What we have here is a failure to communicate: Learning from Jekyll Island

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BY MARK JAMISON

On September 12, we reported this story on Jekyll Island, Georgia, where the Postal Service apparently attempted to end delivery service for the island’s residents and businesses in exchange for maintaining a post office.  The island is owned by the state and administered by the Jekyll Island Authority.  The attorney for JIA in charge of negotiations with the Postal Service thought the post office might be closed and trading away home delivery was the best way to keep it open.  Many people in the community disagreed and argued that JIA had no right to make this tradeoff.

In an undated letter delivered to Jekyll Island residents on September 18, the Postal Service reversed course and announced that both delivery service and the location and hours of the present post office would remain the same, at least for now.

The letter, signed by USPS District Manager Charles J. Miller, begins by saying: “There has been some misinformation recently circulating in your community regarding the future of mail delivery service on Jekyll Island.”

The misinformation Mr. Miller refers to began when the JIA circulated a letter indicating that the JIA had decided, after discussions with the Postal Service, to trade the residents’ current city delivery for guarantees that the island would continue to have a post office, which will soon relocate to space the JIA owns in the island’s historic district.  Those discussions were laid out in a series of e-mails between Chris O’Donnell, the JIA attorney, and Damian Rawski, postmaster for Brunswick, Georgia, the office that administers mail service on Jekyll Island.

The announcement of the proposed trade-off stirred local residents to action and generated news coverage by the Jacksonville-based Florida-Times Union as well as Save the Post Office.  Officials at the USPS North Florida District in Jacksonville did not respond for requests for clarification from STPO, and they told residents that they had no knowledge of the negotiations between Mr. O’Donnell and Postmaster Rawski, even though a chain of e-mails indicates that Frank Stephens, Manager of Operations Programs Support, was cc’ed throughout.  In the letter from Mr. Miller, Mr. Stephens is also listed as the postal contact for any questions the residents may have.

Still left unresolved is the ultimate fate of the post office on Jekyll Island.  The office is currently housed in a temporary trailer with a lease running through May of 2014.  The JIA has indicated that the temporary trailers, which also house other Jekyll Island businesses, will be removed after a new shopping center is completed.  In a meeting of the JIA on Monday, September 16, C. Jones Hooks, the executive director of JIA, stated that the authority would leave the matter of delivery up to the Postal Service, according to Bonnie Newell, a resident who attended the meeting.  No mention was made of the JIA’s previous offer to house the post office in the historic district.

It appears for the moment that the issues on Jekyll Island have been resolved by maintaining the status quo.  That’s good news for the folks on the island, but what happened on Jekyll Island illustrate several problems with how the Postal Service operates, and it’s not good news for those concerned about the future of postal services in this country.

 

Controlling the message: Fear works wonders

The Jekyll Island Authority justified its decision to trade home delivery for keeping a post office based on impressions it has received from stories in the media about the Postal Service.  The folks at the JIA seemed to have convinced themselves that it is only a matter of time until delivery services are curtailed across the country, so it didn’t seem so bad to give them up now.  They were also certain that their post office could be closed, an assumption probably based on the fact that the media is constantly saying that thousands of post offices are going to be closed.

Both of these assumptions are not based on fact.  Under current law, customers are required to give their permission before the Postal Service can change their mode of delivery (from door or curb to curb or cluster box), and even if Congress were to give the Postal Service authority to make the changes on its own, the Postal Service would probably not make large-scale changes anytime soon.  The Postal Service knows customers won’t like the changes, and it told the USPS OIG as much in response to a study on how much money could be saved by going to less expensive modes of delivery.

As for mass closures of post offices, the Postal Service backed off that plan last year and instead decided to reduce hours at 13,000 post offices instead.  There are no plans right now to close thousands of post offices, and only a handful of post offices have closed over the past year and a half.

Still, it’s not hard to see why the Jekyll Island Authority would be fearful that they could lose their post office and/or mail delivery.  The public relations machinery of the Postal Service has worked hard to frame postal issues in a way that forwards the agenda of Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe and the Postal Board of Governors.

Even though there’s still a vibrant discussion going on about how we ought to address the problems facing the Postal Service, the PMG and the BOG — with help from major media — have succeeded in planting the seeds of a particularly negative and hopeless narrative.  Fear works wonders.

Most major media outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post have done a poor job in explaining the actual issues. Other outlets have reported on comments from legislators like Darryl Issa and Tom Carper as if their opinions encompassed the whole debate.

As a result, many people and communities see the loss of postal services as inevitable.  They do not know that the huge deficits they read about in the news are due primarily to the unnecessary prefunding of retiree health care, and they don’t understand how the mail industry helps craft postal policies to benefit their bottom lines — low postage rates are more important than convenient home delivery and post offices.

Many people also do not know that they can appeal to the Postal Regulatory Commission when threatened with the loss of a post office.  Most do not understand that the PRC also has a means to address problems with service-related issues through their rate and service inquiry mechanism.  Even when the PRC is unable to remedy particular circumstances, an inquiry can bring problems to their attention.

Communities and individuals are ceding too much ground to the Postal Service.  We need a broad national discussion about postal services are provides, what services should be provided, and how the postal network is to be funded.  We are not having that sort of discussion, and the Postal Service has made every effort to ensure we don’t.

 

The emperor has no clothes

The Postal Service is a large bureaucracy and extremely autocratic.  Policy is made at the top and filters down through the Area, District, POOM, and field levels.  Messages and information almost always flow from the top down.  The movement of information through the organization is actually quite constrained, particularly information generated at lower levels directed back towards the top of the organization.

The folks at postal headquarters in L’Enfant Plaza want their policies enacted, often specifying in minute detail how individuals at the field level should proceed.  For example, window clerks are given scripts to follow, and even the slightest deviations can lead to disciplinary action.  Employees being monitored by the Mystery Shop program, for example, have been found deficient for changing the order of words in a scripted sales pitch.

HQ wants the information it wants.  Attempts to deviate, highlight problems, or give additional information are discounted.  This has the effect of making the folks at L’Enfant Plaza blind to much of what goes on at field level.

Postal watchdog David Popkin, who has participated in numerous dockets before the PRC, once told me a story about an HQ witness testifying in a rate case who mentioned that letter carriers were responsible for identifying shortpaid mail.  The witness testified that carriers were armed with scales and templates for size and thickness and checked all mail accordingly.  This of course was simply not true and would have been tremendously impractical, but the witness from HQ was certain that the policy was being followed.

In the Postal Service, the emperor does not want to be told he has no clothes.  HQ insists on a sort of institutionalized confirmation bias where only information that confirms the HQ view and opinion is accepted as being legitimate.  Despite the fact that many in HQ came up through the ranks, there is a woeful lack of understanding of conditions in the field.

 

Micromanaging with plausible deniability

There is another aspect to this problem. The Postal Service is a competitive environment, and Areas, Districts, and POOM groups all compete to have the best scores on the current measurement of the month.  If we’re focusing on end-to-end scores for Priority Mail this month, then managers will do anything and everything to make the scores look good.

Several years ago the OIG did an audit report  that highlighted the use of a shadow network to deliver missent Priority packages in the Dallas area.  A tremendous amount of effort was made to fix mistakes — not before they happened, but after the fact, simply as a means of maintaining high scores.

This happens regularly.  It leads to a waste of resources, and it causes managers and workers to focus their attention so narrowly that other service factors are allowed to slip.  It also leads to the promulgation of all sorts of procedures, programs, and logs that result in intense micromanagement. Local managers and supervisors have their hands tied and are unable to use their imagination or creativity or to exercise initiative to solve problems.

There is one further consequence of this defective culture of communication.  Managers at the district level respond to broad corporate goals that may not be sanctioned by policy or regulation.  Because Mr. Donahoe and headquarters have been focused on things like closing post offices, eliminating door delivery, and culling collection boxes, managers in the field sometimes take it upon themselves to further those goals, often through means that were not sanctioned by headquarters and are not entirely legal.

In Freistatt, Missouri, for example, District Manager Rick Belcher determined that the residents of the town could only be served by cluster boxes, even though rural curb delivery was prevalent in the area.  In Jekyll Island, Georgia, a local postmaster negotiated with a local government authority to withdraw city carrier delivery service, even though there is no precedent or regulation that sanctions such an action. There certainly is no policy that makes keeping a local post office contingent upon surrendering delivery.

The news is full of stories about customers being bullied into accepting changes in modes of delivery.  In some cases local mangers interpret rules and regulations regarding the delivery in very narrow and often improper ways. The sum total of this is that in hundreds of localities residents are not receiving the levels of service they are entitled to because local managers, seeking to curry favor with superiors, do anything and everything they can to reduce costs even when it harms service.

Invariably some of these news stories end up getting broader or even national attention. When that happens, the corporate communications people at L’Enfant Plaza simply deny there is any sort of policy in place.  It’s a sort of “wink, wink, nod, nod” situation that encourages local managers to push policies that are beyond current statute and regulation, while giving HQ plausible deniability.

 

Communicating with the PRC

Communication problems at the Postal Service also have an impact on the functioning of the Postal Regulatory Commission.  For example, in order to do its work, the PRC must constantly ask for information from the Postal Service, and the Postal Service will sometimes respond by saying that the information doesn’t exist or hasn’t been collected.  It may be true that the information doesn’t exist at HQ level, but it often does exist at lower levels of the organization.

The same thing happens with service issues or policies enacted at local or district levels.  Several years ago the Postal Service denied that it had a national policy to cut Saturday window hours.  For many rural communities this represented a significant change in service, especially when combined with other actions the Postal Service was taking.  The fact was that in a number of districts, Mid-Carolinas for one, rural post office retail services were being eliminated on Saturdays.

This later had tremendous impact when POStPlan was initiated.  The Postal Service was adamant about saying that those offices that were seeing reductions in hours would remain open on Saturdays, if they already had Saturday hours. The fact that hundreds of offices had already had Saturday hours removed was not mentioned.

In many respects the PRC can only do its job as well as the Postal Service lets it.  The PRC has subpoena power, but it has never used it.  In my correspondence with a number of people in the PRC, it’s become clear that virtually all of their information comes from L’Enfant Plaza.  They don’t have access to information at other levels of the organization, which often leads to a less-than-complete picture.

The dysfunctional culture of the Postal Service is a tremendous problem.  It hurts individual citizens and communities through the actions of local managers who deny service or modify service in ways not sanctioned statute or regulation.  It prevents the PRC from getting as clear a picture as it should have. Worst of all, it prevents the Postal Service from being the sort of responsive and innovative organization PMG Donahoe claims he wants it to be.

 

Passing up revenue opportunities

Recent events at Jekyll Island also speak directly to the question of whether the Postal Service can become the sort of innovative and adaptive organization PMG Donahoe envisions.  Mr. Donahoe is fluent in the jargon of marketing, and postal employees are constantly bombarded with a sales and marketing mentality that pretends to be as sophisticated as it is aggressive.  The rebranding of Priority and Express mail, the roll out of the Village Post Office concept, and many of the programs and initiatives associated with the intelligent mail barcode, Postal One, and other business mail initiatives have all been accompanied by aggressive marketing campaigns.

The OIG recently solicited comments in connection with an audit of one of the Postal Service’s internal marketing programs, Business Connect.  This is a program designed to get postmasters to connect with local businesses in order to heighten awareness for postal products and services.  The program has received a great deal of attention from senior management, but anyone familiar with it knows that it is a good idea that has been executed very poorly.

Over the years the Postal Service has rolled out any number of programs like this, all with the goal of getting employees to recognize and act on sales opportunities.  If Mr. Donahoe really wants to build a nimble, proactive organization that aggressively hunts and captures new revenues, one would expect the Postal Service to focus on places with potential, places like Jekyll Island.  But judging by what has happened in this case, it seems that the Postal Service doesn’t really have much interest in expanding its business opportunities.

The businesses on Jekyll Island are focused almost exclusively on tourism, and the island has several hundred accommodations for tourists.  The place is a tourist magnet.

The Postal Service has a tremendous opportunity to put its marketing machinery to work to increase revenues at the Jekyll Island post office.  Bonnie Newell, who sells pottery at an arts and crafts store, told me that tourists often ask businesses and vendors if they have a way to ship goods home.   She has lost many sales because she wasn’t aware of or didn’t understand the availability of various USPS shipping options; worse, no one made an effort to tell her.

One wonders if the folks at the Postal Service have ever put in any effort to increase revenues at the Jekyll Island post office.  Rather than cutting the hours, which can only decrease revenues, why not spend some talking to the island’s business community about how they might take better advantage of the post office’s offerings?

Since the airlines started adding bag-and-luggage surcharges, it has become increasingly common for travelers to ship things via the mails as an adjunct to travel.  While I was still postmaster in Webster, North Carolina, I had several customers ship skis or golf clubs ahead when they were going on vacation. Tourism is a major industry in my area, and there are many businesses that sell art and mountain crafts. Working with those local businesses to ensure they knew about shipping seemed like a no brainer, and it was successful.

Yet no one seemed to consider that alternative at Jekyll Island.  The business is there, the opportunity is there, and the Postal Service claims that this is just the kind of revenue it wants.  But there is absolutely no evidence that anyone from the Postal Service attempted to work with any of the local art guilds or tourist oriented businesses to offer packing and shipping services.

 

Talking a good game

Pat Donahoe and the Postal Service talk a good game about finding an appropriate business model, but their actions say otherwise.  The Postal Service spends millions on various marketing campaigns and initiatives to engage employees in the sales process, but much of this effort is wasted, undermined by poor communication and poor administration.

It may also be the case that the constant message of cutting facilities, services, and personnel has been so successful that many in the organization can no longer recognize positive opportunities even when they’re right before their eyes.  Many employees I speak with, from postmasters to clerks to carriers, say that when they do provide leads to management, the follow-up is either missing or so ham-handed that it’s embarrassing.

The approach the Postal Service has taken on Jekyll Island is unfortunately an example of the approach that management has taken throughout the organization.  Management seems unable to communicate a vision for the postal network or postal services in this country that does not involve the dismantling of postal infrastructure.

The ability of the Postal Service to communicate is so hampered and dysfunctional that even if Mr. Donahoe and the BOG are correct in their diagnosis and prescriptions for the future of postal services in this country, it is unlikely that the present management — starting with HQ and following down to the field — could effectively execute any strategy other than abandoning their mission to bind the nation together.  The PMG and the BOG may know what they want, but they seem unable to design or execute effective programs.

There are many examples of this problem.  This OIG audit shows how the Postal Service lacked a plan to manage the data generated by the Intelligent Mail Barcode, a multi-billion dollar program.  In other cases, a good idea like Every Door Direct Mail or the Business Connect initiative is hampered by a dysfunctional institutional culture that stifles communication and leaves field level personnel frustrated and confused.

More often than not monitoring and incentives are designed to reward rote behavior – complete the form, sign the checklist, enter the contact – lather, rinse, repeat. The effects are predictably uninspiring, acting to constrain rather than promote innovation.

If the Postal Service is to succeed, it’s going to have to address a number of problems, internal and external.  It would do well to start by looking at the institution’s history of dysfunctional communication.


(Photo credits: Cool Hand Luke)

[Mr. Jamison is a retired postmaster and a regular contributor to Save the Post Office; his articles are archived here.  He can be reached at  Mij455@gmail.com.]
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