A Post Office Insider On What We’re Getting Wrong

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S1: John Nolan spent a good chunk of his career working for the U.S. Postal Service, a total of twenty four years, nineteen years, and my first stint ending up as postmaster in New York City when I went to work for Merrill Lynch for 11 years and then came back for five years as deputy postmaster general.

S2: All of the controversy surrounding the post office, it’s been hard for him to watch.

S1: It’s very frustrating the the lack of understanding of the Postal Service and how it works and what’s important to it by people who have control over it to a certain extent is very frustrating. Take a lot of pride in the time I spent with the Postal Service. And I know postal people are very proud of the organization. So it’s it’s frustrating.

S2: Even while he was at the top of the organization 20 years ago, a lot of people didn’t understand how the Postal Service is run, you know?

S3: Well, it’s not rocket science. It’s not a simple process and a simple organization. It’s very, very big, a lot of moving parts. And so you see over and over again the things that are just irrelevant, being raised as big issues and the important issues really not understood.

S2: John says those photos of blue mailboxes and sorting machines being removed, they’re causing more of a stir than is really necessary.

S4: Part of it is that people shouldn’t jump off on things, you know, saying right now that they demand that the machines should be put back online or demand that the boxes be put back is not going to help service the election period. End of discussion. It is not.

S5: Today on the show, what we’re getting wrong about the post office and how a former deputy postmaster general thinks you should be planning to vote later this year. I’m Ray Suarez, filling in for Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us.

S2: We’ve heard a lot about one of the big structural problems facing the postal service. Americans just aren’t sending as many letters, rent checks and birthday cards through the mail as they used to. This is what the USPS calls first class mail, and it has declined dramatically. 20 years ago, the Postal Service was anticipating this. John Nolan was part of the team planning for it, but it still happened way faster than anyone expected.

S3: Well, back when I rejoined the Postal Service in 2000, we were right in the middle of a strategic planning effort. It was obviously anticipated that first class mail was going to be shrinking and first class mail is the franchise. That’s really where the Postal Service covers most of its institutional costs. What happened was we set out a 10 year forecast and the losses that we saw in first class mail happened in the first, I think, four years. So our worst case was not a worst case. And whether it’s bank statements or payment of bills or receiving invoices, things started happening very, very quickly. Incentives were given to people that had bank accounts not to get paper bills or payments, and things started to really go into full speed terms of losses of mail volume.

S2: So if you’re listening to our conversation and you did Evite, instead of sending your grandmother a birthday card, and if you paid your credit card bill online and if you got your bank statement in an email. You, in effect, were part of what’s giving the Postal Service problems today in 2020.

S3: Yeah, see, the fundamental problem and I always use this as an example for those of you that have door delivery when the letter carrier walks up to the front door of your house, if he or she is to be delivering 10 letters and now it’s five, that walk doesn’t get any shorter. The cost of that carrier walking to the front door has gotten higher for every piece of mail that’s delivered. And every year there’s tens of thousands of actually closer to a million new delivery points. Some mail volume is shrinking the walk to the front doors and getting shorter. And you can see the problem.

S2: So the revolution in parcel service and I think revolution is a good word. So many people are buying so many things online. When you ride through certain neighborhoods, you see piles of boxes on the front doorstep. The revenue from that, even when the post office is picking up some of the volume from Amazon, from retailers, that’s not enough to make up for the loss of bills and credit card statements and birthday cards and love letters now.

S3: And even though the package rates, even the negotiated rates with big customers like Amazon, for example, more than cover its direct cost, they they do contribute to paying for the institutional costs. So the loss of any of that business would be damaging. And so they they love packages. They love advertising, mail, advertising mail covers more than its direct costs, but it doesn’t make up for it.

S2: Let’s talk about 2020 at the same time as the president of the United States was speculating about the unreliability, the inability of the Postal Service to handle, for instance, election mail, election related mail ballots. The public was seeing pictures of blue mailboxes loaded on to trucks, the public was seeing pictures of sorting equipment being taken offline, and the public was being told the post office can’t handle this. And this just seems like a perfect storm of either bad timing, bad messaging, bad optics. I’m not sure what it was, but it didn’t do. The post office very many favors that, fair to say.

S3: Yeah, bad pretty much covers it. There’s no doubt that statements by the president certainly damage to the image of the Postal Service. A lot of people’s minds, I mean, people that really have looked at it realized that what was being said there wasn’t true. But but it it hurt. And then you have a postmaster general who comes in who is a supporter of the president. And the inference was immediately by people of this guy has come in to trash the organization. And lo and behold, then actions are taken that seem to support that notion, as you said, with the mailboxes and the sorting equipment. And so the optics were terrible and the perception was that the Postal Service was having service problems and those were caused by the actions taken by the postmaster general.

S2: There have been service issues in certain areas, but Nolan says they have more to do with the coronavirus than anything else. Mail carriers were getting sick and going into quarantine, for example, and that slowed down mail delivery. But some of the Postal Service changes that have alarmed the public were planned before Lewis Dejoy even took office as postmaster general in May.

S3: So the problem that occurred was, number one, you’ve got this perception of new postmaster general coming in. President wants to kill the postal service. Oh, there you go. And at the same time, you’re running up to an election and at the same time, you’re in the middle of a pandemic and your service is suffering as a result of some specific things. And on top of that, there’s very little or no communication to the mailing industry, to the Congress, to the general public about what’s about to happen and why the plans for the removal of the boxes and the equipment were set before the postmaster general came in. Those boxes are. Not needed because they count the volumes coming out of those boxes and it just wasn’t any volumes there. You can mail a letter at your house to the carrier or pick it up. And in terms of the sorting equipment, because of the drop in first class mail volume and the increased amount of time that. That the Postal Service has to sort that now, not only was the equipment not needed, it was in the way with the increase in package business that requires more space in these machines, take up a lot of space, not to mention the cost of maintaining them. So in order to serve the package, customers better. Let’s get these pieces of equipment out of there so that we have room to sort the packages. Good idea operationally looks terrible when it’s occurring at a time when you’re not really communicating what’s going on. So there’s a whole lot of things that came together that made this seem like a really, really bad idea.

S2: Could this have been helped if the postmaster general or anybody from the USPS had spoken to the public about it?

S3: Well, I’m I’m a big believer in communication, and I think that could have helped for sure leading up to an election, I’m not sure that there’s enough money in it to pull those boxes at a time when there’s already questions about the postal service and what’s going on there. So I don’t know that just communication would have solved the problem. Time might have been a strong force there, too.

S2: But it’s waiting until after Election Day, you mean?

S3: Yes. Yes. It all has to come together. It’s not just a matter of what’s right. Operationally, you’re a service, you’re visible. You’ve got to communicate and you’ve got to understand what else is going on in the environment.

S2: Have some of these cuts perhaps overshot the mark? There was some reporting out of Los Angeles, for instance, where there were clouds of flies in some sorting areas in a big parcel handling facility because there was food rotting in packages that’s meant to be delivered fairly quickly but hadn’t been delivered. So it was still sitting there inside boxes, chicks that were live chicks that were being sent out for overnight delivery dead in their boxes because they sat waiting to be delivered. Is there some reasonable and reasonably informed suspicion that maybe some of this has gone too far?

S3: I’ve heard a lot of different opinions as to whether there was an order to eliminate overtime or dramatically reduce overtime. And some say, yeah, there was an order and others say no, it was misinterpreted to local levels. So I don’t know what the what the facts are, frankly, there. But certainly males shouldn’t said it doesn’t cost you any more to sort and deliver a piece of mail today than it does two days from now. So why wait? Get it out the door is as we used to say, you got to have a clean house every day and you want all that mail to get out. And again, when you’re in a competitive business in the package business. So you can’t afford to let things set because if you can’t do it, your competitor can moving forward.

S2: Unquestionably, there’s been a knock to the Postal Service in American’s eyes in the last couple of weeks and months. And now there’s an open question being repeated frequently whether the Postal Service, as currently constituted, is up to the task of helping Americans vote in the middle of a pandemic. Do you have any question about whether the Postal Service is up to the task now?

S3: I really don’t. The amount of volume that we’re talking about, even in the highest case, this male gets sorted on high speed sorting machines, of which they still have more than they really need to get the job done on a daily basis can process that male without without a problem. And they’re going to a small defined number of destination points. It’s not to two hundred million residences, one hundred and sixty million residences around the country. They’ve got the firepower to get it done. I think that the key thing is to recognize that if you’re looking at the entire process, the Postal Service is only one entity in that process. And I contend that that that entity can and will function effectively and they’re working hard with their partners, so to speak, in the process. So you’ve got the election boards that have to design a ballot and then work with a contractor who’s going to print the ballot and mail the ballot. And the Postal Service has come up with a detailed set of instructions that that should be followed by the election boards, as well as the as well as their contractors to make sure that addresses are proper, to make sure that, for example, the Postal Service has a thing called the intelligent mail barcode. If that barcode is placed on the mail by the mailer and on the return envelope by the election board, every piece of mail and the system can be tracked exactly where it is. What what better way of being able to prove exactly where you are in the process and how many ballots are still outstanding, who got their ballots, who still hasn’t gotten their ballots. And if they do all of the things that are recommended and do them as early as possible, not wait to the last minute, then you’re going to have a successful vote. Again, the postal service has done this for so long that they know what they’re doing. And the instructions that they lay out are very specific, very detailed, and if followed, very successful. They have five 500 coordinators that they’ve named to work with the roughly 11000 election boards around the country to make sure if there’s any questions, any problems, anything, that they know exactly who to call. And that person knows exactly what the right answers are. The postal is, in my opinion, has done a lot of the things necessary to set up for success in this country for the dramatic increase in mail voting. And they’re part of the process. There is no doubt in my mind that they’ve got the firepower to get it done.

S2: Well, it seems to me that the challenge now is kind of a hardware challenge and a software challenge, and let me explain what I mean by that. It sounds like the organizational and institutional challenge is is one that you are confident can be handled, because just as a matter of course, it’s easier to get things mailed from 100 million places to go to a much, much smaller number of places than it is to do the opposite, to get them from a small number of places out to 100 million. So, yeah, mailing your ballot shouldn’t be a problem. But it also sounds like there is a confidence problem that somebody ought to be speaking with a big voice about whether they can trust the post office. And yet the president of the United States is actively undermining that conversation. Is that a problem for the USPS?

S3: Well, it’s it’s. It’s certainly a psychic problem for the Postal Service, it’s a bigger problem for our democratic process. I mean, you want people to be able to vote and people that can’t get to polls, you want them to feel comfortable. The fact that there’s an alternative that is secure and will work and when people don’t have confidence in that and don’t use it, I can’t get to the polling places and don’t vote. That’s a problem for our democracy.

S2: Huh, well, I guess the take away is, ah, get ready early and if you’re an individual voter, mail as soon as you can, is that fair as well?

S3: That’s that’s absolutely right. The other big thing, the other big thing, if you have moved since the last time you voted. You will not get a ballot. Because the Postal Service cannot forward election mail. And if the only address that the election board has is your last address that you no longer live, that you need to update, that you need to get that information to the election boards as soon as you possibly can. Everyone that’s been evicted or or for whatever reason, needs to get to their post office, a post office, and put in a change of address forever. You’re going to be and needs to contact their election board to make sure that the election board knows that you’re not at your old location. Here’s the location you are at. And this is where I want material sent. Even if you move in the same apartment building for apartment 11 to apartment thirty one, the mail cannot be forwarded to the other box by law.

S4: And so you need to let the election board know that. And that’s a big, big deal that a lot of people just don’t recognize. But once you’ve done that, Malali.

S5: John Allen, thanks a lot for sharing your expertise and your knowledge with us. Always a pleasure. John Nolan is the former deputy postmaster general with the U.S. Postal Service. That’s the show. What Next is produced by Jason de Leon, Danielle Hewitt, Mary Wilson and Elana Schwartz, where led by Allison Benedict and Alicia Montgomery. Mary Harris will be back to host what next? Tomorrow morning, I’m Ray Suarez, signing off from guest hosting duties. But you can catch me on Twitter. I’m Ray Suarez News. It’s really been fun bringing you the program these past three weeks. I hope you’ll look for me in the other places I pop up. Thanks for listening to what next?