We’re listening: The Postal Service holds 8,500 POStPlan meetings, but why?

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Yesterday the Postal Service gave the Postal Regulatory Commission a copy of the Household Diary Study, the annual report on mail use and attitudes.  The study says this about how people are using their post office:

“In spite of a declining frequency of visits over the past five years, the use of post offices for mailing services continues to dominate the mail service industry.  Sixty percent of all U.S. households patronize a post office at least once a month, while just 11 percent visit a private mailing company.  Over 28 percent of all households in the U.S. visit the post office three or more times a month.  Even with the continued availability of mailrelated products and services through alternative modes (such as Internet orders), in-person visits to postal facilities remain strong.”

One might think that with so many people patronizing their post office, the Postal Service would be more interested in preserving its legacy of brick-and-mortar post offices.  Instead, we have POStPlan, the initiative to eliminate postmasters and reduce hours at 13,000 small post offices.

The implementation of POStPlan is past halfway.  The Postal Service provides bi-monthly lists of where POStPlan has been implemented; the source page is here, the merged list is here, and an article about the implementation, here.  The Postal Service website also has a page where all the POStPlan meetings are listed on a week-by-week basis, which you can find here.  We’ve merged all the lists into one big list on Google docs, here, along with a map.

The list of meetings indicates that as of today, the Postal Service has held over 8,400 meetings to talk over POStPlan options with each community; another hundred or so are scheduled for the coming weeks.

Of the total of around 8500 meetings, about 4,500 took place in a town hall, church, or similar location; the other 4,000 took place in the post office itself.  Most of the POStPlan offices are small, so in many cases the folks at the meeting had to stand in a crowded little lobby area.

The meetings have been scheduled in the afternoon and evening; very few were in the morning.  About 3,400 began sometime between noon and 4 p.m.; 3,000, between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m.; and 2,000, between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m.  That means that in three out of four towns, people who work during the day were unable to attend.

There have been hundreds, perhaps thousands, of news reports about these meetings.  They tell the same story.  The Postal Service representative, usually the postmaster in the APO (administrative post office) or someone from the district headquarters, explains how falling mail volumes and revenues have made it necessary to look for cost-cutting moves.

The small group gathered in the post office lobby or a town hall is told that they have four options.  Three involve closing the post office — have the mail delivered to your house, use another post office, or find a local business that wants to sell stamps and perhaps other postal products.  The fourth is to keep the post office open at reduced hours.  Naturally, in virtually every case, the community has chosen reduced hours.  The news reports often cheer this result, with headlines like “post office saved” and “post office not closing.”

That outcome was easy to predict, but the Postal Service nonetheless went through the process of sending out questionnaires and holding meetings in thousands and thousands of small towns across the country.  The goal was obviously not to give people an opportunity to decide something.  Reducing the hours was the only viable alternative.

One has to wonder, then, why the Postal Service has invested so much time and expense in holding all these meetings.  They weren’t required by any laws or regulations.  Why bother when the outcome was a foregone conclusion?

Perhaps the Postal Service just wanted to give the impression that it cares about average customers.  The page on the USPS.com website with the POStPlan meeting schedule is entitled “We’re Listening.”

If that was the goal, it probably hasn’t worked out very well. Most people at these meetings could tell right away that the outcome was predetermined.  Most of the “listening” is done not by the Postal Service but by the people in the town.  Most of the meeting time is spent having a Postal Service representative explain what’s going on, not hearing what people think.

The meetings do give the Postal Service an opportunity to go around the country explaining what dire straits it’s in financially.  They are thus an opportunity for grassroots lobbying for the Postal Service’s cost-cutting agenda.  That raises another question: was this lobbying effort worth the cost?

The Postal Service has never released information about how much the meetings and surveys are costing.  When Mr. Jeffrey Day, the Postal Service’s witness on POStPlan, testified to the PRC for its advisory opinion, he told the Commission that meetings and surveys were both “very expensive” (transcript, p. 198).

The expense was not factored in the cost-savings analysis provided for POStPlan, but apparently they are so expensive that the Postal Service will not be repeating them.  On the other hand, there will be an annual review of the revenues and workhours at each post office.  If they’ve gone down below the threshold for each level of post office, the hours may be reduced further, with no additional consultation with the community.

Implementation of POStPlan is well past the halfway point.  With 8,500 meetings out of the way, there are about 4,500 to go.  Most of them will take place next summer, when the last of the POStPlan postmasters retire, find new positions, or end up being separated from the service under RIF.

Given that many of these postmasters will be leaving their jobs involuntarily, those meetings will probably be a bit uncomfortable.  Many people will probably give the Postal Service representatives an earful about firing their postmaster, who’s likely to be a loyal postal worker who stuck it out for the last two years knowing the end was near.  At least the people at those meetings can be comforted by the knowledge that the Postal Service is listening.

(Photo credit: POStPlan meetings in Tabor, SD, and Fort Valley, VA.)

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