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What the U.S. Can Learn From Norway’s Postal Reforms

You probably think you’ve heard it before. The nation’s top postal official wants to end Saturday delivery because he thinks it’s no longer cost-effective. He’s closing government post offices and opening up new ones in stores, insisting this will save money and provide more convenience to customers.

Yes, U.S. Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe is calling for these things. But so is Norway Post Chief Executive Officer Dag Mejdell. Norway Post isn’t doing as badly as the USPS, which lost $5 billion in 2013. But Mejdell says he has to prepare for the increasingly paperless future that imperils all government mail operations.

Part of Mejdell’s plan is to cut services like Saturday delivery, but he’s also introducing new ones. Norway has created a national digital mailbox called DigiPost, where residents can receive utility bills, bank statements, and communications from government agencies without having to log on to the various websites. Norwegians used it to send 3 million pieces of correspondence in 2013.

Mejdell acknowledged in 2011 that DigiPost would likely cannibalize physical volume. But he insisted this was something Norway Post had to risk. “Nowadays, more and more communication is taking place digitally,” he said at the time. “Norway Post wants to take part in these developments.”

There’s a lot the U.S. could learn from Norway. In the last few years, the debate in Washington has been primarily about preserving service. Congress members have fought to save small post offices in their districts, and they’ve kept Donahoe from ending Saturday delivery. Now union leaders are fighting his efforts to open up post offices in Staples (SPLS) stores.

There’s very little talk about what the USPS should look like in the future. The idea that’s gotten the most attention recently is a proposal by the USPS inspector general to open banks in post offices. Norway Post already does that, but it says it’s seen a significant decline in that business because of the Internet.

Ultimately, the USPS needs to start digitizing the mail stream as Norway Post has done. It has tried to move in that direction in the past, only to be thwarted by Congress. This will hasten the demise of first-class mail, which will lead to more post office closings and physical service cuts. But these things are already happening under the system that many in Washington are trying ill-advisedly to protect. If Congress wants the Postal Service to survive for another 238 years, it needs to pay more attention to Norway.

Leonard is a staff writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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