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Bringing big data to the U.S. mail

Scott Davis on financial information, sales and workforce data

Mar. 10, 2014 - 10:54AM   |  
By Sean Reilly   |   Comments
Scott Davis USPS MWM 20140226
Scott Davis, the acting Controller Vice President of the U.S. Postal Service, is interviewed at USPS Headquarters in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, February 26, 2014. (Mike Morones/Staff) (Mike Morones)

After starting as a city letter carrier in 1984, Scott Davis recently became the U.S. Postal Service’s acting vice president, controller. As such, the Utah native is responsible for certifying the accuracy of the agency’s financial statements; he also keeps tabs on vast flows of sales and workforce data generated by the Postal Service, which ended fiscal 2013 with more than $67 billion in revenue and almost 500,000 career employees.

In a recent interview with former Federal Times Senior Writer Sean Reilly, Davis discussed the importance of the collected information and the role of big data in the management of USPS operations. Following are edited excerpts.

Most [people] probably don’t think of the Postal Service as a big data organization. What kind of data does the Postal Service collect, and why?

Davis: My primary focus because of my job is all of the financial information that is used to create the financial statements. So, as with many retail organizations, if we can think of it in those terms, I have to be able to, on a daily basis, find the entire store information, sales, inventory and expenses. [I] consolidate that daily, weekly, monthly to publish internal and external financial statements.

Also, the timekeeping falls under my purview. So I have to make sure that I get all of the work hours recorded up to the accounting service centers to produce payroll. And then, I make sure that the bills get paid. So as we accumulate the data, we make sure that vendors and employees get paid timely, accurately.

In terms of that reporting and monitoring, how has that evolved over the years?

Davis: Like many companies, we’ve grown with the technology. A lot of what we used to do was all paper-based, so every post office would record all of their sales data for a month. They would fill out a paper form at the end of the month, send it in to the accounting service center, and we would key it into a mainframe computer that would tally it all up.

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The exchange of information was all done [on] paper. Reports going back were reams and reams of computer paper that would be generated and mailed back out to the various offices. So we’ve really grown up as technology has given us the ability to do that quicker. We certainly close our books quicker. We do our payroll for roughly 500,000 employees ... and we do that over a weekend. We close payroll on a Friday. By the next Friday, everybody’s paid.

How is reporting done nowadays?

Davis: We have gotten more and more into data warehouses. When these huge data warehouses first became available, we had just this huge amount of information that was available to them. We gave them log-on access and told them with a few query tools, they would be able to pull the reports.

Who is “them” in this case?

Davis: They being the postmasters, the district management. I think what we found is that — from a data overload standpoint — is that you can provide too much. We found that it was much more efficient to help develop canned reports very specific to their needs.

So we would develop a suite of reports that were very useable by postmasters, for example, and put that in a separate section, so that all they had to do is put in their office information. We don’t want you to spend all of your time trying to query.

What would you say that the payoff, the benefit from this is?

Davis: I think we’ve gotten the ability to better run the units. Instead of devoting a lot of time trying to come up with the data, we’re giving them very usable, very actionable information and trying to help them get to where they need to go, rather than sitting behind a computer.

If we can see the same issue across multiple offices, multiple regions, we may have an operating issue that we need to really look at. Maybe there’s something that we can do for the entire organization to save work hours, cut costs, improve efficiency.

So give a practical example, say, in terms of work hours. Would you be looking for things like lots of overtime use?

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Davis: Certainly any work hours, overtime, leave over the same periods this year and/or over budget, would be, or [any that are] under budget. Any sort of variance that you can think of: Trend analysis, sales, month over month, and year over year, same-store kind of comparisons. What did a store do last year versus this year and then be able to drill in to “Well, why the difference? Has a major mailer moved in? Have they moved out?”

Have there been any particular challenges you’ve faced in implementing this approach?

Davis: As we were growing and we had separate databases that each had their own information, we certainly had to make sure that it reconciled that they ended up with the same numbers.

Where would you want the Postal Service to be in this regard in five years?What are your next big initiatives?

Davis: We know that visibility of the mail is now the important thing. And so as we move towards becoming a world-class package delivery company, that’s just something that the customers want.

“When are you going to deliver my package?” They want to know where it is at any point in time. We’re talking millions of scans daily that have to be processed and put into a useable form [on a] website or some sort of smart device. To me, that’s going to be the next big focus: How do we become transparent and very customer-centric?

Going back to data, any lessons learned from your perspective that might be applicable to other agencies?

Davis: I guess that I would engage the users — make sure that you’re providing what it is that they are going to be able to use. If we can help them understand where and how to use the data, they will, and they will make better management decisions.

I would suggest that for any agency: Don’t work in a vacuum. Get lots of input from the user community.■

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