Modernize the Post Office to Save It

Whenever I think of the United States Postal Service, I think of Joseph Story, former Supreme Court Justice who wrote “Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States” which, according to Wikipedia is “one of the chief cornerstones of the early American jurisprudence.”

In his commentary on Federalist #42 (Madison) Story said this about the Post in 1833:

The reason why I love this quote is because it demonstrates how strongly the American community felt about the network that it’d built. I can imagine someone writing the exact same words about the Internet today. It wasn’t just a service to take for granted, but an innovative and vital form of civic infrastructure. It was a cheap, fast, and mostly neutral way of sending data across the country cheaply – it was just a short while ago that the USPS was the Internet.

Today the United States Postal Service may “increase the enjoyments and cheer the solitude of millions of hearts” but certainly not for me. The USPS is the thing I use once a year to pay my taxes, and the thing that comes to my house every day to toss litter in my living room and scare the hell out of my cats. It’s running out of money, too. Conservatives and libertarians like to point out that this is because “all government programs fail” – a nonsensical and not entirely well thought out argument. Liberals point to this law – The Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act – requiring the Post Office to fund its pension fund 75 years into the future.

So the argument about the future of the postal service becomes political – about whether we should even have the post office, and a battle over whether things like Saturday delivery should be cut, or whether they ought to be able to legally dip into its over-paid pension fund in order to maintain operational viability. We’re trying to figure out how to “save” the post office, in order to maintain its present service which is becoming less and less relevant to Americans. To me this sounds like a losing plan.

I think a winning plan is some innovation, and at the USPS has a lot of room for it. The United States Postal Service is the only company in the world that can get away with answering “Well, everyone” to the question “Who is your target market.” You can’t actually get bigger than the USPS’ customer base in the United States – they have a monopoly on every address in the country.

Every business, charity, and individual in the United States is compelled to have a relationship with this corporation. And it’s not just so we can send mail, either – everyone having a verifiable address is critical to the underpinnings of democracy. It’s the most basic and neutral form of authentication we’ve got. If you want your member of Congress to listen to what you’ve got to say, you’ve got to give them your address. Want your comment about the T-Mobile and AT&T merger recognized? You need an address for that, too. It isn’t UPS or Fedex making and assigning Zip Codes and addresses, and keeping track of that stuff. It’s the United States Postal Service, and if it weren’t for the USPS, we’d probably have at least separate zip-code equivalents for every delivery service we use.

So first thing’s first, let’s move that forward. The USPS could, for instance, provide you with a, optional verifiable online identity – and give everyone in the United States a mail.usps.com email address that you could use for correspondence that needed to be verifiably from you. Moreover, the federal government could use it to deliver information directly to you – say your annual social security statement to your local ballot information, cutting down on the wasteful printing and energy costs we’ve got today. This identity could lay the foundation for other efficiencies, too – like online voting.

We have the social security number that’s essentially a private identification number. We need a public method of identification too, to verify our specific identity. We could use this for doing things like making political campaign contributions and knowing who a specific person is. These identities would have public-ness built-in, for those times when public participation is required by law.

This electronic relationship with the customer could lead to other revenue models, too. Earth Class Mail offers a service that scans every piece of mail that you get, and allows you to deal with it all electronically. There’s no reason why the USPS cannot do this – my wife and I would gladly pay the USPS upwards of $20/mo for the privilege of having our letter-carrier not come to our house and litter in our living room. I’d much rather treat that like electronic mail. And if the USPS did the scanning and offered the data via API to other services, we could choose what interface we wanted to use to sit on top of it – integrating our postal mail with GMail, for me, sounds like a win.

How many people out there do you think would jump at the chance to have their mail delivered digitally if it were easy and presented to them? Even if they converted just 2% of their userbase to the new system, at $20/mo you’re talking billions of dollars and more in savings.

Doing this would also cut costs – the letter carrier wouldn’t have to come to my door, obviously. But there’s a lot of other savings too – over time, maybe we could save on fuel and other transportation costs if enough people made this transition. The thing that’s necessarily scary is the revenue loss: catalog companies wouldn’t pay the USPS to send catalogs to electronic customers. But there are other viable revenue models: since the emails would be necessarily publicly available that leaves the door wide open to spam. I say embrace the spam, and charge $0.05 for every email sent through the system from a non .gov domain. That should not only control the spam to these addresses, but also provide the USPS enough revenue to deal with the change.

It’s not like the USPS is incapable of innovating. Over the years they’ve developed APIs and services that are critical to a lot of businesses. But it’s time they started transitioning themselves and making their business model about the future: authentication, identification, and guaranteed delivery than about first class mail.

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