Neither snow, rain nor privatization?
The nation’s postal service is ailing. The number of letters and parcels delivered has fallen about 30 percent in the past five years, alone. The agency has had to close rural post offices and increase the cost for delivering mail.
But there may be hope for the troubled agency, a plan that will also help reduce the federal deficit. Government officials want to sell the postal service this fall, and use the expected proceeds — an estimated $5.5 billion — to reduce the nation’s budget deficit.
Don’t panic, U.S. mail carriers and patrons. This effort is being undertaken in Britain with the United Kingdom’s Royal Mail. But it’s an idea that ought to be considered in the United States, as well.
It’s true that the U.S. Postal Service became a semi-private entity back in the 1970s, when it was spun off from the U.S. Post Office that had been around since the days of Benjamin Franklin. But Congress has never relinquished control of the Postal Service, and that has caused many of its problems.
When the Postal Service has proposed ending Saturday delivery or closing some rural post offices to help it cut costs, Congress inevitably squawks and prevents all but the tiniest changes. Additionally, Congress saddled the Postal Service with an upfront cost for retiree pensions that no other agency has to pay, adding billions to its annual deficits.
Couple this with the declining use of mail as people communicate more with email, text messages and social media, and operating at a break-even point — much less a profit — has become all but impossible for the Postal Service.
For many people, however, the fact that we have had a government-run mail delivery service for more than 200 years is reason enough to continue the service, even if it cannot be self-sustaining.
But Britain’s Royal Mail is even older. It has its roots in the 16th century and the court of Henry VIII, according to The New York Times.
Not surprisingly, the Royal Mail also has its defenders who don’t want to see it privatized, notably that country’s Communications Workers Union, which represents many of the employees of the service.
The UK government hopes to at least alleviate, if not eliminate, some of the opposition to the proposed sale from its workers and their unions by setting aside 10 percent of the Initial Public Offering exclusively for Royal Mail employees. To date, that has done little to reduce criticism of the plan.
Even so, the government hopes to go forward with the sale beginning with an official stock pricing in October.
How many investors will be willing to make offers on the historic government mail service is an interesting question. But officials with the U.S. Postal Service and members of Congress should pay close attention to how privatization of the mail service in Britain proceeds.