This post was written more than four years ago. The world changes fast, and the information, conclusions, or attributions may or may not still be accurate. Check the sources and links, and email me if you have any questions.

The USPS is struggling to make ends meet, they’re closing and consolidating processing centers, they posted a $5 billion dollar loss last year, and first class delivery speeds are expected to slow down in 2014. It’s true that a congressional mandate has caused a significant amount of the agency’s problems by requiring the agency to pre-fund future reitree health benefits, but when you look at the big picture, it’s clear that mail delivery needs to be reinvented.

The USPS for me is one of the most painful government agencies to deal with.  For a period of time, I didn’t receive any mail because they messed up forwarding and sent it to another state.  Hours on the phone, a dozen case numbers, and zero follow-up or resolution means something is not right behind the scenes.  It’s bureaucracy, inefficiency and lack of coordination.  But the thing about all of these problems is that they’re easily solved with technology and automation.

I think the USPS should release a My Mail web application for consumers that does the following:

  1. Do Not Mail registry: residents can opt-out of receiving unsolicited commercial mail, similar to the way the Do Not Call registry works. If it’s illegal to call me and send me e-mails, why isn’t it illegal to send annoying RedPlum coupon mailers that I didn’t ask to get and will just end up throwing away?
  2. Manage Holds and Forwarding: residents can setup holds, temporary and permanent forwarding — and that means all holds and forwards for your address.  When I temporarily moved, the USPS decided to add multiple forwards for variations of my name.  When I canceled forwarding, only one of my three forwards got canceled.  You should be able to login and see and manage all of the forwards for your address.
  3. Manage Deliveries: UPS offers a My Choice service for $40/year that lets you see all of your scheduled deliveries on a calendar. For $5 per delivery, you can get a guaranteed two-hour window for that delivery. UPS is giving consumers options that FedEx and USPS haven’t.
  4. Virtual Mail: Why do we use mail in the first place?  If I look at the last 30 days of mail I’ve received, 50% of it is commercial and unsolicited, then there’s statements from a student loan company that doesn’t offer online statements, various notifications of promotions for companies I do business with, a reminder card from my vet, and some checks.  90% of the mail I didn’t need to receive as paper.So, what if the USPS made an online inbox for your mail?  Let’s say a company in Florida mails you something: that letter gets routed to the nearest processing center just as it does now, which is likely in Florida.  The envelope is scanned and you can view the mail in your inbox.  You can choose to have the USPS open and scan the contents of the mail and then shred the paper copy, or you could choose to have the item physically delivered.  I’d guess that paper delivery for tech-savvy households would decrease 90%, and if 90% of mail never leaves the metropolitan area of origin, it’s saving time, money, and it’s a lot greener than moving an envelope 2,000 miles.If an envelope contains a check, perhaps there could be a way to use the check image to directly connect to your financial institution via an API to make a deposit.  Better yet, a virtual inbox for mail means that you can see every piece of mail in the system and en route to you.  No more wondering when something is going to arrive.

I think doing these things would without question increase consumer satisfaction, decrease delivery times, decrease delivery costs, and reduce environmental impact.  At the same time, it’s likely to require new investments in technology and equipment, the retirement of some existing infrastructure and a perfectly running system like this would surely require less staff.

Just as with online banking, bill pay, iTunes, and the consumer cloud, it will take time for the public to fully embrace and trust the concept of virtual mail.  Which is precisely why mass layoffs wouldn’t be necessary with this kind of radical change: by the time the public starts using virtual mail en masse, the average 50-year-old USPS employee will be ready for retirement.

In any case, mail hasn’t been touched by technology in years.  It’s time for a startup-style disruption to happen within the agency.