Aug. 9 2011 08:15 PM

In a lighter moment at last year's Innovation Symposium that was part of the Mailers Technical Advisory Committee meeting, a few attendees joked that the Postal Service needed to develop a transporter, the fictional teleportation machine of Star Trek fame. These would be the ideal delivery system - very low labor costs and extremely precise and punctual delivery. While the idea was clearly a joke, the larger point of the discussion was not lost on those in attendance: We will still need some sort of physical mail delivery system for a number of years. Even as electronic and digital communications grow, people continue to order goods for physical delivery to their homes or businesses. Minus a transporter, they won't simply appear at the door. Someone has to deliver them.

But what that future postal system should look like is part of the debate now roiling through the mailing community. With less mail volume and fewer customer visits to post offices, it seems clear that it will have to be a leaner version of what we have today. Postmaster General Pat Donahoe acknowledges as much, stating as one of his strategic goals to "become a leaner, faster, smarter organization." Yet, even a smaller Postal Service is a huge organization. With $67 billion in revenue, it is the largest civilian organization in the federal government and if it were a private sector company would be ranked 29th on the Fortune 500 list. A $10 billion or $15 billion drop in revenue, which is enormous, still leaves the Postal Service as a $50 billion entity - bigger than Google, bigger than Starbucks and many other ubiquitous companies.

But our focus shouldn't only be on size. It should also be on mission. That is, we should think about the Postal Service's mission, which undoubtedly needs an update in this era of digital communications. Let's build the new business model with the mission in mind. Then, we can figure out how to tailor the organization to meet the mission. Yes, I'm sure it will mean a smaller version of what we have today, but at least we'd be rightsizing with this key piece of the strategic goal in hand.
It might surprise people to know that for nearly 235 years, the Postal Service's mission has remained essentially unchanged. Despite the dramatic changes in communications, the primary mission continues to be to "bind the nation together" through "reliable, affordable, universal mail service delivery." As the 2003 Presidential Commission on the United States Postal Service said, "The national post office has bound the country together and advanced commerce by enabling the exchange of goods, ideas and information." This universal service obligation is enshrined in statute and the Postal Service is responsible for meeting the obligation in good economic times and bad.

With so many other ways to communicate and less reliance on hard copy, does the mission still make sense? Does mail really still bind the nation together? Should universal service be redefined to allow for less frequent delivery, or lower service standards, or for a variation in prices rather than a uniform First Class stamp? Should the Postal Service's primary role be as a supplemental provider for those who can't or won't make the leap to digital communications? Should the mission include an explicit reference to a digital role for the Postal Service? Or should Congress start making plans to slowly wind down this national infrastructure?

These are difficult policy decisions that no matter how they are decided would make some portion of stakeholders unhappy. But talking about a future postal system without talking about the Postal Service's mission in a rapidly changing communications environment makes no sense. Let's be proud of how well the Postal Service has met its mission for 235 years, but let's not kid ourselves into thinking it can last another two centuries. We have a better chance of seeing that transporter invented.