Outbox and the Service Delivery Culture Clash

by Reihan Salam

Chris Dannen of Fast Company interviews Jason Seriff, Evan Baeher, and Will Davis of Outbox, a start-up that aims to transform the snail mail business. It’s a fascinating read for a number of reasons: (a) though the founders of Outbox sought to make an arrangement with the US Postal Service, the USPS was resistant, and so they’ve devised ingenious workarounds; (b) at present, Outbox basically scans snail mail, but it’s ultimate goal is to get out of the scanning business by taking an existing physical-world “content portal” (the mail USPS delivers to your door) and digitizing it; and (c) Outbox represents, at least in theory, an approach to entrepreneur-led public sector reform. Rather than reform a public sector service provider directly, create a business model that fills in the cracks left behind by a public sector service provider — and that might eventually supplant the public sector service provider. It’s not obvious that there are many public sector service providers that are vulnerable to this approach, but it’s interesting to think about all the same. (I can certainly think of public sector service providers that might become vulnerable as technology improves.)

So on the one hand you have the Outbox vision for the future of snail mail. And on the other hand you have the vision recently articulated by advocates of organized labor, as distilled in a recent short article by Moshe Z. Marvit and Jason Bacasa in The Washington Monthly. Essentially, Marvit and Bacasa argue that preserving the large workforce of the USPS is vital because there have been times when older Americans have been rescued by mail carriers and because many isolated Americans like to have a familiar face:

Beyond situations where lives are saved, letter carriers also provide human contact to many who receive no other human contact. As America is increasingly becoming an older society, the connections that letter carriers provide will become even more important. Michael Plaskon told of how, when he first started as a letter carrier, he always had biscuits for dogs, and lollipops and rubber bands for kids. (“I quickly learned not to give out rubber bands to the kids because they shoot you with them,” he said.) Plaskon also befriended a ninety-year-old woman on his route, and soon began to time his lunch hour so he could eat with her. “She lived alone, and I was the bright spot of her day,” he said. “When I had a child, I took my newborn baby to see her on my day off.”

Rick Onder, a letter carrier in Pittsburgh, described an elderly woman on his route whom he has helped multiple times after she’s fallen and not been able to get back up. One time she called him at work in the early morning to ask for help, and he got in his truck and acted as a first responder. In the media these acts are often interpreted as acts of a good Samaritan who happens to be a letter carrier. But officials and letter carriers emphasize that the Postal Service encourages letter carriers to go beyond in helping residents, creating a culture where letter carriers see these deeds as part of their duty.

In an increasingly technological world, the Postal Service upholds one of the more profound promises of this age: for forty-six cents, an actual human being will deliver a real, physical thing to anywhere in the United States, even in expanses and vistas that broadband cannot yet reach. And, as a free service, this person will keep an eye on your home, provide human contact to an ailing parent, and act if something seems wrong. The Postal Service isn’t any more obsolete than the U.S. Constitution, which enshrines it as a foundational institution of American life—including, let us hope, on Saturdays.

One obvious question arises: is there some lower-cost way to provide this kind of human contact or emergency support or is maintaining the existing USPS infrastructure the only way to keep older Americans from living alone? As an apartment-dweller, it is fairly rare that I encounter a mail carrier, and that was also true when I was growing up in a small single-family home: mail carriers generally arrived during the day, when I was at school and my parents were at work. So might we limit mail delivery to isolated retired individuals? This would presumably reduce costs considerably.