Do not understand the curious competence / incompetence of the post office

FREnvelopeI’ve been mailing out a lot of books, both ARCs of mine and those of friends of mine, which means I’ve had to learn the cheapest and easiest ways of shipping things. And the winner, hands down, is the Post Office’s Flat-Rate Priority Envelope. It’s only 5 bucks, regardless of weight, and whatever you put into the envelope will get there in two days! Furthermore, you don’t even need to go anywhere! The Post Office will ship you the flat-rate envelopes for free, and then you can either drop them off in the mailbox (if they’re under thirteen ounces) or schedule a pick-up (also free) from your home. It’s ridiculously easy and simple and cheap. What’s more, the USPS website is easy to use as well! It’s very clean and very intuitive.

What I still don’t understand, though, is how can all of this good, efficient, and innovative service be coming from the same organization that routinely subjects me to such torment each time I go to the post office? I mean seriously. The lines are always incredibly long and slow, and the clerks are always so unhelpful (and oftentimes downright hostile). It’s the opposite of their website. On their website, complicated things are simple, but when you go in person, simple things become ridiculously complicated. For instance, when I tried to do some flat-rate shipping in person, I got all the envelopes and waited in line for half an hour and when I got to the front, they were like, “You’re using the wrong envelopes. Those are the envelopes for one-day service.” WTF! Then I told them fine whatever I’ll send them one-day, and they were like, “Then you’re using the wrong packing slip. You’re using the packing slip for two-day service!”

The difference here is literally just a word on the envelope, but there wasn’t an ounce of explanation anywhere. The Post Office (like most government offices) assumes that you understand everything when you get in there. It’s profoundly disrespectful of their consumers–most private organizations have long ago realized that the organization is supposed to fit itself to the consumer, rather than the other way around.

And yet, and yet, and yet…everything else about the post office is so good!

It will forever remain a mystery, I think.

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  1. Rob

    Institutions aren’t monoliths! Particularly in government. This is the single most important insight to have about the government of the United States. Seriously, as soon as you realize the government is run by individuals with competing incentives and plans and rivalries and competencies, it’s like the whole thing cracks open and you can see inside. It’s the driving insight of my legal career, and shocking how thoroughly people misunderstand it.

    The people who designed and implemented the post office’s website are extremely good at their jobs, probably because they’re small teams enthusiastic tech people doing a two-year stint in public service before returning to the private sector, with competent, politically appointed leadership. The physical post office is a bastion of old-school civil service with a culture of neglect and disrespect (driven largely by job security, but also supervisory structure, hiring, being forced to interact with dumb, angry, confused or crazy customers, etc.).