As federal agencies increasingly battle private sector companies for work not necessarily deemed inherently governmental, out comes a story about the U.S. Postal Service’s initiative to stay “competitive.”
According to an article appearing in a recent edition of USA Today.com, the U.S. Postal Service is in the midst of re-branding itself to appeal to a younger generation. In an interview with the Associated Press, Postmaster General John Potter was quoted as saying that the Postal Service was innovating and trying to change its business practices to be more competitive. “We’re embracing the Internet and saying, ‘Hey, if that’s the way 30-year-olds want to do business, then God bless ’em, we’re going to do business where they want to do it and how they want to do it,'” he said.
The question that needs to be answered from a taxpayer perspective is “competitive against whom? Or what?” Or perhaps the obvious – why should any federal agency compete in selling products and services with the private sector? After all, if the private sector can do the work, how does it fit the criteria of being inherently governmental?
After years of losing billions in operating costs, is the American public supposed to simply continue funding the fiscal nightmare just because it’s the Postal Service? In fact, should any federal agency be involved in a fight for viability (under the assumption that if the market proves it isn’t viable – should the taxpayers sponsor it anyway?)?
Or are we better served by the agency actually operating in the black and serving whatever markets are necessary while instead allowing private industry to be innovative in determining what the public wants and needs?
It is a tough question. On one hand, the U.S. Postal Service is one of the cornerstones of America – in its own words – its founding purpose is to ensure the “right of every American to send and receive mail.”
However, it’s one thing to compete for services that are inherently governmental; it’s another to reinvent an organization to stay competitive. In a competitive free-enterprise environment, consumer demand will determine viability. The measurement is simple – the public spends great money buying the services they want. One would expect a private sector company, if it was losing money or falling behind its competitors, to be innovative in thinking up new ways to win its customers back. But should a federal agency be doing that?
There is a struggle going on with the goals of the Postal Service – a dichotomy of purpose. One argument states the Postal Service should be run like a business – it should be innovative enough to increase revenues and profit margins, which could mean expanding its products and services while decreasing its expenses. That seems to be the chosen path, based on various government reports and statements from Postal Service officials.
Still others contend that the Postal Service should be content with its initial mission of ensuring that every American has the right to send and receive mail.
These two do not necessarily go together.
It seems that this very complex problem has a very simple first step – define or even redefine what the objective of the Postal Service should be. Not based on where it is now, or where some would like it to go. What is the primary goal of the Postal Service? What is the absolute need? Then determine what services it can provide that the private sector cannot. Is the private sector able to perform some of the work, or some parts of the work? Let them. Put them under federal jurisdiction (just as airport screening is subject to Transportation Security Administration guidelines and oversight whether the employees are public or private).
If the goal of the Postal Service really is to ensure that every American can send and receive mail – then how it does and how it involves public-private partnerships is where the crying need for innovation really is.
Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47