Can't Anybody Here Do This Job?

Last week, somebody sent me an overnight letter. The U.S. Postal Service tried to deliver it to my house during business hours. I was not home, of course, so the letter was taken away again. Was the document at the main post office? Or out with some postman? I eventually tracked it down, at far greater inconvenience than if it had been sent by regular mail for 29›.

If private carriers such as Federal Express and UPS can figure out how to leave express letters when the customer isn't home, why can't the Postal Service?

As my local postal superintendent explained, I am not the customer. The sender is the customer. And the Postal Service guarantees delivery to the sender. If express letters were left on doorsteps, they might get lost or stolen, the post office might be liable, etc. The Postal Service, however, does let the sender check off a little box authorizing the carrier to leave the letter on your doorstep. So there's no need to be inconvenienced. All you have to do is alert anyone in America who might possibly send you an overnight letter that you prefer it on your doorstep.

Or better yet, call FedEx. According to spokesman Brendon Davis, FedEx decided on its more permissive policy after surveying customers and calculating that the risk of a very occasional lost letter was less than the risk of irritating recipients as well as senders and losing business.

LAST RESORT. In an age when you can't walk into a bookstore without tripping over volumes on the importance of business becoming closer to its market, why can't public agencies become more "customer-driven"? The answer is...they can. As Michael Barzelay of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government argues in his new book, Breaking Through Bureaucracy, public agencies need not remain mired in what Barzelay terms a "bureaucratic paradigm." Government needs to reward results and stop rewarding compliance with nominal rules. Even the post office, to its credit, is learning. The Postal Service has been opening user-friendly retail stores that look and feel like places where you go to shop for services.

It's easy to be too harsh on the Postal Service, whose fledgling entrepreneurial spirit is compromised by its unique national role as courier of last resort. As a public institution, the Postal Service is also vulnerable to the political pressures that operate in a democracy. Did you know, for example, who has the contract to deliver overnight mail for the U.S. government? Federal Express, that's who. The reason is that FedEx can offer volume discounts to large customers--it charges Uncle Sam just $3.75 per overnight letter--while the U.S. Postal Rate Commission requires the Postal Service to charge all customers the same flat rate. The Postal Service's private-sector competitors regularly intervene in rate proceedings to lobby for keeping that rule.

I hope the Postal Service reads this column and does give to a consenting adult recipient the right to trade greater convenience for slightly increased risk of loss. Unlike some of my conservative friends, however, I don't conclude from my encounter with overnight mail that we should just give up and leave everything to the private marketplace. I conclude that we need to work harder to improve government.

DUMB RULES. A competent, customer-driven public sector is necessary, partly to provide services--and partly to keep the private sector honest. The Postal Service is far from America's worst bureaucracy. As any doctor reading this column will attest, the worst bureaucracy is the increasingly rule-driven private insurance industry, which now publishes books as thick as a telephone directory telling doctors which procedures they may use and at what rate of reimbursement. Patients and doctors alike want a coherent, simplified, and universal system of health care that returns clinical decisions to medical professionals. But, as the saying goes, if the government can't run the post office, how can it run a national health system.

Even liberals get exasperated at dumb public bureaucracies--yet the private bureaucracies are neither as efficient nor as self-cleansing as many of their champions insist. If government is to exist at all, we have no alternative to keep making it work better, learning from what both sectors do well. The same high-tech revolution that is finally paying off in private-sector productivity (BW--June 14) could transform the efficiency of the public sector.

And speaking of health care, here is one final anecdote from the front lines of that struggle. My friend Sandra Starr, an epidemiologist at the Health Research & Educational Trust of New Jersey, noticed that hospitals still type out birth certificates in quadruplicate. Copies are then sent to one of New Jersey's 567 municipal registrars, who place one copy into a thick binder and forward another to the state department of health in Trenton, where the information is finally keyboarded into a central data base. Starr suggested that a worker enter data at bedside, using a handheld computer linked with Trenton's central data base. She got the idea from observing FedEx.