Anthony Frank soon will leave his job as postmaster general after having brought the world's largest company, kicking and screaming, into the era of automation. He did his job well, but the United States Postal Service remains mired in excessive red tape and too many customer complaints. Everyone, it seems, has a grudge against the post office.
Yet given the assignment, Mr. Frank and his army of 750,000 workers do amazingly well. Every day, they must sort and deliver 525 million letters to 118 million mail boxes. Yet only about 80 pieces of mail are lost forever each day, though as many as 14 people may handle each letter before it is delivered. Over 41 percent of the world's mail is handled by the U.S. Postal Service in its 40,000 facilities, five times the number of outposts claimed by McDonald's. The postal budget is nearing $50 billion.
Mr. Frank's four years have seen substantial gains in productivity and in improved customer service. The biggest advance has been in automation. By the end of this year, 71 percent of all mail will be bar-coded by machinery, a time-saving step that will help cut the postal payroll by 47,000 jobs. Instead of carriers spending four hours a day in the office sorting mail, bar-coding will cut that time in half, putting them on the street for six hours, covering longer routes.
More advances are in the works. By 1995, the agency hopes to have machinery in place that can read handwriting, another move that will eliminate thousands of jobs. Mr. Frank has managed, though, to trim the work force so far without imposing layoffs.
If postal rates are to remain stable over the long term, labor costs have to be reduced. Over 80 cents of every postal dollar goes toward salaries and benefits. That's why Mr. Frank concentrated on bringing automation into the agency in such a big way. It enabled him to substantially reduce the postal workforce through attrition.
Though people often complain about the Postal Service, it remains the most cost-efficient mail-delivery organization in the industrialized world. Our 29-cent rate for first-class letters compares favorably with Germany's 67 cents, Canada's 42 cents and Japan's 47 cents. And on a volume per employee basis, U.S. postal workers are twice as efficient as Germany's and 30 percent more efficient than Japan's.
Mr. Frank wasn't a favorite of postal union bosses. That didn't faze him. He tried to run the postal management more like a business and less like a stultified quasi-governmental bureaucracy. His successor will have to continue the trend toward automation and the shrinking of the payroll if the U.S. Postal Service is to avoid big jumps in the price of stamps -- and public outrage -- in the years ahead.