• on May 26th, 2014 in Labor | 8 comments

    Offering workplace benefits such as health and retirement programs and paid vacations is a well established way to attract and retain talented workers. But the structure of these offerings has been changing in the public and private sectors over the past 20 to 30 years for several reasons, including rising pension debts; a more mobile workforce; and a move towards simplified administration of benefits.

    Employers have been looking to shed excessive pension expenses and give workers more control over their own retirement programs. Increasingly, private, local, and state employers are moving away from defined benefits plans that generally pay a guaranteed sum based on wages and years of service. They are increasingly favoring defined contribution plans, such as the 401(k) plan, a pretax fund built on employee and employer contributions. Meanwhile, retirement benefits plans for federal workers, including postal employees, have generally remained unchanged since the Federal Employees Retirement System was enacted in 1987.

    Similarly, the U.S. Postal Service’s leave benefits have stayed primarily the same for decades. Days off are organized into categories – annual, personal, sick, military (if applicable), and federal holiday – and the rate of leave accrual depends on the category. When taking leave, a postal employee has to indicate which category the leave falls into. But many companies are moving toward fewer categories, such as just vacation days and sick days. This simplified approach cuts down on administrative costs.

    As the Postal Service looks for ways to tighten its belt, it is considering changes in benefits, such as a new retirement program for future workers. But it is in a bit of a Catch-22. It is required to offer compensation and benefits that are comparable to those in the private sector, but it cannot change its benefits programs unilaterally, due to legal requirements and union agreements.

    At the request of the Postal Service, we issued two white papers that benchmarked its benefit programs against those of several comparable organizations. Specifically, we looked at retirement benefits and leave policies. We found many similarities in benefit offerings, but key differences, too. For example, retirement expenses make up a larger portion of total benefits for the Postal Service than for the other organizations we studied. Also, postal employees can carry over 55 or more days of annual leave each leave year and an unlimited number of sick days. But the other organizations had far more restrictive leave carryover.

    Share your thoughts or experiences on leave programs that consolidate all days off into one comprehensive plan. Might such a program for postal employees offer flexible benefits while reducing costs? Or does the current system work well? What changes, if any, are needed to the Postal Service’s retirement plans? 

  • on May 18th, 2014 in Ideas Worth Exploring | 4 comments

    If you are even remotely digitally hip, you probably know that “big data” is a hot topic. But it is far from a mere fad. Big data — which refers to large, complex datasets combined with sophisticated, powerful analytics — has definitely been having a big impact on not just scientific research capabilities, but commercial activity as well. Amazon, Walmart, and eBay are just a few businesses using big data to better target products and services to consumers.

    Could big data help the postal industry? Earlier this year we jointly hosted a forum with the Universal Postal Union to discuss that and many related questions. Postal experts and big data experts from all over the world attended, and they agreed that, yes, big data can provide extraordinary opportunities for postal operators — including the U.S. Postal Service — to improve operations as well as current products and services, and even create new ones.

    It’s not a quick and easy process, though. The forum established that a clear and coherent big data strategy must first be articulated – one that answers questions like, “What will you use the data for?” and “How will you ensure privacy?” Some of the first steps in this strategy include buy-in from top leaders of the organization in addition to development of partnerships with other stakeholders to share data sources. Also, internal changes must be made, such as taking an interdisciplinary approach involving data experts and marketing whizzes to build a digital culture within the organization.

    All of this happens one step at a time, and our new paper, International Postal Big Data: Discussion Forum Recap, details each one of these steps. It also includes information on big data pilot-trials that some postal operators have launched and the particular operations and services their big data experiments have involved.

    What do you think? How does your company use big data? How do you see the Postal Service using big data? What concerns would you have about the Postal Service using data analytics to develop new products or services? Where do you see opportunities for the Postal Service to partner with the private sector?

  • on May 12th, 2014 in Ideas Worth Exploring | 1 comment

    Maybe you’ve seen the television commercial with a clueless couple sending their household items up in a hot air balloon to be stored “in the cloud.” It’s funny, but also holds more than a grain of truth. Many of us don’t fully understand the cloud. So we might not realize its promise or potential hazards.

    Cloud computing uses remote Internet servers to manage, store, and process data or content. If you use Facebook or Shutterfly, you are using cloud computing. These kinds of cloud computing applications are attractive because they help users free up computer space, keep better track of their photos or music, or organize their files.

    Businesses and federal agencies are also relying more on cloud computing because it reduces costs and increases efficiency of services. You just turn on the application as you need it, or “on demand.” Some people have compared cloud computing to a utility, such as an energy company. All you do is plug in and you are ready to go. The energy company handles the details of generating electricity at the power plant and the customer just turns on the switch and uses it.

    But cloud computing also comes with risks of data leaks and loss of public trust. This is especially vexing for government agencies, which have turned to the cloud to help them do more with less. The Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE) has attempted to guide federal agencies in their cloud computing contracts with a memorandum that included areas of information accessibility, data security, and privacy concerns, among others. The U.S. Postal Service recently updated its handbook, Cloud Security, and established information on security policies and requirements to protect its information in a cloud computing environment.

    Recently we audited 13 Postal Service cloud computing contracts and found the contracts did not address information accessibility and data security for network access and server locations. Why? Because these contracts were established under the Postal Service’s older handbook and did not have the stronger controls of its newer Cloud Security handbook. They would have benefited from the Cloud Security guidelines on information accessibility and data security gaps, our report noted.

    If not implemented correctly, cloud computing runs potential security risks, such as the loss of customer information, and could hurt the Postal Service’s reputation as a trusted agency, which in turn would harm its brand. Yet cloud computing can streamline processes, reduce spending on technology infrastructure, and improve flexibility, among other benefits. The key will be employing the right security controls.

    Share your thoughts on cloud computing and what role the Postal Service might play. Do you have privacy or security concerns in maintaining information in the cloud? 

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