Boston — Is the United States Postal Service (USPS) really becoming more efficient? Or do the numbers simply make it look that way? Figures developed by Postal Service managers suggest that, between 1979 and 1983, productivity increased at an annual rate of 4.5 percent.
But a study of postal productivity done by RRC Inc., a private research firm in Bryan, Texas, calls the USPS figures ``seriously deficient'' and ``largely useless,'' and suggests the real increase is about 0.7 percent.
Measuring productivity is especially important in a business where personnel costs make up 84 percent of the total budget, analysts of Postal Service affairs say. They note that the USPS, facing an estimated $500 million deficit this year, might cut costs by trimming its labor force -- but only if the remaining employees are becoming more productive.
Last December's contract agreement, which awarded postal workers a substantial wage boost, was clearly influenced by the productivity figures. Referring to the increase, the arbitrator wrote, ``we were impressed . . . by an increase of 4 percent per work year in items handled and delivered.''
The RRC study, calling into question that figure, has been the subject of recent controversy. It was prepared under a USPS contract and delivered in stages to postal management between June and November of 1984.
Postal Service officials, stating that the report constituted only one of ``a number of approaches'' to the problem of measuring productivity, claimed it was not subject to disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act. They repeatedly refused to release it to an employee of the Postal Rate Commission (PRC), the independent body that approves requests for rate increases.
In early July the PRC employee, Elliott H. Rock, was told that the report ``does not yet exist.''
Even after the Business Mailers Review, a trade newsletter, published excerpts from the report on July 8, postal managers refused to release it to the PRC. They also denied several requests by The Christian Science Monitor for a copy.
On Aug. 1, the Monitor printed a story tracing the history of Mr. Rock's attempts to obtain the report, quoting several members of the USPS Board of Governors to the effect that postal management should cooperate fully with the PRC. The next day, USPS officials mailed a copy to Rock and sent one to the Monitor.
According to the RRC report, the discrepancy in productivity figures arises because the USPS figure simply reflects the number of pieces of mail handled per year divided by the number of man-years used to process them.
In recent years, that number has grown steadily. But RRC analysts say the growth may be due less to improved labor efficiency than to such factors as ``the [increasing] volume of presorted mail, increased number of delivery addresses, [and] new equipment.''