Boots on the ground, working for democracy

“The government this.” “The government that.” These are often the lead-ins for criticisms from right-winger malcontents. To them, it is as if the government is a monolith made up of demons who are secretly plotting to undermine everyone and everything that they value.

From a bird’s eye view, this is silly. Most of the government’s work is to ensure that we – all 318 million of us – are able to live together in a way that minimizing disorganization and suffering while maximizing safety, well-being, and freedom. There is a different but equally valid view of the government from “boots on the ground” where there are 2.7 million federal employees, the lowest figure in 47 years. Are they what some right-wingers think, agents of the devil seeking to insidiously destroy our lives? Hardly. Most are very conscientious hard-working individuals who do their best to provide needed goods and services, often to a public which gripes and complains to and about them.

Sam (not his real name) has worked for the U.S. Postal Service for over thirty years. He has several more years to go until he’s eligible for his full pension. He may not be your ordinary letter-carrier, because he spends a good deal of time thinking about the well-being of his country. He obviously wants what is best for him and his family, but it troubles him that the Postal Service does not have as its primary goal to provide the best possible service to the public. He sees problem number one as the Service being so top-heavy with bureaucrats. It hasn’t always been that way, but in recent years the number of administrators has grown. It’s expanded so fast that many bureaucrats do not have full-time jobs, in the sense that they don’t have constructive things to do in an eight-hour day. Given that situation, they often expand their job description to find better ways for carriers to do the job. This can also be called meddling.

Does this remind you of anything? It’s like education where we have far too many administrators who have little to do but interfere with teachers doing the teaching. [In the United States there are now as many non-teaching personnel in our public schools as teachers.]

Sam says that immediate supervisors understand what carriers do on a day-to-day basis. Many of these individuals have walked or driven a route. They know the difference between promoting efficiency and engaging in trouble-making.

US Postal Service Mail Delivery Ahead Of Second-Quarter ResultsBut those in upper management are the ones who trouble Sam and many of his colleagues. At this level there are few administrators who previously have been “boots on the ground.” Sam says that some of them might want to promote sensible rules and regulations, but they are often forbidden from doing so because those above them believe in top-down management. It may make sense to them for postal workers to arrive for work at 8:00 AM, but the carriers know they need to arrive at 6:00 AM to successfully complete delivering the mail in a timely fashion.

It is difficult for a letter-carrier to actually become an administrator. He or she must complete a test. The objective part of the exam is fair, but the one big essay question leads to subjective grading and thus unfairness in promotions. It’s like systemic atrophy which makes it most difficult for the rank and file who have management skills to rise in the system.

Sam points out that things were complicated in 2006 when a Republican Congress with President George W. Bush passed and unprecedented bill which required to Postal Service to fully fund its pension. The Service has until 2016 to fully fund the retirement fund for the next seventy years. No other governmental agency has such a mandate and no known corporation lives under the burden of having this expense item in its annual budgets. Sam thinks that the Republicans want to make it impossible for the Postal Service to remain financially viable. That would mean cut-backs on service which would mean more public complaints which in turn would lead to Republicans trying to privatize the Service. He sees this as just one of many areas where the Republicans want to disassemble the government by privatizing it. It also troubles him that most of his fellow carriers do not see the politics behind so many of the decisions that make their lives more difficult while raising public frustration.

Many Democrats are fighting to strengthen the Postal Service, but it’s a difficult fight. Most members of Congress have somewhat of a blind eye to issues of bloated administrations and it is unlikely that they would try to achieve needed savings in the Service by trimming the bureaucracy. In the meantime, the service needs new equipment, particularly the mechanical mail sorters that use twenty-year old technology and are mechanically breaking down. Other equipment in need of modernization include scanners and vehicles.

Sam is glad that in recent years private carriers such as UPS and FedEx have then teamed with the Postal Service to streamline point-of-delivery service. The Postal Service has an advantage over private carriers in that it must deliver to every address in America. By paying the Postal Service to handle the last step of delivery, UPS, FedEx, and other private carriers are putting needed cash in the coffers of the USPS.

Sam would like to see the Postal Service adopt some of the efficiencies that make private carriers so effective in their work. The Service is not competing with UPS and FedEx for parcel delivery, but it could still make its delivery services more attractive to consumers.

When right-wingers speak venomously about the government, they might do well to exercise more discretion out of respect to the men and women throughout the government who work as hard as anyone in the private sector. They are engaged in making our democracy work in a fashion in which the term “public good” is regarded as a good thing. I’m thankful to Sam, who by the way is a man in uniform, for all he does including bringing creative thinking to his job along with a commitment to the principle of serving the public good.