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In the U.S. Congress, a cheer for the end of home mail delivery in Canada

WASHINGTON - The announced demise of home mail delivery in Canada has prompted a celebratory reaction from one U.S. lawmaker, who longs to see his own country adopt a similar reform to end residential postal service.

Last week's news had Republican congressman Darrell Issa issuing a statement saying he "applauded" Canada for applying a principle found in his own bill to overhaul the United States Postal Service.

"As technology advances, the Canadian people are changing the way they use paper mail. Canada Post has recognized this reality and responded to it. The Canadian government is supportive of its decision to modernize," said the California representative.

"The American people have also changed the way they use paper mail and the cash-strapped United States Postal Service must respond accordingly."

Americans are grappling, like their neighbours to the north and more distant nations around the planet, with ways to reform the post office in an era of technology-driven disruption of traditional business models.

Other countries have introduced drastic changes.

Just last week, it was announced that shares of the U.K.'s Royal Mail would be listed on the FTSE 100 after they had surged in their first two months as a publicly traded entity.

The Germans introduced sweeping reforms a quarter-century ago, pushed along by the need to merge two postal systems amid reunification and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

In that flurry of activity they privatized the Deutsche Post. Technology was modernized, property was sold off. Nearly all public post offices were closed, with parcel collection-shifting to shops, banks, and even private homes. And the post office purchased DHL, the logistics and delivery company.

There's still service six days a week. Digital bills are sent out, and people can decide whether they'd prefer paper copies. Delivery drones are being tested.

And Deutsche Post has seen its share price increase 50 per cent over the last year, with profits beating analyst expectations.

Meanwhile, political initiatives in the U.S., including Issa's, have struggled to gain traction. Part of the problem is the dizzying, often-conflicting array of visions of what a 21st-century postal system might look like.

Different bills before Congress merely scratch the surface of those possibilities.

Issa's House bill would end home delivery as one of its dozen major provisions. In the Senate, another bill would try enticing homeowners to opt out on a voluntary basis. Both would address the onerous pension requirements slapped on the U.S.P.S. a few years ago — a 75-year pre-funding plan that has pushed the post office closer to insolvency.

Amid the struggle, the U.S.P.S. has adopted innovations, such as a deal to carry packages for Amazon.com on Sundays. It has created a "Last Mile" program to deliver items collected by private companies.

It has also considered major cuts, including the threat to close 3,700 post offices a couple of years ago. Congress, which essentially controls the institution, blocked the plan.

A paper this year by U.S. experts called for a very different reform than the simple closing of offices, or elimination of home delivery. In fact, it even touted home delivery as a possible core function of a modern post office.

What it suggested was a public-private partnership. First, private businesses would collect the mail, and compete with each other in seeking innovative ways and new places to gather it. Then, U.S.P.S. letter-carriers would pick up those same parcels at distribution points and continue on their normal routes to deliver them as always to individual homes, through rain, sleet or snow.

What's most important is that the post office be freed by regulators and allowed to experiment with solutions based on market demand, said one of the authors of the study, "Restructuring the U.S. Postal Service," co-written by a former deputy postmaster general, a former Postal Rate Commission chair, an ex-official at the National Association of Letter Carriers, and a former congressional economist and expert on postal services.

Is home delivery best maintained, cancelled, or adjusted to some a la carte model?

"I don't know. That's the whole point of a free market," one of the authors, economist Ed Hudgins, said in an interview.

"People sit around with their own money figuring out, 'Should we buy more trucks to bring stuff to the door? Should we build drones ... would that be a cheaper way to do it?' I don't know. (With) a free market, you get people sitting around dreaming this stuff up."

He said it's foolish for government regulators to try mapping out rigid, long-term plans for the post office in an era of uncharted technological possibilities.

Just a few years ago, he said, they would have missed the potential of the smartphone. Now, says the former NASA intern, those little phone machines carry more computing power than the Apollo vehicles.

Next, with Amazon planning to build mail-drones, 3D printing no longer science fiction, and countless other innovations on the horizon, he said it's impossible to predict what mail-delivery needs might be a few years from now.

One writer at Time magazine looked longingly at Canada Post's ability to reform itself.

He referred to the shared history of the countries' postal services. In the 1750s, Benjamin Franklin worked to build both systems as a British North American official before he went on to become a revolutionary hero.

"But they're different in one very important way: Unlike the U.S.P.S., which is tethered to Congress like a dog on a leash, Canada Post doesn't have to come running to Parliament every time it wants to make fundamental business decisions," said the piece by Josh Sanburn.

"Canada Post has a mandate from the federal government to fund its operations through revenue from products and services and not from taxpayer money."

Hudgins said he hopes more countries follow the example of Germany and the U.K., and show some creativity. As for his own country, the U.S., he said deeper reform is inevitable there, too.

"There are similar challenges that all countries around the world face," he said.

"I think most people see the handwriting on the wall. So whether it comes this year, or next year, the pressures are there and they're only getting bigger."

The Canadian Press


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