The American postal service has an impressive history, but an uncertain future. Older than the Constitution, it was a wellspring of American democracy and a catalyst for the creation of a nationwide market for information and goods. Today, however, its once indispensable role in fostering civic discourse and facilitating personal communications has been challenged by the Internet and mobile telephony. How is the post office coping? What are its prospects in the digital age?
Kent B. Smith is the manager of strategic business planning for the US Postal Service and is involved in developing perspectives of the future of the postal service and the mailing industry with such groups as the Institute for the Future, the Universal Postal Union, and the International Postal Corporation.
David C. Williams is the Inspector General (IG) of the US Postal Service. The IG's office conducts independent audits and investigations of postal service operations. Previously, he served as IG for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Social Security Administration, Department of the Treasury and Housing and Urban Development.
V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai is a lecturer at MIT in both the Department of Biological Engineering and Comparative Media Studies. He directs the EMAIL Lab and works with the US Postal Service Office of Inspector General exploring ways to retain postal workers' jobs through the provisioning of email services. His book The EMAIL Revolution is forthcoming this fall.
Communications Forum Director David Thorburn opened the panel with an unlikely allusion. The 1997 science fiction movie The Postman paints the postal service as the last remnant of democratic society following a nuclear apocalypse. Over the course of the film, the letter carrier’s uniform comes to stand for freedom and civic community. Although The Postman was a critical and box office failure, Thorburn suggested that the film reminds us of the centrality of the postal service in the American popular imagination.
“The history of the post office,” he said, “is intimately tied to the history of American democracy.” However, emerging digital technology has changed the ways Americans communicate. Like so many institutions, the United States Postal Service (USPS) faces an uncertain future.
Recent talks of service cuts, most notably the cessation of Saturday deliveries, have generated a conversation about rescue packages and new business models. While such economic realities are important and deserve discussion, preserving elements of the USPS’s role as a civic institution should also be part of the conversation about its future. The postal service’s commitments to inclusion and access have made it central to the development of American civic discourse.
Will the civic principles that helped define the post office survive in the digital age?
Richard R. John rejected the popular notion that Benjamin Franklin is the father of the American postal service, arguing that the Revolutionary-era statesman Benjamin Rush was the first to articulate the civic principles that were central to its creation and operations. A physician and philosopher, Rush envisioned an American nation unified by the free exchange of information, calling for the creation of a national postal service “for the purpose of diffusing knowledge, as well as extending the living principle of government to every part of the United States.” John asserted that Rush’s “civic mandate” has animated the postal service since its creation.
During the 19th century, John argued, the post office “was the one agency of government that came impartially to every man’s door,” disseminating information about current events, market trends, and, eventually, personal matters. Today’s postal service maintains a communications network for all Americans, employing letter carriers in rural communities as well as urban centers. Since 2002, comprehensive access has been an official part of the post office’s mission: its “universal service obligation.” John argued that Rush’s original mandate underlies the USPS’s now official commitment to inclusivity. “The postal service’s civic mandate is broad, dynamic, and open ended,” he said.
Kent Smith, manager of strategic business planning for the USPS, also grounded his talk in the post office’s history, asserting that the institution has undergone successive transformations in the 235 years since its founding. Recent shifts included the post office’s switch from a governmental to a self-sustaining organization, and the changeover from hand-sorting letters to automation. However, Smith acknowledged that the changes forced by the digital era posed the USPS’s biggest challenge yet.
“Disruption is a fact,” Smith said, bluntly. “Let’s move the conversation forward.”
In response to economic pressures brought by the shift towards digital communication and the 2008 financial crisis, the post office has developed a leaner organization and more efficient business model. However, Smith believed that these changes alone were not sufficient. “We have to think beyond mail,” he said. “We have to help people do jobs that are important to them.” Smith believed that the post office’s future lay in logistical innovation, both in traditional mail transport, as well as in the digital sphere. He closed his remarks with a nod to the post office’s civic mandate. Innovation, he asserted, comes from collaborations between the postal service, consumers, and corporations.
“The Internet is a game changer,” said David C. Williams. “Time and distance have disappeared.” For years, the post office distinguished itself by delivering post in a timely manner across distances. While those services are no less important, Williams said, the postal service needs to think strategically about what it could offer Americans in the digital age. One such service is truly secure communications. Williams suggested that the USPS should follow the model of several international postal services and provide a protected email system. The information age expanded the post office’s mission of connecting the American nation, Williams argued. The USPS now has a duty to extend its “universal service obligation” to cover all Americans’ needs, analog and digital alike.
Moderator V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai returned to the post office’s civic mandate. How might the USPS’s civic role shift in the digital age? Ayyadurai reminded the audience that people gave away their privacy in exchange for “free” email services like Google’s Gmail. While a body of laws prevents corporations and unauthorized individuals from reading paper mail, similar legislation does not protect electronic communications. Ayyadurai asked if the postal service might offer a protected email service.
Williams replied with an emphatic yes. Something has to be done, he said, to address the weaknesses of digital age. The post office could help build a secure national infrastructure. The contents of messages must be confidential, Williams said, whether they are digital or part of the traditional post. He pointed to other nations, such as Israel, who have provided a secure email box for government communications, arguing that the United States should provide similar services.
John agreed. The inviolability of mail was established by law in 1792, he said. Today’s Americans needed a body of law to protect the security of digital information. “That body of law does not exist today, and there’s no reason to assume corporations alone will provide [it]. The need is real,” John said.
Smith pointed out that mail security professionals have been dealing with issues of surveillance in communication for decades, and can being their expertise to discussions of digital privacy.
When Ayyaadurai opened up questions from the audience, MIT’s Comparative Media Studies Director William Uricchio asked which nations’ postal services provided the best cases for comparison, and might provide models of innovation for the USPS.
Williams highlighted the work of Deutsche Post and New Zealand Post. He also spoke highly of the Israeli Postal Company, which provides a secure email box for citizens, strictly for government business. Nevertheless, Williams cautioned that while small countries were often at “the edge of innovation,” their projects were not always scalable to a large country like the United States.
“It’s an interesting world and we’re all tracking each other,” Smith commented, noting that there was postal innovation happening worldwide.