Sept. 9 2009 10:27 AM

It seems the Postal Service is getting a lot of press lately. The USPS made the front page of the Washington Post this week, and other mainstream press outlets have covered the Postal Service frequently this year. The good news is that the articles are not about scandal. The bad news is that the Washington Post article - like the many other recent articles about the Postal Service - chronicled the dramatic decline in mail volume this year and the sweeping change in the way Americans communicate.

The Washington Post article touched on many of the challenges facing the Postal Service that this publication and the other postal trade pubs and blogs have covered over the past two years. The article discussed this year's projected $6 billion loss and a volume decline of more than 20 billion pieces, the largest in history. It talked about disappearing collection boxes and a generation of Americans that doesn't use the mail the way its parents did. One might argue it painted a depressing picture, but I'd argue that the article had a very positive element to it. It was on the front page, with a color photo spread to accompany it. Finally, the fate of the Postal Service is playing out on the front pages of newspapers and on the evening broadcasts.

Engaging the American public on the future of the Postal Service is how the issue becomes a true public-policy debate. The public's initial reactions have been "don't close my post office" or "save my ZIP Code" and that sort of thing. But as the story of the Postal Service gets told, the American public should understand that the USPS' finances can't support this current model. When the mainstream media reports the staggering loss in mail volume and the changing nature of communications, more people will understand that the Postal Service cannot keep under-utilized facilities open. As people learn how the Postal Service supports its operations (postage revenues), they'll realize those revenues are dwindling. The public will understand that post offices have to close and work has to be consolidated and directed in a way that improves efficiency.

It won't be easy, and the debate is likely to get ugly at times. But, a full and fierce debate is better than indifference. Congress rarely bothers to tackle issues that will be met with indifference back home.

I can probably count on one hand the number of times an article about the Postal Service graced the front page of a major newspaper when Congress spent 10 years debating postal reform. The Postal Service was not facing an immediate crisis when postal reform got started (1995), and postal issues were not very sexy. Indeed, the Government Accountability Office's decision to put the Postal Service on its high-risk list in 2001 finally prodded Congress to get serious about reform. Even then, it took eleventh-hour maneuvering at the end of the 2006 congressional session before a bill passed.

All through that 10-year postal reform battle, the American public played almost no role in the debate. People simply were not concerned about the fate of the Postal Service. That's because people knew they could drop their letter in a collection box and it would reach its destination in a day or two or three. They saw their letter carrier show up six days a week with a nice stack of mail and the price of a stamp remained reasonably priced. In short, there was no reason to worry.

Well, now things are different. The Postal Service is looking to cut Saturday delivery. The price of a stamp, while tied to an inflation-based cap, could go up between annual price increases if the Postal Service has to seek an exigent rate increase. Local facilities are closing, and post office hours are shorter. Collection boxes are disappearing. More and more companies are doing business online. All of these things are raising the awareness of consumers. Local newspapers and television stations are reporting on facility closures and the possible loss of Saturday delivery.
Educating the public is a key step in opening a full-fledged public policy debate. And I, for one, am thrilled that the American public is getting engaged. The first round of postal reform lacked the consumers' perspective. It's not that they weren't invited; it's just that they didn't care.
Congress is considering some band-aid solutions around how the USPS funds its retiree health plans to help the Postal Service ride out the tough financial times. All players involved agree that these are stop-gap measures and not a final solution. The Postal Service and its stakeholders will have to figure out how to operate in a postal system that is a leaner and more nimble version of what we have today. Congress seems reluctant to let the Postal Service move in the right direction. It could be that the American public is resistant too. Or, it could be that most consumers could live with five-day-a-week delivery, as a recent Gallup Poll suggests. There's only one way to find out: engage them in the debate.

Kate Muth is President of Muth Communications, a writing, editing and consulting firm. Contact her at