For decades, 2020 has been a time marker used for futuristic changes, the rise of technology, human advancement, and more. In 1997, Wired magazine picked 2020 as the year when “humans arrive on Mars.” Popular Mechanics in 1951 predicted that by 2020, every family would have at least one helicopter in their garage. A surgeon in the Royal College of Surgeons of England in 1911 predicted that by 2020, human beings would become one-toed because the small toes were being used less and less as time went on. Arthur C. Clarke, inventor, science writer, and futurist, said that by 2020, we would all live in flying houses that could move anywhere on earth at the owner’s whim.

There have even been radical futuristic predictions about mail, including a 1959 prediction by then-Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield that by 2020, "mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California, to Britain, to India, or Australia by guided missiles." [There actually was a successful 1959 test of mail delivery via missile where the Navy submarine U.S.S. Barbero used a rocket to send 3,000 letters to political figures; the nuclear warhead was taken out and replaced with mail containers, and the missile was launched towards the Naval Auxiliary Air Station.]

But what seemed like a long time in the future is nearly upon us, so let’s take a few moments to reflect on what 2020 likely will bring, and more importantly, the vision that is needed to take us into 2020 and beyond!

Changes in USPS Leadership and Oversight

Let’s start by re-capping the recent changes in the Postal Service’s leadership and oversight, which can have a significant impact on its strategic direction in 2020 and beyond.

2019 brought three new governors to the USPS’ Board, as well as three new commissioners on the Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC), bringing them to five members each – a full complement for the PRC and five out of the nine USPS governor seats filled, making it a quorum for the first time in years and heralding the elimination of the previously created “Temporary Emergency Committee” to govern the Postal Service. In 2019, the USPS also began changes to its strategic planning organization, creating a new Senior Vice President of Finance & Strategy group. The USPS’ Board of Governors, with the addition of three new governors in 2019, also is reportedly undergoing changes to its Strategic Planning Committee leadership.

2019 has also brought changes to the legislative oversight of the Postal Service with the recent death of Rep. Elijah Cummings, who chaired the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, which oversees the Postal Service. A new chair has not yet been named, but will certainly impact the work of the committee on postal-related legislation for the remainder of 2019 and into 2020. The USPS is also formulating a 10-year “financial sustainability” plan at the request of Congress that could include significant changes as the agency tries to stem its losses and control costs moving forward.

Lastly, the recent news of the impending retirement in January 2020 of Postmaster General Megan Brennan means that the Postal Service’s organization itself will undergo significant change in 2020 with new leadership at the top and the likely ripple effect of position changes within the USPS’ leadership team that historically comes with a new Postmaster General.

All these changes will shape the strategic planning of the Postal Service in 2020 and beyond, and could bring significant changes in direction.

The Future Is in the Data

The mailing industry and the Postal Service have changed significantly in the last decade, with the move to implement new technologies and “smart” processes – most of which are dependent on the Intelligent Mail data provided by mailers and mail service providers (MSPs).

Data in Intelligent Mail barcodes and electronic documentation uniquely identify mail pieces, handling units (trays/sacks, etc.), containers, and nesting relationships. This Intelligent Mail data is the under-pinning of a long and growing list of Postal Service initiatives designed to add value to and grow mail usage (e.g., Informed Delivery, tracking response rates, timing of omnichannel marketing activities, USPS promotions, ballot/election mail tracking, etc.), monitor and improve delivery service performance (e.g., internal USPS diagnostics to track mail movement, etc.); reduce costs (e.g., predictive workload analytics, transportation management, Informed Visibility, Move Update, etc.); and improve efficiency (e.g., Mailer Scorecard mail quality data, Mail Irregularity data and reporting, Seamless Acceptance, etc.).

The mailing industry has invested heavily in the equipment, systems, and processes to support the provision of Intelligent Mail data, all of which come with a cost to mailers and MSPs. While the USPS provides an IMb Full-Service price incentive to help offset these industry costs, there have been rumblings that the USPS may consider reducing those incentives now that a significant percentage of mail volume is prepared with an IMb. Mailers would argue that the data now provided along with the mail makeup has a high initial and ongoing cost and hope the USPS recognizes this in its long-term pricing strategies.

Vision Is Needed on USPS Financial Condition and Strategic Direction

There are other potential and significant activities that could occur in 2020, such as the PRC’s 10-year review of the CPI rate cap structure, which it began in 2017. In 2018, the PRC issued a set of proposals that met with extensive comment from stakeholders and the USPS, supporting or opposing different elements of the PRC’s proposals. With three new Commissioners coming on board in 2019, there likely has been time needed to for them to review and consider all the comments on its proposal, but it is possible that the PRC will issue a revised proposal in late 2019 or in 2020. Implementation time frame is unknown; it could happen as soon as 2020 or perhaps beyond.

Many stakeholders are concerned that the Postal Service or the PRC see price increases as a way to return the USPS to profitability. With real competitive alternatives available in lieu of many mail categories, price increases are likely to drive volume out of the system, increasing the share of institutional costs that remaining mail users must pay, which would create a “death spiral” of escalating prices and declining volumes.

There are many ways, however, that the Postal Service can reduce its “controllable” costs. Long-term vision, innovation, and willingness to pilot test some new concepts are essential in future USPS leadership if the agency is to succeed in maintaining or growing mail volume, increasing its share of the parcels and returns markets, and reducing its costs through increased workshare models to stabilize its financial condition. The Postal Service should focus on its core mission and strength – last-mile delivery – and look to reduce costs and increase efficiencies through collaboration and partnership opportunities in the first and middle mile. The last mile “delivery” environment is rapidly changing, in part because of consumer demand for immediacy of delivery, convenience, and reliability. There are constant innovations being seen, redefining even where the “last mile” of tomorrow may be (e.g., at the grocery store, or pharmacy, etc.) and challenging the USPS in new ways to compete for last-mile delivery.

Other Postal Changes Coming in 2020

If the above were not enough to think about in terms of changes coming in 2020, there are also changes that impact mail preparation and entry, and the day-to-day operations of mailers and MSPs. The USPS is scheduled to publish proposed rules mandating Seamless Acceptance by 2021, which will be a huge change for those mailers and MSPs not already utilizing the program. The USPS also will implement a new package platform that will bring changes for parcel shippers. The USPS’ price changes taking effect in January 2020 will drive mailer/MSP mail entry and preparation behaviors. July 2020 will bring changes in USPS international prices, which likely will be paired with price increases for inbound international shipments coming from other countries.

And these are just the changes coming in 2020 that we know about. There are other unknown possibilities: Will the USPS’ financial pressures cause it to close more processing plants, or post offices, or make changes in its service standards/performance? What strategic direction changes might the next Postmaster General and new USPS governors bring? Will postal legislation move forward and if so, what changes will that bring? Will the PRC move forward on its 10-year review and make changes to the USPS rate structure?

Stay tuned to find out; 2020 is just around the corner!

Kathleen J. Siviter is Asst. Executive Director of the National Association of Presort Mailers (NAPM) as well President of Postal Consulting Services Inc. (PCSi), and she has over 30 years’ experience in the postal industry. She has worked for the U.S. Postal Service, Association for Postal Commerce (PostCom), and others, as well as providing consulting services to a diverse set of clients with interest in the postal industry. She has also worked with PostalVision 2020, an initiative designed to engage stakeholders in discussions about the future of the American postal system.

This article originally appeared in the November/December, 2019 issue of Mailing Systems Technology.