Outgoing Postmaster General shares advice for USPS

Tuesday - 11/30/2010, 8:08am EST

John Potter, Postmaster General pt 1

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John Potter, Postmaster General pt 2

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The Postal Service lost $8.5 billion last year, despite deep cuts of more than 100,000 jobs and other reductions in recent years. The man leading the Postal Service through this tumultuous time is Postmaster General John Potter, who is retiring at the end of this week. But first he joined the Federal Drive for an exit interview.

Potter has been with USPS for 32 years, joining as a clerk. He became Postmaster General in 2001, and later that year experienced what he says was one of the lowest points of his tenure - the Anthrax attacks.

"That was a particularly difficult time for the Postal Service," Potter said, but also one that he says brought the postal community together.

He also witnessed the resolve of the community when he visited postal workers in the Gulf region after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and saw them back at work within days.

"That's very typical of postal employees. After any major event, catastrophe, act of God, hurricane, snow storm, the Postal Service and postal employees are usually the first back on the street. Our service is the first that is restored," Potter said. "Our employees do bleed Postal Blue."

What will your legacy be?
Before he became Postmaster General, Potter said he spoke with his predecessors who suggested that he plan ahead for what he wanted to achieve and what he would leave as his legacy.

"My legacy was going to be one where the Postal Service attempted to do it all," Potter said. Deliver top notch service and do it efficiently. In the years since, USPS has reached record levels of service and productivity, Potter said, while reducing the career workforce by over 200,000 in last 10 years.

In addition, employee satisfaction rose despite all the challenges the agency faced, Potter said.

"I'm very proud of the fact that we did the job when it came to service, first and foremost. That we did it efficiently and that we included our employees in making those things happen. So the legacy here is that we ran the Postal Service as a business," Potter said.

Before he leaves, Potter has developed a 10-year plan for the future of USPS, including getting it out of the current financial crisis. Bringing the Postal Service back to black must begin, Potter said, with changing the way the pension system is funded. And that requires Congressional action.

"The Postal Service is in a unique position right now. It's over-funded on its two pension systems," Potter said. USPS's employee retirement system is currently $6.8 billion over-funded. In addition, it's the only entity that is pre-funding retiree health benefits at this level.

"I think if those were corrected, it would go a long way to helping with what is a very difficult financial position for the Postal Service right now," Potter said.

But in order to change the system or restore funds from it, Congress must act. The current law prevents the Office of Personnel Management from acting on the financial jumble and there has been objections to changing the law.

"The real question is, how good is a law that, first of all, enabled us to get into such an over-funded mode, but secondly precludes OPM, which I know they want to take action to fix this, but it precludes OPM from dealing with an over-funding situation," Potter said. "I believe that all we need to do is make the law rational and logical and it will go a long way."

In the meantime, USPS is doing what it can internally. It announced that it will reevaluate executive compensation and that future salary increases and bonuses will depend on the agency's financial health.

What's next?

For the Postal Service, hopefully plenty. Potter believes the agency needs help from Congress to fix the pension system and also to get additional freedoms in deciding the types of products and services that USPS will invest in.

The agency's retail strategy needs to change, Potter said, and needs to accommodate the fact that Americans have shifted where they make their transactions.

"I do believe, sincerely believe, that we're going to have to look at the statutorily-mandated service levels we provide, whether that's frequency of delivery or the number of post offices we have," Potter said. "Historically, the Postal Service has changed with the use of mail. Unfortunately, some of the laws that have been passed since 1970 have limited our ability to do that."