The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report in February that analyzed how some foreign postal services have responded to a decrease in mail volume and a migration towards electronic correspondence. The purpose of the study was to find out if there were some successful strategies that could be applied to the US Postal Service, which is facing the same kinds of challenges.

It's an interesting 44-page report that is available at http://www.gao.gov/, but you don't need to read it cover-to-cover to get the general idea.

There were six foreign postal services studied. All of them now offer pure digital delivery, hybrid delivery (a combination of digital and physical mail), or both. Additionally, the posts have reduced the number of facilities and have allowed retailers to provide postal services with expanded hours of operation and more convenient locations for customers. The foreign posts report higher customer satisfaction levels and lower costs.

But will it work here?
The scope of challenges faced by the USPS are monumental compared to the foreign systems. The number of addresses served by the USPS is twice as large as the largest foreign system examined and our postal service maintains more facilities than all the posts in the study combined. But, as I have commented before in these pages and elsewhere, I think implementing similar strategies is going to be necessary for the Post Office to thrive in the future. Clearly some significant changes have to occur if we want to maintain a reliable, affordable postal system that meets the needs of US citizens and encourages commerce.

The USPS already has plans that incorporate some of the strategies employed by the foreign posts. Their Action Plan for the Future lists elements such as:

Reduced delivery frequency: Some foreign posts have been able to modify delivery schedules by providing electronic access to mail or delivering to secure locker-type facilities in neighborhoods.

Expanded access: Offering postal services in grocery stores or other outlets has been used in other countries to reduce the number of post-owned facilities. The USPS is working on similar efforts today.

Expanded services and products: Banking and greeting cards are generally mentioned by the USPS. But there haven't been any announcements about secure electronic delivery and the benefits from associated technologies. These are certainly expanded services that many commercial mailers would be happy to support - especially if they allow for more effective communication with their customers.

Reading about infrastructure and technological changes accomplished by posts in countries such as Switzerland and Canada is fascinating. But the GAO study also examined measures the posts took to help them gain acceptance from labor, government, and citizens. Those factors are just as important as the technology. There may be some lessons to be learned here. For the USPS, acceptance by all the relevant parties is probably harder to accomplish than the technical innovations themselves.

The Postal Service Responds
The appendix of the GAO report includes a response from the US Postal Service. They accurately point out that many of these foreign posts had financial or authoritarian backing from their governments - a critical success factor. The political roadblocks the USPS has encountered in this country are also noted. Making bold business decisions that require congressional approval is a tough way to run an organization.

I couldn't agree more. Without the support of government, efforts by the Postal Service to lower their costs and improve service are severely limited. It's going to take a group effort. But putting our differences behind us will be worth it. Postal management, labor, government, commercial mailers, and industry vendors all have to be working towards the same goals or the current postal situation will simply continue to deteriorate.

Read the GAO report and learn from our global neighbors. Then let's see what Americans can do when we work together on a common goal instead of only protecting selfish interests. We'll all benefit from a healthy and stable US Postal Service.

Mike Porter is an expert in Print and Mail operations and President of Print/Mail Consultants, an independent consulting firm that helps companies nationwide be more productive, adapt to changing requirements, and lower costs in their document operations. To read more ideas about postal improvements, sign up for Mike's free newsletter at www.printmailconsultants.com or email him directly at mporter@printmailconsultants.com