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Digital SOS: How technology can save the USPS

Cindy Waxer | Dec. 9, 2014
Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night can compare with the challenges currently facing the United States Postal Service. Email continues to have a crippling effect on the centuries-old agency: The volume of first-class mail, or stamped mail, plummeted by 2.8 billion pieces in 2013.

"Every minute, we're getting bread crumbs from our delivery vehicles telling us where our employees are, which allows us to ensure their safety, predict delivery times and pick up urgent materials from our customers' doors," says Cochrane.

Outside-the-box IT

Far away from the Postal Service's customers and carriers is a bustling IT department packed with software developers, analysts and engineers. Here again, Cochrane breaks from tradition — opting to run his IT shop like the kind you'd find at a startup, not a staid government agency.

It's not that he never planned to go the traditional route. Cochrane tried centralizing the USPS IT team by establishing a Center of Excellence several years ago, but, he says, "I didn't get the response that I had hoped I would." Today, the shop operates as "more of a lab or studio where we bring people in and work on special projects and short-term wins," he says.

Subject matter experts in finance, human resources and operations are scattered throughout the organization, offering input when required, while a team of 1,000 IT professionals focuses on building systems and solutions. The USPS also employs about 80 data analysts, 80 payment technology specialists and 150 engineers who design and update sorting equipment.

Although not as centralized as most government IT shops, nor as nimble as a Silicon Valley startup, the USPS is working toward a universal goal: to redefine the role of IT. "We are not just an enabling function anymore," says Cochrane. "We're as core to what goes on around here as the chief operating officer and her team, or the chief marketing officer. That's the challenge that any CIO faces: Don't be a cost center; add value to the organization."

It's not the only challenge Cochrane faces. The USPS may be an independent establishment of the executive branch of the federal government, but Congress continues to wield enormous power over the agency, which is not funded by taxpayers. In recent years, congressional roadblocks have stymied Postal Service efforts to streamline operations, with lawmakers rejecting proposals to halt Saturday delivery of first-class mail — a move that would help cut costs and drive revenue — and preventing the USPS from consolidating little-used post offices in rural areas.

"We've been working within the government for over 240 years," Cochrane says. "We're proud of the fact that we're a government agency, don't get me wrong, but it does create different challenges."

Moreover, financial burdens imposed by Congress — such as the retiree health benefits mandate — have had a direct impact on the agency's IT budget. Saddled with 20-year-old delivery vehicles and aging parcel- and letter-sorting systems, Cochrane says the agency must be "very selective" in its purchasing process, and is often forced to put capital expenditure plans on the back burner.

 

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