Has the postal service asked for your thoughts on how it should fix itself?
Huh. Me neither.
The US Postal Service touches more Americans every day than any other government agency, yet it is embarking on a dramatic makeover with little public input and management that seems sure it knows best. Under a new 10-year plan, the USPS will slow the delivery of some first-class mail, raise prices and reduce hours at some post offices. The plan is supposed to address dramatic changes in communication habits and end the agency’s perennial financial losses.
Opposition to some of the reforms was immediate, of course. The postal workers’ union says it will fight any effort to slow mail delivery. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and several other members of Congress criticized the changes, vowing to stop some of them. Rep. Gerry Connolly (D., Va.) called the plan “draconian” and said it would “guarantee the death spiral of the United States Postal Service.”
I’ve read the plan, and it actually seems sensible. What’s missing, however, is any kind of public debate over how the postal service should adapt and what tradeoffs Americans should make to fix a vital but failing organization. Part of the problem is the imperious Postmaster General, Louis DeJoy, the controversial Trump megadonor appointed in 2020 who is trying to run the agency like the privately run company he once owned. But the postal service also suffers from its in-between status as a quasi-corporation that is supposed to finance itself but isn’t allowed to make many changes that would improve its efficiency.
The problem of accountability
When ailing corporations try to fix themselves, the CEO has enormous leeway and he or she has one main constituency: shareholders. They send the boss packing if the results stink, as they have in recent years at General Electric, Ford, WeWork and other companies.
At government agencies, taxpayers are the main constituency. That doesn’t mean the government serves their interest without interference from lobbyists, interest groups and corrupt or inept public officials. But the accountability lines are clear, at least.
Who does the postal service answer to? The technical answer is the Postal Service Board of Governors, and this illustrates the problem. There are supposed to be nine governors appointed to seven-year terms—four Democrats, four Republicans and an Independent, for bipartisanship. But the board hasn’t been fully staffed for years. The Senate refused to confirm at least seven nominees President Obama put forward. President Trump took advantage of the hollowness by appointing mostly Republicans and leaving other seats unfilled. So the “bipartisan” postal service has had a Republican bent during the last several years. President Biden has nominated two Democrats and an Independent to fill the remaining vacancies, assuming they get confirmed. Still, no responsible corporation would leave holes on the board of directors empty indefinitely.
DeJoy has made some aggressive moves, as a CEO would. Last summer, he ordered the removal of hundreds of mail-sorting machines, supposedly as part of a long-term cost-cutting plan. But that came three months before the 2020 elections, amid a pandemic that led to a surge in mail voting. Trump was doing everything he could to suppress mail voting, fearing it would aid Biden and other Democrats. Removing those machines might have been a legitimate cost saver, but it looked so fishy and caused such an uproar that DeJoy partly reversed the decision.
Mail delivery has suffered anyway, as millions of Americans have noticed and the postal service admits. What recourse do postal service customers have? None that are apparent. We can complain to our members of Congress, who can hold hearings lashing DeJoy, which they do. It doesn’t change anything. The postal service is essentially answerable to nobody.
More public input
Fixing the Postal Service should begin with depoliticizing it. DeJoy, who built a failing family trucking company into a multimillion-dollar logistics firm, may have the skill and talent to run the Postal Service. As a Trump acolyte, however, he doesn’t have the credibility. It’s impossible to know if he’s acting in the interest of postal customers or pushing a political, or personal, agenda. Biden can’t fire him, but the Board of Governors can, once it’s fully staffed. That could happen.
There should also be a lot more public discussion of what postal customers need and what they don’t. I’m not naïve about this. If you ran a contest to rename the postal service, the winning entry might be Posty McPostface. But the postal service could run town halls to gather information and hear from customers, especially in rural areas where people rely more heavily on the service. It could do market research and run surveys. When changes are coming, it could air PSAs explaining what’s new and encouraging consumers to withhold judgment instead of freaking out. And Congressional hearings would be more useful if they weren’t partisan slugfests and focused more on how the service should adapt to the digital economy.
In its 10-year plan, the postal service actually makes coherent arguments for some of the most controversial changes it wants to make. Delivery times for some first-class mail would increase to as much as five days because the agency would switch some delivery from air transport to ground, to save money. That seems prudent. People who need first-class mail delivered faster could pay more. If that’s inequitable for some, the agency could subsidize it from money raised elsewhere, or factor it into increased postage rates.
The agency wants to close some low-traffic outposts and limit hours at others, cost-saving moves normal retailers make all the time. It plans to preserve six-day delivery, avoiding the blowback from cutting back to three or four days, as some have called for. Other reform advocates think Congress should allow the agency to offer banking services and expand the range of products it sells at more than 30,000 post offices, to boost the bottom line. It’s not asking for that, either.
DeJoy’s signature is on the 10-year plan, along with that of Ron Bloom, chair of the Board of Governors. Bloom is a Democrat who served in the Obama administration, so his endorsement indicates there is, in fact, bipartisan support for the reforms. That’s already being drowned out, however, by complaints about slower mail and suspicion that DeJoy is up to something nefarious. Hardly anybody is hearing the good ideas, or debating better ones.
Editor's note: This story originally said President Trump appointed Louis DeJoy as postmaster general. It has been corrected to reflect that the USPS Board of Governors, not the president, appoints the postmaster general.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including "Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. You can also send confidential tips, and click here to get Rick’s stories by email.