It hasn't reached the point of staging End-of-Month sales, and you won't find any Red Tag Specials lying around, but with very little fanfare, everybody's favorite whipping boy, the U.S. Postal Service, has turned doggedly competitive.
"Competitive"? Against whom?
While the popular image of the Postal Service as a monolithic monopoly is still firmly in place--and in many respects is still valid--funny things have happened to it since it was reorganized in 1971.
Not only have well-organized commercial companies moved in to challenge the Postal Service's grip on some of its more lucrative fields--notably Federal Express in the overnight mail-delivery service and United Parcel Service in the transport of packages--but also the pressure from Congress to be more efficient, cost effective and sensitive to consumers' needs has lit a real bonfire under the once-moribund service.
A Ponderous Bureaucracy
It was in the reorganization of 1971 that the Postal Service lost its Cabinet-level position as a department of the federal government and became an independent agency--the only such change so far in U. S. history. But with the heady independence came new responsibilities: primarily that of making the ponderous old bureaucracy actually work.
And who would have thought that the one-time butt of so many bad jokes about its service would be one of the top national winners this year in the customer-service category of the prestigious Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals?
The Postal Service's accomplishment: the introduction of extended hours at branch post offices. While it hardly seems like an earthshaking innovation--and, in fact, is a "given" in virtually all private businesses--it was a major breakthrough for the giant (784,557 employees) agency, which, since Congress created it in 1789, had been operated almost as rigidly as the Army. It's no coincidence that the head of the Postal Service (currently Preston R. Tisch) is known as the postmaster general.
"It was a matter of encouraging postmasters to take a look at local needs and make adjustments . . . to recognize the dual-income family, single-parent households, untraditional hours," according to Ann Robinson, the service's consumer advocate, who was in Los Angeles to receive the professional society's award.
All Sorts of Variations
"It was literally the local postmasters' call in what they wanted to do. So we've got post offices that are open 24 hours, opening earlier in the morning and staying open later in the evening, open longer on Saturdays. There are all sorts of variations. Some are staying open one night a week when local stores are open," said Robinson. Conversely, some branches in commercial centers aren't opening Saturdays at all but are staying open longer the other five days.
But as in any commercial enterprise, what local officials can do is limited by the bottom line--a postmaster can't keep his or her branch open 24 hours a day if it's going to go broke as a result.
Always complicating the Postal Service's efforts to accommodate consumers is the fact that no other governmental agency--and certainly no commercial enterprise--comes within a country mile of experiencing the sort of public exposure that it does, five days a week, 52 weeks a year. The opportunities for boo-boos are endless.
"We handled 157 billion pieces of mail last year," Robinson said. "Laid end to end, that's enough envelopes to reach to the moon and back 20 times. And, in Los Angeles alone, 10 million pieces of mail are handled daily, 3.8 billion annually."
Nationally, every man, woman and child receives an average of 614 pieces of mail a year and, collectively, we send in 48 million change-of-address cards in the same period.
An M.I.T. Alumna
Robinson, a Sloan Fellow and holder of a master's degree in management from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, began as a management intern in 1966 and, before being named the agency's consumer advocate in 1985, served in a number of management positions including that of executive assistant to the postmaster general from 1983 to '85.
Few if any entities of such size have a responsibility that--on the surface--can be expressed so simply: Deliver what Consumer A mails in City X to Consumer B in City Y. "Simple" or not, the logistics of accomplishing such a feat has no equal in terms of complexity. Unlike any of its commercial competitors, for instance, the Postal Service doesn't have the luxury of picking and choosing which economically feasible areas it will serve.
If the tiny post office at Marshbog Lake, Ida., generates only enough postal business in a year to pay the rent on its 300-square-foot office with nothing left over for salaries and for the upkeep of the RFD (rural route) vehicles it operates, too bad. Congress says Marshbog Lake has to have the service.