I’ve always wondered which would go out of business first: the daily newspaper, organized religion, or the United States Postal Service. I used to pray that I wouldn’t pick up the Globe one day to read about my local post office closing. But that is exactly what has happened.
Four nearby post offices are among the 38 Massachusetts facilities slated for the ash heap of history. As you’ve probably read, the USPS has other, major changes in mind. It’s cutting staff as we speak, re-engineering its distribution system, and lengthening the delivery times for some first class mail. Over the years, it has added a few fillips. You can now buy stamps at the supermarket or over the phone, print stamped labels via the Internet, and so on.
The Postal Service has retained the huge management consulting firms McKinsey & Co. (“The firm that built the House of Enron,’’ according to the Guardian newspaper), Accenture, and the Boston Consulting Group to diagnose its woes. What the management consultants give you is astronomical bills, Harvard Business School-inspired gibberish (“Lean Six Sigma’’; “Hybrid mail including E2E, E2P and P2E’’), and conclusions that a precocious eighth-grader would reach, maybe with a little help from her older sister.
The consulting geniuses have duly noted that e-mail has cut into USPS volume; they call this “electronic diversion.’’ Perceptive fellows that they are, they deem the Service to be overstaffed, and they point out that retiree health benefits payments are unsustainably high, accounting for almost all of the USPS’s most recent $3.3 billion net loss. You know the definition of a management consultant: a man who borrows your watch to tell you what time it is.
I love the post office, in the abstract. In particular, I love my mail carrier, whom I illicitly tip at Christmastime. I once encountered him sitting on a park bench, where he confessed to me that his mother’s recent death had immobilized him. I gave him a hug, perhaps the most awkward moment in either of our lives.
I love writing and receiving letters. I have a theory that writing a letter, instead of sending an e-mail, will get you what you want. In my controlled experiment, it has worked 50 percent of the time. I subscribe to an oddball, $5-a-month service called Letters in the Mail, which recently sent me a fascinating, hand-illustrated, 15-page missive from an adult entertainer who calls herself Lorelei Lee. It was about visiting her grandmother, who is apparently unaware of Ms. Lee’s profession.
To be sure, there are problems inside actual post offices. It’s not like, say, a CVS, where if a line gets too long at one counter, an assistant manager might come over and help out. I’ve been in post offices where the clientele nearly rioted, and there wasn’t a manager of any stripe to be found.
I’m a huge fan of the so-called Automated Postal Centers, which let you send an envelope, mailer, or package without human intervention. A USPS spokesman tells me there are only 30 of them in “the Greater Boston area,’’ which apparently extends to Leominster and Worcester. I’d certainly like to see more of them.
Can this charming vestige of late-20th century bureaucracy be saved? Possibly, argues Shiva Ayyadurai, who teaches in MIT’s biological engineering department. Ayyadurai is an e-mail expert, and was a strident USPS critic, until one day the Service invited him inside the tent. “Late last fall, I got a call from the USPS Inspector General’s Office,’’ Ayyadurai recounts, “with the message, ‘We want to hear what you have to say.’ ’’
Ayyadurai has run workshops for the Service, and would like to see it move more aggressively into the field of commercial e-mail management and distribution. “I think this is the biggest opportunity they have. Mail delivery is a civic function, but we’ve given it away to Gmail, Yahoo!, and Hotmail,’’ he says. “The USPS has a trusted brand, they have feet on the ground, and they’re local.’’
“They could promise to send out your e-mail and you would know it won’t be tampered with, and your privacy would be protected. With Gmail and Hotmail you have no idea. They could do this and not have to build tons of new infrastructure. After all, these people are still in the mail business,’’ he says.
Let’s hope it stays that way.
Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is email@example.com.