Postal Updates

USPS seeks definition of its universal service obligation

Mar 12, 2020, 1 PM
The United States Postal Service’s universal service obligation has never been well defined.

Washington Postal Scene by Bill McAllister

For years postal officials have spoken of the mission of the United States Postal Service as something described as the agency’s universal service obligation, or USO.

The USO has never been well defined, but a number of speakers at a March 6 Capitol Hill conference on postal reform hosted by the Lexington Institute said the term urgently needs to be defined as the Postal Service seeks its way in a digital age that has already significantly changed mail use.

“Let’s determine the appropriate role for USPS and what the American public needs from its postal system in the 21st century,” suggested Michael Plunkett, president of the Association for Postal Commerce.

As simple as that might sound, Tammy Whitcomb, inspector general for the USPS, told the forum it isn’t an easy task.

Her agency has produced three reports on what the USO should be and soon will release a fourth, she said.

She said the USO means the “minimum degree of service offered across the country.”

Determining just what those services are is something that Congress has never done.

At a conference where Postmaster General Megan J. Brennan spoke about the need to cut the costs of postal operations, defining what the agency’s services should be is a critical task.

Robert Taub, chairman of the Postal Regulatory Commission, argued that “the single most important thing we can do for the Postal Service and the United States is to define the Postal Service’s Universal Service Obligation.”

“Only by defining the USO clearly can we begin to design a system that will fund the services required,” he said.

“It is our mission statement for the Postal Service,” Taub said. “Clarity of mission should be job one.”

Taub noted that a number of groups, including his commission and a presidential postal task force, have called for a clearly defined USO.

The Postal Service has said in testimony to Congress that “defining the USO is an important public policy task,” Taub noted.

Moreover, the USPS has told lawmakers that it planned “to develop and provide recommendations to Congress to redefine the USO,” the chairman noted.

But the Postal Service seems to be taking the stance that it is up to lawmakers to write that definition.

Recalling his commission’s efforts, Taub noted that, unlike postal administrations in other countries, the Postal Service’s USO remains “largely undefined and instead is comprised of a broad set of policy statements with only a few legislative proscriptions.”

The USO has seven attributes, Taub said. They are geographic, range of products, access to facilities, delivery frequency, prices and affordability, quality of service and user rights.

While Australia, Canada and Germany have detailed USOs for their postal agencies, U.S. lawmakers have given few specific service standards, he said.

The exception is the 1982 mandate to provide mail deliveries six days a week, Taub said.

Brennan, who will soon step down as the Postal Service’s chief executive, did not directly address the USO issue in her remarks.

She said she remains confident that the agency will remain “a bedrock institution” despite its severe financial troubles.

The postmaster general also expressed hope that Congress will remove some “mandated expenses we cannot afford.”

Brennan also said the agency should not “concede anything” in its competition for packages and predicted packages will continue to be a significant part of Postal Service’s services in the future.

“We will remain the face of the federal government in every market,” she said.

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