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USPS Inspector General David C. Williams came to MIT last Thursday to discuss the future of the United States Postal Service as part of MIT’s Communication Forum. The talk touched upon important issues that the Postal Service must face in order to survive the current economic climate.

With the Postal Service on the verge of cutting 200,000 jobs, Williams is on the lookout for solutions that could help the USPS adapt to today’s technological environment. “We are losing billions of dollars and have been losing billions of dollars,” he said.

The talk’s panel also included Richard J. John, Professor in Columbia University’s School of Journalism, and Kent B. Smith, manager of strategic business planning for the USPS.

All three panelists agreed that the USPS plays an important role by upholding the civic mandate that preserves security, privacy, and confidence in message delivery. Such Internet technologies, like email and text messaging, fail to provide the security that American citizens need from their government. John, who gave a historical lesson at the talk about the emergence of the postal service, described the USPS as a “reservoir of goodwill that resides in the mandate.”

However, at the pace that technology is advancing, it is hard to predict and keep up with future technologies. “Laptops and email became so five nanoseconds ago,” joked Williams.

As a consequence of the rapid development, security and privacy have taken a back seat when it comes to messaging (i.e. email and social media). “Net neutrality should be decided by the public,” Williams said.

Smith believes that the USPS can succeed by creating tools that integrate with current technologies and keep the civic mandate to uphold privacy and security. “We’re just begging to see the marriage; where the Internet is connected to mail … that will determine the future,” he said.

With the emergence of new communication media like social media and email, time and space have disappeared as limiting boundaries to messaging. “We don’t know a lot of things that are currently going on. Is email killing mail? Is tweeting and blogging killing email?” said Williams.

This is not the first time the USPS has found itself in trouble as result of new technology. The USPS has had a history of adapting to the environment as result of emergent technologies including the telegraph, telephone, and fax.

However, today’s situation is more complex. The blending of social media with smartphone devices has created an microcosm with which the USPS has not been able to integrate.

The USPS has grown immense in size. In 2010, the USPS generated a revenue of $67 billion, delivered 171 billion pieces of mail delivered, and employed 574,000 workers. “The Postal Service is a beast,” said Smith.

According to Smith, one primary goal for the USPS is to consolidate and simplify its services. Since 2006, the USPS has reduced the number of major mail processing facilities from 673 to 487, with a goal of keeping only 200. The number of employees has also decreased from 696,000 to 574,000 and will continue to decline in the coming year.

Williams agrees, saying that the number of post offices should be reduced, and that these consolidated numbers should be located in “the right places to meet supply and demand.”

According to Smith, the USPS will delay the closing of some offices in preparation for the upcoming primaries and presidential election.

Shiva Ayyadurai ’87 — MIT lecturer in Writing and Humanistic Studies and the Department of Biological Engineering — moderated the talk.