Jan. 3 2007 11:14 AM

Even before the U.S. Postal Service unveiled its first Transformation Plan in the spring of 2002, the word "transformation" was pretty much used around my house in the context of Bruce Wayne becoming Batman or Clark Kent turning into Superman.


In postal jargon, transformation is the plan Postmaster General John E. Potter put forward in April 2002 that serves as the blueprint for the future of the Postal Service and its effort to right its ship after landing on the Government Accountability Office's "high-risk" list. The Postal Service has used the Transformation Plan as the foundation for all of its plans, from operations to pricing to policy. In some industry circles, the Transformation Plan is known as the "Prego plan" because postal officials regularly tell their customers and partners that the transformation plan has got it all covered. Like the old Prego commercial: "It's in there." Hey Mr. Customer, you want to know more about long-term plans for the postal business model? It's in there! You want to know what we are doing to realign the postal infrastructure? It's in there!


There's little argument that the USPS has had much success in attaining the near-term goals set forth in the Transformation Plan, especially in cost-cutting and productivity. But for some mailers, the "it's in there" strategy has proven frustrating at times. Stakeholders often feel there is a lack of communication from the Postal Service on postal changes that affect operations or their business plans. In my opinion, communications should be the cornerstone of the Postal Service's second phase of transformation. This is how partners do things they communicate.


At the National Postal Forum in March, Postmaster General Potter opened a dialogue on how the Postal Service should position itself for the next five years. He said the Postal Service has embarked on an effort to extend its Transformation Plan to 2010. He offered several thoughts on where he thought the USPS should strive to be, including 100% on-time service performance, cutting undeliverable mail in half and a move toward annual pricing adjustments that end rate shock. "When we put it all together, we will create a Plan that is totally customer-oriented one that reorients our entire corporate culture and transforms our operational strategies toward the needs of the customer," he says.


He closed his speech by urging everyone to get involved in creating the plan. The Postal Service took comments from stakeholders in the spring, seeking input on their visions for the postal system over the next five years. A number of organizations commented on a wide range of topics. I could fill a magazine - not just one article on my own personal suggestions, but instead I've decided to focus on one area: The need for better communications. (And these are my own opinions, not necessarily those of PostCom.)


The mailing community is made up not only of Postal Service customers but also postal partners: those businesses that provide substantial benefits to the Postal Service through their work to expand and add value to mail as a business development vehicle. Too often, these private-sector partners find that the USPS has not provided sufficient, timely information on postal changes that have a direct impact on their own businesses. When the Postal Service makes changes to its network, its mail processing equipment or its mail classifications, postal partners often have to make changes to their own processes or operations. Obviously, these changes have financial implications. Stakeholders need to be part of the decision-making process, and discussions should be held "in the sunshine."


One area where communication with the industry is sorely needed is in the Postal Service's network redesign strategy, which is the USPS' ongoing plan to take excess capacity out of the system and to "right-size" its infrastructure. As the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said in a recent report, the USPS has provided little information about its plans to realign its network. GAO said the Postal Service strategy lacks transparency, accountability and excludes stakeholder input. All of these things call into question the fairness of decisions that are made regarding facility consolidations and closings.


Further, GAO notes, USPS's lack of external communication excludes stakeholder input that could prove valuable in developing a least-cost network for the entire mailing industry. Some stakeholders have complained that the USPS does not consult with them during planning and only communicates when it has already made its decisions.


While mailers recognize that the USPS is trying to limit political meddling by doing the network realignment quietly, it simply is not a realistic or sensible way to do it. Here again, it comes back to communications. A comprehensive communications strategy would include a plan for positioning these changes in a positive way and would anticipate the potential fall-out. A proactive plan would consider how to address these changes with members of Congress. It should give members of Congress an understanding of the reasons behind closures or consolidations.


The problem now is that members of Congress have no information. Often, the first time they learn of anything going on in their district is when postal employees call to complain about a closing or a tour change. It's no surprise they overreact and publicly demand to know what is happening. They have no information to pull from and no real understanding of how the postal system works. Often, no employees in a district are even losing a job. They're just being moved to another facility. But how would a lawmaker know that?


For many mailers, network realignment lies at the heart of the Postal Service transformation effort. They will tell you it needs to be conducted in the light of day with stakeholder input so that mailers and partners can redesign their own processes and operations as necessary.


Which leads us to the reason it is so important for the Postal Service to communicate with customers and to keep postal partners in the loop. It's because many postal stakeholders the suppliers, consolidators, mail service providers and software companies are the primary sales and communications vehicles with postal customers. Many end-users call their suppliers or consolidators not Postal Service employees when they have a mailing or mail-related question or issue. Doesn't it make sense for the Postal Service to work with these partners? To keep them in the know? Shouldn't the Postal Service tap the reach of its partners to find ways to grow the mailing business?


Certainly, there are numerous suggestions a person could make when it comes to postal transformation. Postage rates, technology, addressing, the business model, the monopoly and costing data are all ripe for discussion and improvements. Indeed, we have made many suggestions in these areas in our official comments. But if I had to boil it down to a single word, it would be communications.


The bottom line is this: The Postal Service can use the words "customer-oriented" or "customer-focused" a thousand times throughout the next Strategic Transformation Plan. But without communication, they are just words. Not a true Transformation Plan. Let's go beyond Prego: It's in there but stakeholders helped to set the menu. Further, we'll be invited to all future tastings.


Kate Muth is Vice President of the Association for Postal Commerce, a trade association in Arlington, Virginia, that represents the interests of mail-related businesses before Congress, USPS and the Postal Rate Commission. You can reach her at kmuth@postcom.org or 703-524-0096.