published Sunday, April 24th, 2011

Barrett: Snail mail inquires about a prescription for sleeping pills

If, 20 years from now, the post office’s sole remaining duty is pretending to deliver Santa letters, it will have itself to blame.

You might think the Olympic-class hemorrhaging the Postal Service has suffered from the growth of email and online bill paying, and from competition with private delivery companies, would awaken its interest in what the public actually wants.

You might be wrong.

The agency is asking Congress to let it drop Saturday delivery, saying that would save $3.1 billion per year. (For the record, the independent Postal Regulatory Commission recently said the savings would be only about half that much.) But not only is that proposed “solution” of dubious fiscal value, it may not even be the public’s preferred option.

By my lights, the least customer-friendly day to eliminate delivery would be Saturday, or maybe Monday. Dropping either means we’ll have a 72- rather than a 48-hour wait between deliveries at the end of one week and the beginning of another. Savor, good reader, the delights of slashing through an especially unkind thicket of credit card offers and insurance pitches once delivery finally resumes.

But the real fun will be on weekends with a federal holiday on Monday. If Saturday delivery has gone the way of the Zell Miller Democrat, we’ll have a nice four-day lag.

Why not just slap mailbags on a herd of unionized tortoises and be done with it? I mean, this is an agency whose services are already dismissed as “snail mail,” a slur that has prompted threats of a libel suit — by snails.

Considering what seem like fairly obvious disadvantages, I thought it odd that the Postal Service’s website declared Saturday “the best day to eliminate carrier delivery. ... Most businesses and households surveyed in a national Gallup Poll indicated Saturday would be the least disruptive day to eliminate mail delivery.”

Uh, no they didn’t — and the Postal Service acknowledged as much after I kept asking questions over a two-and-a-half-week period. As it turns out, the agency’s push for dropping Saturday versus some other day was based on the Postal Service’s preference, not necessarily on what the public needs.

Here’s how I found that out.

I asked the agency for the polling data that supposedly substantiated the claim that the general public would rather lose Saturday than a different delivery day. In response, I got the text of Gallup polls from 2009 and 2010. The surveys asked respondents’ views on the best ways to rescue the Postal Service from its collapsing fortunes. Among the options presented were reducing delivery from six to five days, reducing the number of days post offices are open from six to five, raising stamp prices and so forth. But neither survey inquired about dropping Saturday delivery versus some other day of the week. Nor did a 2011 Rasmussen Reports survey.

I asked again. This time, I got hundreds of pages of testimony provided to the Postal Regulatory Commission, as well as surveys by The Washington Post and Parade magazine. Some of the material did suggest the public would rather drop Saturday than give tax dollars to the Postal Service, boost stamp prices and such. But only one small part of it all — a bit of the testimony presented to regulators — touched on whether the public would rather lose delivery on Saturday than on some other day. That was information gleaned from focus groups, and the testimony itself acknowledged those findings are “not statistically representative of customers.”

I also contacted Gallup directly for its research. It could provide only the surveys I already had.

So I turned afresh to the Postal Service: “I do not — so far — see data to back the claim that dropping Saturday delivery rather than a different day of the week is preferred by the public,” I wrote. “Please point me specifically to the data that would demonstrate that, if I am missing it in the material you have sent me.”

But no one could point me to those data, because, apparently, the data don’t exist.

A courteous spokesman for the Postal Service, Gerry McKiernan, called to acknowledge that the jumbo platter of figures provided to me did not in fact indicate a clear public preference for ending Saturday delivery rather than some other day.

“Maybe we’ve tried to manage the discussion by getting the word out on Saturday first,” he said. The agency “just sort of framed the discussion” in favor of Saturday, and its wording suggesting public approval was “too robust.” He said that in response to my questions, the Postal Service plans to revise claims on its website to reflect what the data actually show. (At this writing, I’m still waiting for those revisions to take place.)

For the record, of course, Saturday isn’t necessarily the wrong day to drop. McKiernan says there are sound economic reasons why it is better than other days.

Fair enough. But at least the Postal Service acknowledges that it is not proper to advance that argument on the basis of shaky or nonexistent data.

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