• on May 4th, 2009 in Ideas Worth Exploring | 26 comments
    Imagine an economic collapse in which millions of people lose half of their life savings and their trust in the country’s largest financial institutions is severely shaken. To help restore trust in the financial sector, the government creates a savings system operated by its postal administration. Sound unrealistic? Maybe so, until you remember that the U.S. Post Office Department offered a government-backed savings system to Americans for more than half the twentieth century.

    Searching for ways to raise revenue for a postal telegraph network and inspired by Great Britain’s postal savings system, Postmaster General John A.J. Creswell first recommended a postal savings bank for the United States in 1871. But it wasn’t until the Panic of 1907, which shook the public’s trust in private banks, that the concept really gathered widespread support. Finally, in 1910, the Congress passed the Postal Savings Act that authorized the Post Office Department “to establish postal savings depositories for depositing savings at interest with the security of the Government for repayment thereof, and for other purposes.”

    The creation of the postal savings system was intended to get money out of hiding and to provide safe depositories for people who had lost confidence in banks. It was also intended to provide a convenient means of saving for individuals throughout rural America.

    Initially, depositors in the system were limited to a balance of $500, but this was raised to $1,000 in 1916 and to $2,500 in 1918. The system paid depositors 2 percent annual interest. During the first two decades, the system had a natural advantage over private financial institutions, because the deposits were always backed by “the full faith and credit of the United States Government.” Even so, deposits were slow at first, but by 1929, $153 million was on deposit. Because of the bank failures during the Great Depression, the amount jumped to $1.2 billion in 1934, which was one-third the amount of the entire savings and loan industry. The system continued to flourish through World War II, but by 1948, proven banking reforms and higher interest rates caused a downward trend for the postal savings system. Congress abolished it in 1966 and the Post Office Department stopped accepting deposits on April 27th of that year.

    In a column for the New York Times this past October, Michael Lind proposed that a new postal savings system be created. Lind argued that “the current structure of public and private finance chronically fails to address four problems: the almost 10 percent of Americans without a bank account; the concerns of all Americans about the security of their savings, the growing indebtedness of the country to foreign governments and financial institutions, and underinvestment in public assets like sewer systems and bridges.” In his view, a postal savings bank would address these issues.

    Opponents of this idea argue there are plenty of private institutions that offer banking services, even in rural areas of the country, and that the Postal Service should concentrate their efforts on collecting, processing, and delivering the nation’s mail. They also argue that since the banking reforms created during the Great Depression (the FDIC is a prime example), there is no reason why the American people should ever feel their savings are not secure. After all, if the U.S. Government could not guarantee people’s savings through the FDIC, why would their money be any more secure in a postal savings system? The United States and Great Britain are not the only nations that have experience in combining postal services and banking. In more than 40 countries, posts provide some type of banking services (for example, China, Italy, Japan, Israel, Austria, Brazil, and India). In fact, during the current downturn, revenue from financial services has helped sustain some posts. The U.S. Postal Service, however, could not start offing savings services unilaterally. A change in current law would be required.

    What do you think about a new postal savings system? Do you believe such a system is needed? If so, what are the major benefits you foresee? If not, why not?

    This blog topic is hosted by the OIG's Risk Analysis Research Center (RARC).

  • on Apr 27th, 2009 in Labor | 156 comments
    Career employees earn 4 hours of sick leave for a full pay period (80 hours), or at a rate of 5 percent. Some career employees are currently taking sick leave at approximately the same rate, liquidating their leave bank. The Postal Service’s sick leave absence rate (absenteeism) was 4.3 percent in 2008. This seems high compared to the 1.1 percent rate the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports for employees in the private sector and 1.7 percent rate for employees in the federal sector. So why was the Postal Service’s rate higher? A 2007 private sector survey by CCH Incorporated indicates two thirds (66 percent) of U.S. workers who take unscheduled sick leave do so for reasons other than physical illness, such as personal and/or family issues, stress, or entitlement. Is the Postal Service’s sick leave rate higher because employees call in sick for reasons other than physical illness?

    The Postal Service cannot ignore the $1.4 billion spent on sick leave last year and recognizes that the best person to do the job is the person hired for it rather than a replacement. The Postal Service identified approximately 35,000 employees in 2008 with 20 or more unscheduled absences. That means 5 percent of its employees have nearly one absence for every paycheck! What is the impact on morale to the other 640,026 career employees? Is there something the Postal Service can do to reduce the number of unscheduled absences? We’d like to know how you feel about these issues.

    Please take our survey.

    This blog topic is hosted by OIG Human Capital.

  • on Apr 20th, 2009 in Strategy & Public Policy | 27 comments
    Earth Day is celebrated on April 22 this year, making now an appropriate time for a blog on the Postal Service’s green initiatives. The Postal Service’s environmental efforts fall into many areas including:
    • Packaging — The Postal Service is the nation’s only shipping company to achieve Cradle to Cradle certification for human and environmental health for its premium products’ packaging. The certification means that more than 15,000 metric tons of carbon equivalent emissions are avoided annually.
    • Fuel use — The Postal Service has increased alternative fuel use by 41 percent since 2006, in part by using hybrid and ethanol vehicles and T-3 Motion electric vehicles. In some places, the Postal Service uses foot and even bicycle routes. The Postal Service plans to continue implementing green strategies to further reduce petroleum use by 20 percent over the next 5 years.
    • Facility energy use — The Postal Service has conducted energy audits and reduced energy use at its facilities. By law, it is required to achieve a 30 percent reduction in facility energy use from 2003 levels by 2015.
    • Recycling — The Postal Service annually recycles more than 1 million tons of paper, plastic, and other materials. It also offers recycling opportunities to customers including recycling bins for P.O. Box customers at post offices and a mail-in recycling program for e-waste (small electronics and printer cartridges).
    • Purchasing — The Postal Service has a Green Purchasing Team to bring environmental practices into its supply purchasing and contracting processes.
    • Building standards — The Postal Service’s new “green” lobby design incorporates low impact environmental materials such as linoleum and bamboo.

    The Postal Service has won numerous awards for their green initiatives. In fact, just this month, the Postal Service accepted the California Climate Action Registry’s (CCAR) Climate Action Champion award in recognition for its leadership role in engaging and shaping public response to climate change and for substantially reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

    Yet there may be opportunities for the Postal Service to promote sustainability beyond these successes. In a commentary in the New York Times, Postal Regulatory Commissioner Ruth Goldway proposed the government provide money to convert the Postal Service’s fleet to electric vehicles. Not only would electric vehicles save gasoline, but they would also be more suited to the start-and-stop driving practiced by the Postal Service. In addition, the Postal Service could help jump start green vehicle technologies. To support this electronic fleet, post offices could be retrofitted with solar panels to generate electric power. Perhaps customers could even recharge their cars when they stopped to buy stamps.

    What do you think of converting the Postal Service’s fleet to electric vehicles? Would it be feasible to implement? Do you have other suggestions for green initiatives the Postal Service could pursue?

    This blog topic is hosted by the OIG's Risk Analysis Research Center (RARC).