Op Ed Published in the Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Press
On Sunday, July 25, Lance Armstrong is expected to cross the Tour de France finish line for a record-setting sixth straight victory – securing his place in history as the greatest cyclist ever. This is a great day not just for Lance, but for his sponsor, the U.S. Postal Service.
Back before Lance was a household name, back when he was locked in a deadly battle with cancer, the Postal Service gave him a chance when no one else would.
“My manager made many, many phone calls, and nobody took the calls,” recalled Lance recently. “Nobody wanted the sick kid from Texas on their team. And one little team . . . gave him an opportunity. . . . I never would have won the Tour if it wasn’t for the Postal Service.”
The Postal Service deserves credit. Not just for Lance’s victory, but for striving to become competitive and more like its unbeatable poster boy. Both have challenged seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
Threatened by sprinting electronic communications that leave traditional mail in the dust, the Postal Service’s business model has become increasing outdated. Meanwhile, its workforce is graying, and the organization is straining under the burden of almost $90 billion in unfunded liabilities – mostly related to future health and retirement costs. But led by Postmaster General John Potter, USPS is in the process of making a “Lance Armstrong” comeback of its own.
In the past few years, the Postal Service has made a legitimate effort at reform, working to reduce its massive bureaucracy and come down to competitive trim.
In 2001, Mr. Potter took the helm of an organization reeling from the revolution in communications. In the space of a few years, the assumptions of the postal service’s decades-old business model were undercut, its laborious processing bypassed for instantaneous electronic systems, which are becoming ever more sophisticated, cheaper and, increasingly, global.
Mr. Potter has taken useful steps in the face of these enormous challenges. Under his leadership, the Postal Service has eliminated more than 85,000 career-track employees, which represents a reduction of more than 10 percent of the work force since 1999. Amazingly, this reduction was brought about without layoffs. Most of it resulted from leaving posts vacant when workers retired.
The Postal Service reduced outstanding debt by more than one third in 2003, from $11.1 billion to $7.3 billion. Although much of that reduction came from a one-time windfall due to previous pension overpayments, the Postal Service would still have had a surplus of about $900 million even if it hadn’t received the extra money. Moreover, as of March, USPS debt was down to $1.5 billion.
The Postal Service also reduced costs by $1.1 billion in 2003, while improving customer satisfaction levels. According to USPS’s own internal measurement system, on-time delivery has improved significantly.
The percentage of mail meeting a three-day delivery target, for example, increased from 80 percent in 2002 to 88 percent in 2003. Considerable improvement has also been made in the delivery of Priority Mail, the Postal Service’s more expensive one-to-three-day service. In fact, all categories of measured mail hit record levels in 2003.
Meanwhile, Mr. Potter has also encouraged and supported postal reform. Sweeping legislation that would completely overhaul USPS operations is moving rapidly through Congress. Although the legislation doesn’t address critical cost-saving issues, it does pave the way for future privatization by removing some of the Postal Service’s most uncompetitive features, such as immunity from truth-in-advertising laws.
This will probably be the last big ride for Lance under the banner of the U.S. Postal Service. It has been a long, hard journey. And both Lance and his sponsor have scored some incredible victories. Now that they’re parting ways, let’s hope that USPS can continue its impressive journey towards reform.
Sam Ryan is a senior fellow of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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