'Dysfunctional' Postal Service

November 15, 1994

No one should be shocked by the General Accounting Office's conclusion, in a two-volume study, that the U.S. Postal Service -- the largest federal civilian agency -- is crippled by a "dysfunctional organizational culture" and an "us versus them" mindset.

Tough discipline, not cooperation, is how bosses rule workers.

None of this is new. Postmaster General Marvin Runyon told The Sun's Roger Simon in June of this year, "We need to empower employees. We've been too authoritarian, where a supervisor goes in and says, 'This is the way I want it done and check your brains at the door.' "

Earlier, Mr. Runyon had told a congressional committee that workers are discouraged from suggesting changes or helping customers. Improved service, Mr. Runyon said, "is foreign to the culture of the Postal Service."

Clearly, the problem is known. The hard part: finding a solution.

Turning around a private-sector business with 700,000 workers -- all unionized -- would be a tall order. Doing it in the far more restrictive confines of the federal government is a nightmare.

A series of postmasters general has tried to get a handle on this vast bureaucracy. Indeed, the GAO praises Mr. Runyon's reformist efforts but warns that little of it has trickled down far enough to make a difference. Too many managers want to run the Postal Service like the military, with iron discipline.

Compounding the problem is a powerful union that is unwilling to cooperate or give up previous gains. In fact, the union railed against the GAO report because it dared to suggest that unless matters improve, Congress might want to take another look at the collective-bargaining powers it granted the Postal Service.

The report -- and the union response -- point to the need for a better way to handle worker grievances. It also underlines the need for Mr. Runyon to accelerate efforts to make managers more flexible and tolerant in dealing with employees. Instilling a customer-friendly climate will be a long-term battle.

Both management and labor have much to lose if they fail in this endeavor: Without marked improvement, the public will increasingly shift to other modes of competing communication, leaving the Postal Service with bigger deficits, less mail and far fewer employees.

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