The U.S. Postal Service inspector general's office has been churning out a series of provocative ideas about what the mail might look like in the next decade or two. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)
Do you have an idea for how the Postal Service could operate more efficiently? Someday you might mail it to David C. Williams at 35602.1092.4393.
Williams is the inspector general at the U.S. Postal Service — the chief watchdog at an enterprise that loses $15.9 billion a year. In addition to the traditional function of rooting out waste, fraud and abuse, his office has been churning out a series of provocative ideas about what the mail might look like in the next decade or two.
For example: What if the Postal Service completely revamped the street-city-state-ZIP address into the ZIP code format in use for decades? Would an all-numeric address like the one above make it safer for people to do business on Craigslist? Or could a physical address be linked to a secure email address, providing the kind of identity verification needed for voting, school enrollment or commerce?
Ruth Goldway, chairwoman of the Postal Regulatory Commission, calls that “a very interesting concept,” and said the ideas coming out of Williams’ shop amount to “an independent think tank for the Postal Service.”
Goldway, whose five-member board regulates postal rates and services, said the Postal Service has become so strapped for cash that it has been slow to modernize. By default, she said, the inspector general has become the research and development arm of the post office. In addition to about 650 investigators and 350 auditors, Williams employs 20 people in research.
In white papers, audit reports and a blog — called Pushing the Envelope — Williams’ office has floated ideas such as:
Naming rights for post offices. Naming post offices for war heroes and dead politicians is a cherished congressional prerogative. But what about creating paid ad space at post office counters, or on the side of postal trucks?
GPS for mail. Current technology allows a customer to track a letter or parcel every time it’s loaded or unloaded. But what if you could track a letter’s movement in real time? An audit report by Deputy Inspector General Robert Batta last year found that the Postal Service had invested $1.6 billion in global positional technology for highway routes, but that contractors weren’t using it.
Charging for mail forwarding. Right now, the cost of forwarding or returning undeliverable mail is “baked in” to the 45-cent stamp. But Canada charges customers $75 a year for the service. “Would a model similar to the Canada Post one work in the U.S. or would residential recipients, in particular, feel like they were being charged for a service they thought was free?” asks an IG blog post.
Hybrid mail. Part email and part letter, digital documents could be printed and delivered by mail (or vice-versa). The process could save time, provide translations and certify delivery, helping provide government and legal services more effectively.
Some of these ideas are simply “ideas worth exploring,” said Williams’ spokeswoman Agapi Doulaveris. Some are already in development — such as GoPost, a pilot project allowing people to ship parcels using self-service lockers. Congressional approval would be required for some of the ideas.
Williams’ résumé makes him an ideal inspector general, but an unlikely postal innovator. He started in military intelligence, worked for the Secret Service in the Ford and Carter administrations, and investigated corruption in organized labor in Cleveland. He’s served as IG for five federal agencies, appointed by presidents George H.W. Bush, Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama.
Williams started out investigating the kinds of waste, fraud and abuse that are the bread-and-butter of an inspector general: disability fraud, overcharging by contractors and health care providers, and theft of mail by postal employees.
He soon realized that the biggest threat to the Postal Service was that technology had overtaken it. “As Wayne Gretzky always said, you need to skate over to where the puck is going to be,” he said.
Williams sees a future for the post office in providing front-line government services, secure e-mail, even financial services.
“Up the street, there’s a currency exchange that will charge you 15 percent to change your money,” he said. “We’re in the money order business already.”
Despite mail’s challenges — increasing costs and lower mail volumes — Williams is bullish.
“I can imagine a future when the Postal Service is doing very well,” he said. “We’ll make money again.”
Gregory Korte reports for USA Today.