FORGET about snarling dogs or icy slashes by winter's battle-ax winds. In Chicago, the United States Postal Service believes its fiercest adversary is nothing other than itself.
Facing complaints from officials and the public, Postmaster General Marvin Runyon has dispatched a team of postal experts to shake up a mail service that he calls ``inexcusable.''
The Chicago Task Force will supervise city mail until there is improvement in what the public ranks as the worst postal service among 170 major US cities, says Joseph Caraveo, chief operating officer of the postal service.
Critics of the Chicago postal service say several years of tardy or undelivered mail has meant countless losses in jobs and business opportunities and conflicts between debtors and creditors.
Officials and other critics say Mr. Runyon is just the latest official inside and outside the postal service who has sought to improve Chicago's mail delivery.
Some politicians say they believe that without extraordinary measures, the mail service will still prove impervious to reform. Indeed, the flap over the mail illustrates how local elected officials make political hay from the mistakes of the federal bureaucracy.
Although the postal service has publicly criticized itself and begun efforts at change, it still is lambasted by Chicago politicians from City Hall to Capitol Hill.
Recently, a series of first-class abuses have highlighted the long-standing inefficiencies of Chicago mail service and given mailbox owners and their political representatives cause to sound off.
The postal service last month discovered that one of its carriers had stashed 30,000 pieces of mail in his truck.
Then, on March 18, 200 pounds of bulk mail was found burning beneath a viaduct. Later that day, some 20,000 pieces of mail postmarked as far back as 1979 were found in an abandoned building.
In a visit to Chicago March 21, Runyon stopped by post offices and distribution sites and listened to irate citizens at a public meeting. He said poor service was due to obsolete equipment, anachronistic buildings, and a tradition of authoritarian management. He said although it usually takes a large firm seven years to reshape its corporate culture, the postal service would do so in about five.
That drew criticism, however, from Mayor Richard Daley, who seemed to understand Runyon to have pledged that mail would move reliably only after five years had passed. ``For him to say it's going to take five years to straighten out the post-office problem in the city - we're talking about the year 2000 - that's unbelievable!'' Mr. Daley said March 23.
US Rep. Sidney Yates (D) of Illinois has tried for much of the past decade to force a turnaround. Last week, the congressman threatened to ask Attorney General Janet Reno to prosecute the postal service for failing to fulfill its legally mandated mission.
Runyon has said the task force will provide an interim report on changes in the city postal system within three months. But the most profound and far-reaching reform must be in mail carriers' minds, says James Mruk, spokesman for the Chicago postal service.
``We want to get away from a culture where you go from saying, `Do what I say!' to `What do you think?' '' according to Mr. Mruk.
``We want our managers to get suggestions from employees, have a more open atmosphere, so that basically anyone with a good idea -
whether they're sweeping the floor, sorting mail, sitting in the executive suite - will get equal consideration for their ideas.''
Even before its recent mishaps, public attitudes toward the mail service had reached a low. In a December postal-service poll, 88 percent of customers nationwide were satisfied with mail delivery. But just 64 percent of Chicagoans were pleased, according to Mruk.