Some Thoughts on Modernizing the Postal Service for a New Century

At NDN/NPI, we think a lot about the power of networks, and the role they play in creating economic prosperity and personal freedom.  In the US today our economy is built on top of a series of dynamic and powerful networks which allow commerce, people, ideas and so much else to flow over and through them.  Think about it - our transportation/ports of entry network, our electricity and energy network, our telcom network, our financial network (are there more?).  The vibrancy, capacity and modernity of these networks are essential to the health of our country, and countries all around the world today. 

In recent years, another network, the first real national network the United States ever built, the Postal Service, has struggled.  There is no real confusion why.  Modern telecommunications has changed the way we connect with one another, making us much less dependent on traditional mail to move information around.  Some bad decisions and a lack of a real vision for how the Postal Service could modernize itself around this new information and economic landscape didn't help.  Given what still moves over this network, it is critical that our policy makers get about the business of not bailing the Postal Service out but modernizing it. There is a very real risk that the Postal Service could fail if it is not modernized for a different day and different US economy.

It is in that vein that I am excited to be hosting a discussion here at our office on Monday about building a "21st Century Postal Service."  It features two men who have participated in a very thoughtful, bi-partisan process of developing a new vision for the vaunted USPS.  Their plan is to accept that the national postal network has already become a shared public-private one, with enormous amounts of packages already being delivered by the private sector, and "worksharing" which has allowed private sector actors to do things the USPS already does less expensively..  Their proposal would take another few pieces of this hybrid network - more back end processing, more transporting of letters and packages and a piece of the public postal services interface - and commercializes them.  What would remain of the current USPS is the "last mile" feature, the letter carrier, the person we trust to wander through our neighborhoods every day, keeping an eye on things, while also working hard to get our letters and our packages to us despite rain, sleet, snow, angry dogs and so much else. The new USPS would set a price for private sector actors for use of this last mile system, and let the market do its thing (the current USPS already moves over 300 million packages for private carriers each year in this way).

To me, this seems like an eminently reasonable plan.  It preserves the most important part of the traditional Postal Service, the letter carrier.  It tweaks the already hybrid public-private system we have today.  It will bring more access to postal and package services, something that any of us who has stood in long lines at current USPS will attest is long past due.  And it will clearly create opportunities for further innovation in both the postal network, and for the businesses who operate on top of it. 

For those who want to defend the current USPS, I just want to point out that all of the major networks that undergird our national economy are already some kind of public private hybrid, and the current postal network - through the growth of private package delivery and worksharing - has been a public-private hybrid for decades.  What we have today is already much more a postal "network" than postal "service."  In an age of enormous technological and global economic change, these networks, which hold so much value for our economy, must allow private sector financianing mechanisms to augment public investments or the public only/first approach will simply become swept aside by the pace of this change (something one could argue has already occured for the current USPS).  The private sector option becomes another tool to solve a problem, and is one that for the most part has proved more nimble and responsive to the moment than the traditional bureaucracy-driven, top-down government first approach.   We shouldn't fear the private option.  it.  In fact, in this age of great change, we almost need to guarantee private financing options for public services like the USPS in order to preserve them.

So, will this plan work? I'm not sure, but that's why we are holding this event.  We want to learn more, toss these ideas into the debate, give these savvy, experienced veterans of the Postal Wars a chance to make their case.  It sure seems like a smart and pragmatic upgrade to our the national treasure that is our postal network.  Come join our conversation and let us know what you think.