• on Jul 9th, 2012 in Strategy & Public Policy | 1 comment
    Detail from Iron Mountain, Michigan
    Post Office Mural

    Some Americans may be aware that Benjamin Franklin was the first postmaster general of the United States, appointed by the Continental Congress during the American Revolution. But, unfortunately, our history lessons have otherwise overlooked the Post Office’s contribution to the development of the nation. A new paper entitled Postal Service Contributions to National Infrastructure describes some of the ways the Postal Service was used to support national infrastructure growth. For example, did you know?

    • In the early years of the nation, highly subsidized newspaper rates led to the growth of a national media culture.
    • Funding to transport mail supported a stagecoach industry that carried passengers across the nation. This model was later repeated in the early airline industry when mail contracts supported passenger air transportation.
    • The start of rural free delivery at the turn of the 20th century forced farmers and communities to improve the condition of rural roads as a condition of service.

    In these ways, the Post Office Department helped conquer the great distances of the country, fill infrastructure gaps, buoy burgeoning technologies and industries, and bind the nation together. Postal policy decisions also generated important debates about the appropriate roles of the government and the private sector. In the 1840s, a new age of low postal rates and two-way communications was initiated in part because of private sector competition to the monopoly, and the United States was a latecomer to Parcel Post compared to other nations because of concern by the railroads and small rural stores over the incursion into their areas of business. By the 1960s, the Post Office was struggling with inefficiency and a large deficit. The President’s Commission on Postal Organization (known as the Kappel Commission) argued that the Post Office should run more like a business. Since then, the Postal Service’s secondary role in contributing to the expansion of the national infrastructure has lessened. Today, the decentralized and fragmented nature of the digital age may be creating new infrastructure gaps and under-served citizens. Is there again a place for the Postal Service in serving the nation’s infrastructure needs? Or is the Postal Service’s role of supporting new infrastructures behind it? What do you think?

  • on Jul 2nd, 2012 in Post Offices & Retail Network | 11 comments
    Could post offices be redesigned to improve their appearance and ease of use, perhaps modeled after the pleasant, comfortable designs of other retail outlets? The business world has seen a recent explosion of interest in design. Apple is a great example of a company that has reached an astounding market capitalization based largely on its focus and skill in design, both of its products and retail spaces. Starbucks has successfully positioned its retail locations as a “third place”— neither home nor work — where customers can savor a cup of coffee and enjoy a comfortable atmosphere for work or leisure. Retail bank lobbies use smart, neat designs that facilitate efficient customer transactions. Post offices, for the most part, do not seem to inspire the same feelings. Although some retail outlets are more attractive and functional, many post offices are nondescript and lack visible customer tools, such as a list of services and prices. Their absence can cause unnecessary delays and frustration. Post Office counters sometimes appear cluttered and disorganized, and generally unappealing. Post offices in classical older buildings are an exception, and they often serve as an attractive part of a town’s landscape. However, the interior design doesn’t always match the elegant external architecture. As Apple and Starbucks have demonstrated, design is not merely an aesthetic issue; it has consequences for the financial performance of a consumer-facing business. Should the U.S. Postal Service redesign post offices as part of its retail optimization plan and make them more appealing and user-friendly? Could such design improvements yield appreciable commercial or financial benefits? Or would design improvements be too cost prohibitive in the Postal Service’s current financial condition? Tell us — and show us — what you think. If you love the design of a particular Post Office, let us know where it is and post a picture if you can.
  • on Jun 18th, 2012 in Post Offices & Retail Network | 10 comments
    Americans are passionate about their post offices as they made clear when the Postal Service unveiled its original plan to close 3,700 post offices, most of them in rural areas. Last month, the Postal Service announced a new plan to keep post offices opened but reduce the operating hours at 13,000 locations. These low-activity post offices would be open only 2 to 6 hours a day, which the Postal Service says would save it $500 million a year. The Postal Service also plans to upgrade about 4,500 current part-time Post Offices to 8 hours of daily window service. Post offices are viewed by many as a gathering place for citizens and central to a community’s social and cultural identity. Some argue the Post Office is not just a profit-based retail establishment; it is part of the Postal Service’s larger public service mission. Perhaps the Postal Service should consider expanding the services it offers at post offices before it closes them. But others say the Postal Service needs to reduce its operating costs by right-sizing its retail network to match the new reality of a changing communications market. Nearly 80 percent of the 32,000 Post Offices operate at a loss. About 12,000 post offices average daily revenues of less than $68 per day, and one third of those Post Offices have average daily revenues of less than $25 per day. Closing low-activity post offices would help the cash-strapped Postal Service save money. What do you think about the Postal Service’s Post Office Structure Plan, or POStPlan? Does it make sense to reduce the hours at low-activity post offices or should the Postal Service close them altogether? Or is there a better retail plan that considers a more targeted approach, such as offering new services in Post Offices and/or extending the hours at some post offices while closing others?

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