For almost two centuries, the humble-seeming mail was a hotbed of new ideas. What happened?
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.
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.
Nothing may sum up the Postal Service’s inability to innovate more than its failed partnership with Staples. A few years ago, the Postal Service agreed with Staples to expand consumer access to its shipping services. Upon entering select locations of the office-supply chain store, shoppers would “find a familiar looking counter resembling a mini post office containing the most popular postal products and services,” the agency crowed. Customers who went to Staples to get photocopies, booklets and signs printed now could have them shipped by the Postal Service. It was “one-stop shopping and shipping,” and Staples postal counters would be open seven days a week.
The agreement was an attempt to turn around the Postal Service’s financial fortunes by increasing sales of pricier premium shipping services, like Priority and Express Mail. To be sure, this partnership was not invented whole cloth by the USPS. Big shipping companies had already sought profitable synergies through such arrangements. For instance, FedEx had purchased Kinko’s 10 years earlier, and UPS inked a deal to have its big brown trucks scoop up parcels daily from Staples. For the USPS, the postal counters were an important step toward modernizing its practices to compete in the 21st century. The agency began piloting the Staples arrangement in November 2013 in Boston. More than 500 Staples stores nationwide had retail postal counters by the end of last year.
At first blush, the USPS-Staples partnership looked like a win-win arrangement. But the American Postal Workers Union did not see it that way. It decried the deal as an effort at union-busting, because Staples personnel would man the postal counters. The “American people have a right to post offices staffed by highly-trained, uniformed Postal Service employees, who are sworn to safeguard the mail and who are accountable to the people,” the union declared. The USPS balked at APWU demands to staff the counters with unionized postal employees, who earn about $25 an hour. So the APWU picketed Staples stores and sued the agency.
Earlier this year, the National Labor Relations Board killed the USPS-Staples deal. Too weary to fight or fearful that it could not win in court, the USPS capitulated, and the Staples postal counters are being dismantled.