Dogged by stories of letters taking 10 years to cross the street, the U.S. Postal Service announced Monday that it has hired the Price Waterhouse accounting firm to formally determine not so much whether the check is in the mail but how long it will take to get to you.
Price Waterhouse will measure the travel time of more than 2 million pieces of mail a year in 86 cities that account for 60% of the nation's first-class mail volume.
The $23.4-million, 3-year contract, paid for by postal ratepayers, represents something of a gamble for the post office, Postmaster General Anthony M. Frank said Monday at a news conference in Los Angeles.
"When we talk about service in the Postal Service, we're a little like Henny Youngman's tired old joke, 'How's your spouse?' 'Compared to what?' " quipped Frank.
Such service studies already are done in Great Britain and Canada, and the U.S. Postal Service conducts its own internal measurements. But this marks the first time an independent firm has tried to figure out how long it takes a letter to get from Point A to Point B.
"This is a very, very exciting attempt to level with the American people about how good or bad our service is," Frank said. "I think it's an essential move for us to measure our service externally and report it to the American public."
Frank expects the study to have a positive impact on service, because "if you measure something, it behaves differently." The 800,000 Postal Service employees will react, "particularly if (the numbers) are low, as they were initially in Great Britain and Canada."
The study will involve 2,000 "reporters," including households and small businesses, who will call a toll-free number each time they receive a piece of test mail. The 26 types of mail will come in different sizes and colors, in order to look like regular first-class mail.
The Postal Service's target is to deliver a first-class letter overnight in the same city, in two days within a "contiguous area," and in three days from coast to coast, Frank said.
Internal studies have found that the Postal Service hits that first standard about 95% of the time but does worse with the other two. "It's in the (80% range), and I don't think that's good enough," Frank said.
The test will begin this spring and preliminary results will be released either late this year or early in 1991, Frank said.