In the future will everyone have an email inbox as well as a mailbox?
Paul Vogel is, in his own words, trying to bring the US Postal Service “from the today world into the tomorrow world”.
Vogel is the president of digital solutions for the Postal Service, a position he’s held since last May. The Postal Service is backed into a financial corner – with losses last year of $16bn – and there are quite a few people who believe that, to survive, it has to become about more than physical mail. Digital package tracking, quick response codes that would allow consumers to scan their mail with their smartphones, “m-commerce” using mobile devices – this is all part of Vogel’s mandate.
Vogel considers it his mission to upend mail delivery from being just about catalogs and bills, and make it into a world of platforms and apps. So he doesn’t call what he does “postal;” he refers to “the message industry”. The companies and people who use it are “the message community”.
Right now, the postal service delivers around 160bn pieces of mail per year. None of them have pixels. The service is so tightly regulated that it’s not even clear yet that it has the legal ability to move into internet messaging. Vogel acknowledges, with some understatement, that he has his work cut out for him. “We’re not seen as a digital brand,” he says.
Vogel models his effort on Silicon Valley tech startups. He describes his Washington office – in US Postal Service headquarters – as an open pit, which he compares to a technology lab at your average San Jose start-up. He has 15 developers, all working on Apple and Android applications, and various consultants streaming in and out. Most are contractors. His office has a computer – just one – but he rarely uses it: he’s addicted to his BlackBerry. “If it can’t be done on mobile, it’s probably not worth doing,” he says.
Right now, the postal service’s biggest tech effort is the creation of MyPost, a digital platform that it is working on alongside UPS. MyPost would be a kind of personalized website that would allow people to log in and see all the packages that are coming to them, as well as all the packages they’ve already received, in one digital place. (Vogel likes to order things through the mail, and it annoys him to have to track things down: “I had a miserable time this Christmas, and I had to go to 10 to 15 sites to find out where things are,” he recalls.)
Hacking is a concern. He’s been talking to MIT and Carnegie Mellon about improving internet security to avoid hacking and identity theft; he’s been chatting with telecommunications companies and three big banks, which he says are eager to see the postal service get into the 21st century.
There are plenty of others. Almost everyone who knows the USPS has ideas on what it could do better. Lawmakers have suggested that it could use its crown jewels – its fleet of trucks – as billboards for advertising.
Ruth Goldway, the chairman of the Postal Regulatory Commission, says the USPS should act like a start-up in earnest. “I keep telling them to find some young people and buy them out, the way Google does,” she says of the search for technological talent. “Just give them huge contracts.” Goldway’s opinion matters: one proposed piece of legislation would give the commission the ability to approve any new products – including digital ones – for the postal service.
David Williams, the inspector general for the US Postal Service, audits it regularly. He has ideas for its digital transformation.
“We’re strong advocates of extending the embrace of the postal service to include digital communications,” he says. “We believe everyone should have an email inbox as well as a mailbox.” He sees the postal service as being in the center of the American economy. “It used to be that a person could walk into a marketplace and hand over cash to buy goods. Now all four of those things exist in cyberspace.”
Williams pictures a postal service that could run a kind of e-government platform: an email inbox that would be certified by the post office and that could be used not just for messages, but also as a kind of cloud server to store passwords, medical documents, photographs, authorizations for doctors … a kind of federal safe-deposit box for sensitive personal information. Picturing a potential firestorm over privacy, I asked him if people wouldn’t become queasy at the thought of so many personal documents within reach of the federal government. “It would be strictly voluntary,” he replied. “I think there are a lot of assurances against the postal service opening communications.”
Williams, like Vogel, recognizes that smartphones are an increasing part of the economy as well. Williams pictures QR codes on all mail, so, for instance, if you receive a catalog, you could waft your phone over the QR code to find, and buy, offers on the spot.
There are some far-out ideas as well. As more distant possibilities, Williams suggests 3D printing to cut down on delivery costs; instead of picking up a package for certain bulky things, you could go to a 3D printing facility that would print it for you.
He also mentions “digital cash” that would allow the postal service to act like a currency exchange for people who get paid through debit cards – a growing trend – but need to actually get cash.
But the Postal Service still has some roadblocks. There is the legislative roadblock of obtaining permission to create digital products. The postal service is also not known for being nimble; it currently has a 1500-page instruction manual for people who would do business with the postal service, and that’s for only a handful of products. The size of a manual for digital products and security certifications would boggle the mind.
In addition, the path of the postal service for the past few years has not been growth, but shrinkage. As mail volumes have fallen, so have staff numbers. There are legislative proposals to cut even further.
One casualty of that has been the postal service’s retail stores. To get to e- and m-commerce, the postal service would do well, in the eyes of some, to stay in physical commerce first. Goldway is displeased that the USPS has shrunk its number of retail stores, when, in her opinion, it should be expanding its presence in each community to make more money.
The options are endless – at least, until Congress weighs in on the financial future of the USPS, which it is expected to do this year. In the meantime, Vogel, laid up with the flu at home, can’t keep the enthusiasm out of his voice.
“I just wish I had a thousand people to work on all of these ideas,” he says.