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Challenges Confronting and Confounding Institutional Change

“Is there anything in all of that to suggest a way forward”, a colleague asked me, “or are we just stuck here?” This essay draws on Mancur Olson’s “logic of collective action” to address this question by interpreting two anecdotes through Olson’s logic: both anecdotes involve short-sightedness, and in very different ways both involve the US Postal Service. One anecdote involves my own personal short-sightedness, dating back to the mid-1980s when I applied “technology assessment” consulting job with the then US Post Office. The other dates back to early February 2009 and involves the Postmaster General’s recently proposed remedy for this year’s $3-4 billion operating loss incurred by the now US Postal Service.

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Back in the mid-1980s, I applied for a job that would have involved me in helping the US Post Office prepare itself for the digital age. Importantly, although I didn’t realize it at the time, “prepare” was to be understood in a very broad sense. As I thought of myself as being a broad thinker, I thought I was a shoe-in for the job—but I was wrong! I let my own preferences constrain my imagination. For example, I loved to hand-write letters with my fountain pen. My aesthetics blocked my view of the future of e-mail, and that limited my preparation for the interview – and I didn’t get the job. As I’ve since allowed myself to learn, “digital” has expanded far beyond e-mail in its implications for me and for the Postal Service.

Keep my story in mind, and flash forward to early February 2009. The Postmaster General testified to a Congressional oversight committee that the Postal Service had incurred an operating loss of a few billion dollars over the past year. Then he suggested – whether as an honest effort to reduce operating expenses or as a bureaucratic ploy to seduce the Congress to increase funding remains unclear to me – that mail delivery be cut back by one day per week, from six days a week to five.

It’s not my purpose in writing this essay is to assess the likelihood that such a cutback would accomplish whatever the goals the Postmaster had in mind. Rather, I want to take a more expansive view of his technology options, the kind of view I wish I would have pursued twenty-five years ago – the kind of view that Olson’s logic helps me understand that I might have expected myself to overlook..

So, I conjecture about some premises that the Postmaster General’s suggestion itself suggests he may have left unstated, and so, unexamined. Let me begin at the USPO’s beginning; according to Wikipedia:

“The United States Post Office (U.S.P.O.) was created in Philadelphia under Benjamin Franklin on July 26, 1775 by decree of the Second Continental Congress. Based on the Postal Clause in Article One of the United States Constitution, empowering Congress “To establish post offices and post roads,” it became the Post Office Department (U.S.P.O.D.) in 1792… In 1971, the department was reorganized as a quasi-independent agency of the federal government and acquired its present name…” [02/09/2008; 10:34 EST]

The Framers must have viewed a postal system as pretty important, considering not only THAT they put it in the Constitution, but also where they put it: in the same Article as freedom of speech and separation of Church and State; AND, ahead of the Article about the right of militias to bear arms. But, let me add some context: posting a letter was the only way citizens of the new nation could maintain personal contact, share private ideas, and develop community unmediated by newspaper owners.

It was also a time when many Americans were too busy farming to shop, too self-sufficient to need to shop, and too exhausted from working to make “shop ‘til you drop” anything but a bad joke. It was also a time before the Sears’ catalogue arrived, not to mention before radio, television, and other more one-way communication media—and well ahead of telephones, e-mail, and cell phones, and other two-way media.

In short, the Framers must have seen the post as essential for reasons more critical than merely people “staying in touch”, buying things, getting junk mail; they must have seen the post as a way for people to connect as citizens building a democracy. It seems highly unlikely to me that any of them would have gone to the trouble of providing for post offices and post roads anywhere at all in the Constitution for any other reason, even if some of them had somehow anticipated the arrival of Sears’ catalogue in their “postbox”.

The point of this extended digression is to develop a basis for arguing (even though I am not a lawyer) that the current Postmaster General may be following the letter of Article One, but not the spirit – and that his reason for doing so is, whether intentional or inadvertent, primarily bureaucratic, and as such, hardly worthy of Franklin and his Fellows.

One of my bosses in the government described the job of a bureaucrat as follows: imagine yourself in a room full of balloons (note: air-filled, not helium-filled); a bureaucrat’s job, my boss told me, was to keep as many of the balloons as possible from hitting the floor. Well, I would like to think that his description was overly cynical, but that does seem to fit the Postmaster’s proposal for cutting back on delivery days.

That’s because the first rule of bureaucracy is to survive—so, he hit that balloon back up. The way to do that is to maintain as much scope of work as possible—so, he hit five of his six “delivery day” balloons, (on the surface) giving up some budget and some staff, rather than risking losing the whole bureaucracy – and his job along with it.

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But, lost in all the commotion around keeping as many balloons as he can from hitting the floor, is the question, what is the Postal Service for? If its purpose is limited to delivering bills, books, junk mail, and anything anyone might think of, then the Postmaster may be pursuing a sensible strategy of salvaging as much of his budget and people as he can, by sacrificing some of them.
However, if the raison d’etre of the Postal Service is to help connect citizens so they can build democracy, that changes everything – largely because technology of “being connected” has changed so much since Franklin’s time. And it seems that technology changes faster every day. It’s so hard to keep up with.

So, bureaucrats of the “keep the balloons from hitting the floor” school tend to tacitly agree to ignore the “keep up with new technology” balloon – politically, it doesn’t count, anyway. Of course, that’s only a tendency, as my own experience with the US Post Office trying to get out in front of all this illustrated.

Still, consider what the Postmaster did not say. He did not point out that Franklin et al had chosen what could be considered the hi-tech communication system of their day: post carriers, post offices, and post roads. Nor did he suggest that they would have chosen a higher tech system, were one available. Had he chosen this approach, the Postmaster might have cast his proposed his one-day cutback as the first step of several in getting the Post Office out of the 18th century.

He might have done the “communication for democracy” equivalent of the national telecommunication law, which mandates a transition to digital television, going so far as to specify a date by which the transition must be effected. (The fact that the date was recently slipped serves to strengthen my argument here: that bureaucracies slow down technological innovation—just as Olson’s logic would have us expect.)

He might have announced that the US Postal Service would begin transitioning away from delivering physical items to delivering only digital communication; that henceforth the Postal Service would dedicate itself to building infrastructure to support such communication—and, very importantly, undertake a literacy campaign to help everyone learn not only how to use the technology, but also how to feel comfortable doing so.

Remember: back when the original Post Office was founded, there were a lot of people who signed their name with an “X” because they couldn’t write—so that illiteracy — albeit of a different sort — was an obstacle for the early Post Office too.

[I’m hoping that the “fit” with Obama’s forward-looking, infrastructure building program is evident.]

What about the physical stuff that the Postal Service now delivers? Leave it for private firms. Why should the proud citizens of a democracy get involved in delivering junk mail?

Well, there is a reason, and Olson’s “logic” helps us understand it, too. Olson argues that interest groups tend to slow adoption of new technology. Consider the groups which have contributed to shaping how the Postal Service operates: bureaucrats and their supervisors, people who actually “carry the mail” (from pick up to delivery) and their representatives and people who support their work, mailbox makers, uniform suppliers, and others. It would hardly be surprising if every one of these groups were to resist the change to a digital Post Office. So strong might the resistance be that the idea for trying it might not occur to the Postmaster, much as it didn’t occur to me, lo! these many years earlier.

There are other aspects to consider: digital mail is “green” only after a lot of not-so-green etching fluids and other materials are left behind; privacy, security, stability-resiliency-robustness—to name a few challenges that a forward-looking Postmaster would probably have to work through. Still, in answer to my colleague’s question: yes, there is a chance, though—I fear—not a good one. And there is hope, but only if people keep open minds; there is hope, but realizing it practically will likely take more time and more effort than we might be willing to “invest”.

Robert A. Letcher, PhD
June 10, 2009

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Robert A. Letcher, Ph.D describes himself as "an academic with a disability instead of a portfolio, a writer, and a Qigong practitioner who tries to help people learn".