of the most inane variety that immediately ends up in your trashcan. And we’re paying these people how much money to deliver all this stuff we don’t want?

Forever Stamps?

Not that the US Postal Service has managed its money well over the years, nor has it done a good job of adapting to a changing society. It’s still the monopolistic behemoth it’s been for generations, only these days, it’s finding its marginalized role in American life a tough reversal of fortune.

Gone are the days when it could erect grand postal palaces, its employees symbolized government efficiency, and its power as an information provider stood unparalleled. What architectural marvels the postal service still inhabits are run-down and under-used. Both the quality of mail delivery and the quality of mail delivered have become punchline fodder.

It’s definitely past time for the postal service to downsize.

Many small towns across America still rely on their local post office for a sense of location and identity, but how many of them can be closed down and resources consolidated in centralized locations?

Talk of eliminating Saturday delivery has been gaining steam, and makes a lot of sense when you consider that Saturdays are not an official workday for banks and government offices, the two institutions that use the mail the most.

Whenever I’ve seen the postal service advertising on the Super Bowl and other major sporting events, I’ve wondered why they spend so much money telling people they exist. The reason most people don’t use the mail these days isn’t because we’ve forgotten them, but simply because they’re too slow.

Can't Keep Up

And that’s the crux of the postal services’ dilemma, isn’t it?

For today’s business needs, speed is of the essence. Even for most personal communication, we Americans want to know stuff quicker. And there’s not really anything wrong with that. Why wait five days for a letter via snail mail that may contain information that is old by the time it arrives? Sometimes, it’s easy to vilify the push for speed and quickness. But in this case, with technology providing so many affordable and accessible alternatives to snail mail, the morality of instant information doesn’t really come into play. It’s up to the postal service to adapt.

Unfortunately, not even budget deficits and reduced volume can make the postal service see their old ways of doing things don't work any more. Last summer, when a sweeping list of proposed post office closures was announced, one of the most heavily-used locations here in Arlington, Texas, appeared on the list. Incredulous, civic and business leaders protested the irrationality of closing our central post office. Sure, it has lousy service (the clerks all seem to take their lunch break at noon – the same time most of their customers show up), the parking lot is poorly designed, and they spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for rent on a larger lot for employee parking.

It wasn’t long before postal officials took Arlington’s central post office off of the closure list. Postal employees I know told me that the whole idea was a trial balloon to see who would squeal the loudest – the post office’s idea of efficiency. Apparently, they did without the processing volume studies and threw a bunch of locations out in the public domain to see which ones caught the most resistance. How’s that for planning?

Of course, that may have just been idle talk from the letter carrier union. They’ve been a thorn in the side of the post office for years, and one reason why snail mail costs remain so high. Here in Texas, a lot of union letter carriers have been replaced by non-union temporary workers, who rarely wear uniforms, walk through flower beds, and rarely show up until dusk.

So much for "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds." (From the inscription on the James Farley Post Office in midtown Manhattan, near Madison Square Garden.)

Mail Bonding

These days, a lot of organizations that are downsizing do so to give shareholders more money. And others do it simply to stay afloat. The postal service not only has to figure out how to stay afloat, it needs to figure out how to remain relevant. How many Gen-X'ers and Tweens did you see during your last trip to the post office? When was your last trip to the post office?

It might help to realize though, that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Even if the postal service as we Americans know it ceases to exist within the next few years, mail will still be delivered. And that little burst of anticipation when we hear or see “You’ve Got Mail!” will still precede the moment when we look and see who’s sent us something.

Yeah, and there will probably still be all that junk mail, too!

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