USPS Claims Service Improvements

Anyone even marginally attentive to USPS service performance knows that, over the past year, the agency has struggled because of pandemic-related absenteeism, process failures, a lack of air transportation, a surge of packages, and other atypical circumstances that led to network congestion and significant declines in service.  Though some of those conditions have eased – such as a slowly stabilizing workforce and more air transportation availability – service remains subpar in many parts of the country.

The growing shortfall between established service standards and actual performance had been evident in the service scores for years, but that worsened as the pandemic took hold early in 2020, as shown in the quarterly scores beginning in PQ II/FY2020 (January-March 2020).

(Scores for PQ III/FY2021 (April-June 2021) won’t be released until after the Board of Governors meet on August 6.)

Progress or appearances

Ever since Postmaster General Louis DeJoy released his 10-year Plan (“Delivering for America”) on March 23, the USPS has been prosecuting a public relations campaign to promote its as the singular and unprecedented blueprint to solve the agency’s manifold problems, from finances to service, and has taken every opportunity to cite it as the basis for whatever positive the agency has to report.

No exception to this has been a series of weekly press releases distributed since early June that claim to show dramatic and steady improvement in service performance.  The data in those releases is summarized in the chart below.

As much as commercial mail producers and their clients may be hopeful for truly better service, the Postal Service’s weekly self-congratulations may be more effective at creating the appearance of better service than reflecting the reality of how service really is.

Part of the agency’s obvious strategy is to supply high-level, aggregated numbers that homogenize the volumes of underlying performance data detailing how individual facilities, districts, and other administrative components are performing.  Another part of the strategy is to make a favorable comparison, citing improvement compared to a time when service (during its lower periods) was clearly worse.  A third element of the announcements is to refer back to the same time period (e.g., the end of a previous quarter) rather than to the previous week, thus enabling the claim for “continuous” improvement and obscuring the underlying inconsistency.  Again, this creates the desired appearance without disclosing any of the inconvenient details – such as that flats are still a problem, that some parts of the country are still experiencing bad service, or that 3-to-5-day scores for First-Class Mail are well below the class average.

Don’t ask questions

Presumably, the public (having only the slightest awareness of what the data represent) will be impressed that the scores are improving, and will believe whatever the USPS says is the reason for that improvement.  Typically, the releases also are used as opportunities to again promote The Plan or cite other contributing measures taken by DeJoy (reducing air transportation, deploying additional parcel handling equipment, or preparing for the 2021 holiday mailing season).  As a result, by presenting allegedly improved service and the PMG’s Plan in the same package, the PR folks clearly want the public to make a connection and conclude that DeJoy and his plan are fixing whatever caused the recent service issues.

While it’s notable that the usually staid Postal Service suddenly has something to say, it’s equally notable that the purposes of the recent campaign seem to be less to provide critical information than to persuade people that service is improving and that credit should go to DeJoy and his Plan.

Such a positive spin is necessary, the publicists accurately conclude, because other aspects of DeJoy’s Plan – a price increase approaching 9% and a national reduction in service for First-Class Mail and some Periodicals – have been less than warmly received by mailers (the people who pay the Postal Service’s bills).

When the PQIII scores are released, better numbers should be presented, but it’s likely that the Postal Service will pick the bright spots as the focus for the inevitable press release.  That may work for public consumption by the otherwise uninformed, but it won’t convince statement processors, remittance mailers, businesses advertising time-sensitive promotions, or publishers that the USPS (and DeJoy) are actually providing the levels of service they should.

In a recent speech, a former president stated that “if you say it enough and keep saying it, they’ll start to believe you.”  The gist of the remark is that people, typically disinterested in determining the veracity or accuracy of a statement, will, if they hear it repeated often enough, come to accept it as fact – and then themselves repeat it as fact.

This flaw in human nature lets clever marketers, politicians, and others with a position to promote broadcast a message that, even if not outright false, still provides a set of carefully selected facts that have been assembled to support the speaker’s contention.

In this case, the USPS hopes that if it keeps telling people service is improving, no one will look behind the claims and, in turn, will both believe and repeat what’s not entirely true.

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