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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.

Explaining the criteria used to determine IT spending, Cochrane says that "ROI wins — we look at a bunch of projects and decide which ones are going to deliver the most value for us." For instance, after experiencing encouraging growth in its parcel delivery business last year, the agency plans to make "a significant investment" in that division's tracking and sorting technologies, according to Cochrane.

Signed and sealed

Another factor that handcuffs the USPS is the fact that, as a government agency, it must protect consumer privacy.

These days, everyone from big-box retailers to healthcare providers are leveraging data to better target consumers, cut operating costs and drive revenue. And the Postal Service is sitting on a gold mine of such data: the bits and bytes on every single piece of mail exchanged among millions of Americans and the companies that sell to them.

Alas, the USPS "is held to privacy statutes that are built for government agencies," Cochrane says. "We know a lot about where mail goes, and where packages go, but we really can't use that information in a way that other companies might."

That's a missed business bonanza, says John Callan, co-founder of Ursa Major Associates, a postal logistics consultancy. "The USPS probably has more data than the National Security Agency," says Callan, who created PostalVision 2020, an annual conference that challenges some of the industry's brightest minds to reimagine the U.S. postal ecosystem. "But like the NSA, they are certainly not supposed to use it for commercial gain or anything other than the job of delivering the mail effectively."

Some wonder, though, if it's the USPS culture — not Congress — that is preventing the agency from seizing prime business opportunities. As Callan says, "Digital technology is not an inherent skill at the Postal Service; transportation is."

Contributing to this skills gap is the fact that the Postal Service, like most government agencies, simply can't deliver the financial perks and foosball tables that lure up-and-coming IT innovators to tech luminaries like Google and Amazon. And efforts to embrace trendy technologies like cloud computing have raised the ire of authorities. In September, following an internal audit, the USPS inspector general wagged a finger at the agency for not properly controlling applications in its cloud environment.

On top of that, in early November, the USPS became a victim of a cyberattack that threatened to put the names, addresses and Social Security numbers of 500,000 of its employees at risk. "It's an unfortunate fact of life these days that every organization connected to the Internet is a constant target for cyberintrusion activity," Postmaster General and CEO Patrick Donahoe said in an email statement. "The United States Postal Service is no different."


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