The following is from an article prepared for Mailing Systems Technology magazine by Gene Del Polito, President of the Association for Postal Commerce. The views expressed are solely the author's.

A considerable amount of the past year has been spent talking about the prospects (and the imminence) of postal reform. Yet, here we are, practically at the end of 112th Congress, and a postal reform bill has yet to make its way to the President's desk. Sure, we've been told there are lots of reasons to explain this, but what congressional sources call reasons others would call excuses.

It would be unfair to say that Congress did absolutely nothing as far as reform is concerned. In fact, the Senate passed its own version of a postal reform measure (S. 1789), and the House at least got a bill (H.R. 2309) reported out of committee. It would be fair to say that each measure had its fair share of pluses and minuses. For the most part, though, both bills left so much unsaid, that it would be inaccurate to conclude that if both bills simply had been sent to conference a meaningful postal reform measure would have been enacted into law.

S. 1789 and H.R. 2309 have one thing in common -- an apparent belief that the Postal Service's Board of Governors so lacks innovative, strategic, and overall managerial capabilities that it cannot be entrusted with the key role of defining the Postal Service's ever-evolving role of ensuring the satisfaction of the nation's universal postal needs.

In S. 1789, the authors called for the creation of a "Strategic Advisory Commission on Postal Service Solvency and Innovation." One of the Commission's tasks would have been to think and suggest alternative business models for the Postal Service, and to come up with a list of innovative revenue-generating products and services that could put the USPS on a sounder financial footing. That, you would have thought, is a role that the nine presidentially-appointed Governors of the Postal Service were supposed to fill. Ostensibly, that's why they are are paid a $30,000 a year salary.

The authors of H.R. 2309 called for the creation of a "Postal Service Financial Responsibility and Management Assistance Authority" -- a very interesting choice of words. Again, you would have thought that ensuring "fiscal responsibility" and providing "management assistance" were roles the postal Governors were supposed to play. In fact, the architects of H.R. 2309 made abundantly clear that if the provisions for the creation of the Authority ever needed to be invoked, the Authority would assume all duties and responsibilities formerly assigned to the Governors, and the Governors would serve merely as observers until the Authority had finished cleaning up the Postal Service's fiscal and organizational mess. Furthermore, when you look at the duties the Authority would be empowered to assume, it's clear that the sponsors of H.R. 2309 envisioned having the Authority take a more direct hand in determining the Postal Service's future model for conducting business.

Postal leaders in Congress, the Postal Service, the Office of the Inspector General, and the Government Accountability Office all have pronounced the Postal Service's current business model moribund. All have emphasized the need to develop a business model more suitable for addressing the nation's changing postal needs. Ironically, while calling for new ideas, not one of these postal leaders has sought to put any grease to the wheel to devise the multiplicity of business model alternatives that are suitable to consider. Indeed, there is a great deal about the way in which this nation has approached the issue of postal reform that makes true the old adage: "If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always gotten."

Rather than take on a leadership role in the definition of a future business model, both the House and the Senate have left the task to someone else. Instead, it would seem that our nation's postal policy leaders can see themselves doing nothing more than tinkering around the edges of the model of business that has shaped much of the Postal Service's behavior since the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970.

This is not unlike the idiocy that would be behind adding 1+1 a thousand times hoping desperately to get a result that was different than 2. Heck, if you don't like getting the number two, why not try some other alternative arithmetical combinations?

Coming up with possible alternative business models isn't child's play. On the other hand, it isn't rocket science either. In fact, I just recently had the task of discussing a range of alternative models at a postal conference (PostalVision 2020), and, to be sure, the range of alternatives presented was far from exhaustive or definitive. The goal, however, was just to illustrate what could be done if a serious effort were put forth.

There was one reality, though, that became abundantly clear during this search for alternatives, i.e., you can't devise alternative business models if you have left undefined the very mission you expect the enterprise to fulfill. We know one thing for sure. America still needs a viable universal mail delivery system, and preferably one that is self-supporting. But saying that we need a viable universal mail delivery system implies that there surely must be some underlying expectation of the enterprise.

Believe it or not, we as a nation have never clearly and succinctly defined what we believe is or should be the universal service obligation (USO) we expect for our post. Look as hard as you might, it's impossible to find anywhere in current postal law a definition of that universal service need that would need to be fulfilled by whomever serves as the nation's designated postal service provider. In a sense, this is as fault-filled as a coach telling his team that their obligation is to win games. Win games? How many? All of them? Some of them? Fairly by observing the rules? Or by any means possible? This is about as dumb as expecting the Navy Seals to go out and do their thing without first being told the mission they needed to accomplish in sufficient detail to ensure the highest probability of success.

So, before we go on our merry way trying to enact some new postal law, before we sally forth trying to do business in some way that differs from what we've done in the past, we should get on with the task of defining clearly and realistically what we perceive as our nation's universal service needs. But, a word of warning. Before going forward willy-nilly assuming what that USO should be, it's important to understand that whatever USO we define must be based on a clear-headed definition of what we believe constitutes the nation's present and future needs. Given today's economic realities, we need to give up yesteryear's vision of basing our postal system on some nice, but no longer affordable, social wants. Gone are the days when there were ample fiscal resources to address wants such as having the Postal Service serve as the gateway to the middle class for those who couldn't find there way there, as the employer of last resort, and as the guarantor of a well-funded and benefit filled retirement. Today, however, we should count ourselves luck if we can simply find the resources needed to address the nation's enduring postal needs.

From where I sit, there's still a great deal of work that needs to be done. And it needs to be done before we can ever hope to place a postal legislative reform measure on a president's desk with the justifiable belief that, if we reform our postal system just this one more time, we put off to some far-distant date the need to address this issue again.
Gene Del Polito, President, Association for Postal Commerce can be reached at 703.524.0096. For more information, visit