Are Public Postal Services Obsolete?

2 06 2012

Leapfrogging is wonderful thing. When Venezuela’s government-run telephone company CANTV was privatized in 1991, rather than focus on upgrading the country’s neglected landline infrastructure, cell towers went up. In a very short time, the wireless user base grew exponentially and just as fast, the long lines at public pay phones disappeared.

Likewise, after decades without a functioning postal service, Venezuelans embraced social networks such as Facebook and LinkedIn like a spreading wildfire. So I tend to view the current debate in the U.S. over the proposed downsizing of the postal service with a sense of irony.

Although I was present during the privatization of Venezuela’s Ipostel, I am not a subject matter expert on the USPS. So I decided to draw on my past experience in operational readiness testing and usability analysis to write a test script for the USPS. For those unfamiliar with operational readiness testing, my job was to envision the worst case scenario and see what happens when run through the processes as documented and the front lines are trained.

So here is the test script I came up with. Don’t laugh. First I mailed a letter from myself to myself. Then I marked it “Return to Sender.” Dutifully, the letter arrived at my address both times, as directed. Thus, the USPS passed the readiness test, but failed the usability test. They did what the customer requested, even though it made no sense.

USPS workers generally come across as the most patriotic people you could ever meet. They come from a very long line of tradition in service to their country–just not in a pushy, obnoxious way. Moreover, waiting in line on April 15th in the post office is a shared cultural experience that defines an aspect of the American way of life: we tend to procrastinate about certain things, even when it makes no economic sense to do so.

I also praise the USPS for making international parcel shipping accessible to the citizenry. Without a steep discount offered to corporate customers, a one pound package to Spain via FedEx or UPS costs about $150 vs. the $45 charged by the USPS. So yes, go ahead and close a few post office locations for the sake of efficiency: I am more than willing to drive an extra five miles to save $105. A gift package in the mail still beats a “happy birthday” online post in Facebook.

As always, I welcome all comments!

Jason Berman

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