The Postal Service has always had a tech problem

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One of the biggest stories in the news right now has to do with our mail (regular mail, not email).

President Trump is blocking federal funding to the Postal Service to discourage the use of mail-in ballots in this fall’s election. The USPS has already been bleeding cash, with potential bankruptcy predicted within a year. Meanwhile, its broken business model is resulting long mail delivery delays for you and me.

Staff and policy changes are a large part of the issue, but at the crux of it, the Postal Service also has bad tech.

And it’s always had it. Look no further than a classic Fortune story from 1973, “What the Postal Service can’t deliver,” on the USPS’s woes, then merely two years old and already struggling.

“These days, it seems, just about everybody has some personal horror story to tell about the U.S. Postal Service,” the unnamed author writes. “On Valentine’s Day a resident of Elizabeth, New Jersey, received a Christmas card postmarked December 10.”

It’s a cautionary tale on the consequences of cutting funds. The Postmaster General at the time, E.T. Klassen, admitted that “we were so hell-bent on [cutting] costs that we did not pay enough attention perhaps to service.”

“To understand what went wrong,” reads the piece, “one must enter the arcane world of mail processing. There are essentially six steps in the movement of letters and packages: collection, culling, canceling, sorting, transportation, and delivery.”

Sorting is crucial. To minimize handling costs, the goal is to sort mail as few times as possible. At the time, about 40% of mail was sorted mechanically—everything else was by hand.

Management thought that, even with a leaner business model, they could rely on sophisticated machinery to get the job done. “But much of the new equipment was late in arriving, and the new systems proved to be horribly accident prone,” according to the piece. Staff cuts made things worse, and the deluge of Christmas mail became especially a disaster.

How did Klassen get the USPS out of its mess? He made service the priority over budget. “More workers were hired, more mechanization came on line, and snarls were gradually unraveled in the complex logistical systems used to channel mail around the country.”

And one simple innovation came to the rescue: the use of colored tags on mail pouches. The tag, affixed in the dispatching office, told the receiving office what day the mail was meant to be delivered.

The story reveals the “inescapable dilemma” of the Postal Service that we’re seeing now: For delivery, including tech, to keep up to standard, costs must rise. But that’s usually antipode to how a business—which is how Congress characterizes the USPS—is run.

Amazon didn’t exist at the time, of course. Today’s competition adds even more of an existential urgency to the USPS. But the story’s thoughts were presciently pessimistic: “There is no panacea that will keep the bill from rising.”

Karen Yuan

This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Jonathan Vanian. Check out Eye on A.I., the A.I. newsletter he writes weekly.