Sunday, September 30, 2012

Reimagining the U.S. Postal Service

The United States Postal Service is becoming something of an anachronism as a result of the spread of computerized communication, and it's been in the news recently for defaulting on several large payments. However, it exists to support a Constitutional mission to provide enhanced communication between every American citizen. I believe I have an idea for how the USPS can be modernized, which will improve communication, service, and support modernization of government services in general.

First, an important note: The Postal Service isn’t doing quite as badly as you might have heard. Those defaults totaling $11.1 billion were caused by a law passed in December 2006 (H.R. 6407: Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act) by the Republican House of Representatives and Senate of the outgoing 109th Congress (the newly-elected Democratic House and Senate took office January 3, 2007) which required the postal service to pre-fund 75 years of pension payments for its employees.

You might wonder what fiscal reasoning there would be for this requirement, which no other government agency or private company faces. The short answer is that there is none, other than to bankrupt the agency and to appear to decrease the budget deficit introduced by the prosecution of two wars, a prescription drug program (Medicare Part D), and cumulative effect of two major tax cuts.

The curious thing, which sometimes doesn't get mentioned, is that the postal service (technically, establishing post offices and roads) is a Constitutional responsibility of the federal government (Article I, Section 8). And for good reason: ensuring that every citizen, everywhere in the country, is able to communicate with each other is incredibly important for a healthy democracy. This is one of many tasks that is uniquely suited for the government, because profit concerns should not be an issue for them, as it would be for private companies. In fact, UPS and FedEx often hand packages over to the Postal Service if they can’t get it delivered themselves.

How can the spirit of the postal service be taken into the modern era? Here is my plan:
  • Every resident of the United States has an official online mailbox.
  • This address is not anonymous.
  • This address can be associated with a physical mailing address, but has the advantage of allowing people who do not have a physical address, such as the homeless, to have a point of contact.
  • This system is not intended to supplant or integrate with other e-mail systems
  • Two-factor authentication and encryption ensures that the only person who can read and delete mail is you. The postal network can only add mail, not remove it.
  • Only messages which originate from within the postal network are allowed, unless the sending address is placed on a personal whitelist.
  • Government agencies can register with the postal service and send secure messages to you. Such messages could be highlighted as official and read receipts would allow the agency to know if it had been read.
  • Individuals may choose to have electronic messages delivered to them physically in paper form, for a fee.
  • Sending a message through this system for individuals is free for reasonable amounts. Mass mailings are not allowed for individuals. Business accounts may do so, but there is a substantial fee.
  • This account could be used for electronic identity verification for electronic applications and government documents, since it is tied to the individual or entity in question.
  • Coupled with this should be an increased push to get internet access out to all areas of the country.

Moving to an e-mail system is not a new idea. As far back as 2000, the Postal Service was considering this option. But to truly work, a big push needs to be made for the above type of system, which would have further benefits by enabling other government systems to move into electronic services, potentially including electronic voting. We have the technology to do this today. Are we are content to sit where we are, or do we have the wherewithal to hoist ourselves into the future?

UPDATE: I suppose I didn't emphasize this, but this obviously couldn't completely replace physical delivery  completely (at least until we perfect 3D printers?), and it will likely take a generation for people to stop being fully dependent on physical mail delivery, where that will become the exception rather than the norm.

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