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Putting his stamp on the US Postal Service

(Page 2 of 2)

``One of the few things that I bring to this place - which of course will disappear over time - is the ability to look with what I call a strange eye at things that are accepted and ask questions,'' he says.

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So far, that ability has earned him strong support - not only from union leaders and postal insiders, but from the bevy of experts who track postal affairs.

``He's the most promising postmaster general that I have seen in my 20 years of covering the Washington postal scene,'' says Van H. Seagraves, editor of the highly regarded Business Mailers Review.

``He's got a heavy plate,'' remarks Janet D. Steiger, chairman of the Postal Rate Commission, who points to the challenge he will face in focusing on both cost and service. But she adds that ``he's very impressive - very determined, but deliberate.''

Michael Cavanagh, a longtime consultant in postal affairs, agrees. ``This guy really cares, and this guy is really bright,'' he says.

To be sure, he's full of ideas. Some are slightly tongue in cheek. Noting that 16 billion greeting cards are sent each year, he quips that ``one of my ambitions is to get Miss Manners to opine that it's an insult to hand-address an envelope - they should all be typewritten.''

Other ideas are aimed at improving the management structure. He's already lined up business guru H.Ross Perot to advise him on five areas of postal affairs. Frank is also reexamining the Postal Reorganization Act to see what changes might be necessary. One adjustment, he says, should be in the salary and fees paid to the Board of Governors, which have never been raised.

Other ideas, he says, are ``so fraught with danger the palms of my hands sweat.'' Example: a barter arrangement, whereby second-class mailers of periodicals could get a break in rates - or actually get paid by the USPS - for pre-sorting, bundling, and delivering their magazines or newspapers to predetermined post offices.

``I wonder if you couldn't go further and say, `Listen, if you do all these things for me, you've got a right to get something from me, and that's timeliness. And if I don't exhibit timeliness, maybe we ought to pay you for not getting it out there on time.'''

Wouldn't that amount to the USPS paying a fine?

``Why not?'' Frank counters. ``We do it with express mail. Would that make the postmaster more attentive if it didn't get out and he had to pay a penalty? You bet your life it would.''

Despite the flood of ideas, most of Frank's job will center on the old-fashioned virtues of holding costs in line with revenues. Part of the problem, he says, is in aging facilities that drag down efficiency. ``The physical plant is pathetic,'' he says. ``Our average facility is 32 years old. I don't know statistically if that means every time I see a new facility there's one that's 64 years old. I think that's what it means.'' He faults Congress for a budget-slashing that forced the Postal Service to put 750 building projects on hold.

He's also faced with rising volumes of mail. The Postal Service, which is adding 1.7 million postal patrons each year, estimates that it will carry 250 billion pieces of mail by the year 2000 - up from 153.9 billion in 1987. To meet the increase, Frank is pinning his hopes on some new technology - in particular, a new generation of optical mail readers and sorters - rather than on an increased work force. ``If we could hold employment at the present level [through the turn of the century], we'd be doing very well,'' he says.

But so far, he insists, the budget is under control. ``Last year the Postal Service did what in private industry would call for a knighthood: It came within 7/10ths of 1 percent of its budget.''

``Unfortunately,'' he adds, ``that translates into a loss of $223 million. The magnitudes here are unbelievable.''