The lost genius of the Post Office

Kevin R. Kosar at Politico: “…When Americans think about the most innovative agency in the government, they think about the Pentagon or NASA. But throughout much of its history, that title could just as easily have fallen to the Post Office, which was a hotbed of new, interesting, sometimes crazy ideas as it sought to accomplish a seemingly simple task: deliver mail quickly and cheaply. The Post Office experimented with everything from stagecoaches to airplanes—even pondered sending mail cross-country on a missile. For decades, the agency integrated new technologies and adapted to changing environments, underpinning its ability to deliver billions of pieces of mail every year, from the beaches of Miami to the banks of Alaska, for just cents per letter.

We think a lot about how innovation arises, but not enough about how it gets quashed. And the USPS is a great example of both. Today, what was once a locus of innovation has become a tired example of bureaucratic inertia and government mismanagement. The agency always faced an uphill battle, with frequent political interference from Congress, and the ubiquity of the internet has changed how Americans communicate in unforeseeable ways. But its descent into its current state was not foretold. A series of misguided rules and laws have clipped the Post Office’s wings, turning one of the great inventors of the government into yet another clunky bureaucracy. As a new administration once again takes up the cause of “reinventing government,” it’s worth considering what made the Post Office one of the most inventive parts of the nation’s infrastructure—and what factors have dragged it down.

IN A SENSE, innovation was baked into the Post Office from the beginning. America’s national postal service precedes the founding: It was born in July 1775, a year before the Declaration of Independence was ratified. During the American Revolution, the U.S. postal system’s duty was to deliver communications between Congress and the military commanders fighting the British. And for the first postmaster general, Congress appointed an inveterate tinkerer, Benjamin Franklin. He rigged up a system of contractors to haul mail by horse and on foot. It worked….

OVERSHADOWING ALL THE invention, however, was the creeping sclerosis of the Post Office as an institution. As a monopoly, it was insulated from competitive pressures, allowing inefficiency to creep into its operations and management. Worse, political interests had sunk deep, with Congress setting postage rates too low and too frequently trying to dictate the location of post offices and mail-sorting facilities.

Political pressures had been a challenge for the department from the start. President George Washington criticized Postmaster General Ebenezer Hazard when he tried to save the department money by switching mail carriers from stagecoaches to lone horse-riders. Private companies, eager to sell products or services to the department, lobbied Congress for postal contracts. Lawmakers inserted hacks into postal jobs. Everybody wanted something from the Post Office Department, and Congress proved all too happy to satisfy these political pressures….

At the same time, technology rapidly was catching up to the Post Office. The first threat was actually a miss: Although the electronic fax arrived in the early 1970s, it did not eat into the USPS’ business. So when cellular-phone technology arrived in the late 1980s and the internet erupted in the mid-1990s, USPS officials mostly shrugged. Annual revenues climbed, and the USPS’ employee cohort rose to nearly 800,000 before the end of the 20th century….

Private-sector companies may soon eat even more of the Postal Service’s lunch, or a good portion of it. Amazon is building a delivery network of its own, with lockers instead of post office boxes, and experimenting with drones. Uber also has nosed into the delivery business, and other companies are experimenting with autonomous delivery vehicles and robots….

The agency continues to be led by longtime postal people rather than those who move fluidly through the increasingly digitized world; Congress also has not been much help. The postal reform bill currently moving before Congress might sound like the right idea, but its fixes are superficial: It would force the USPS to create an “innovation officer,” an official with little authority to bring about genuine change at the agency, and wouldn’t do much to dislodge the entrenched political interests from the basic structure of the USPS. Which means the Postal Service—once one of the most impressive and fast-moving information networks ever devised—may end up as a lesson in how not to meet the future….(More)”