[ Question ]

Why is the mail so much better than the DMV?

by Logan Zoellner2 min read29th Dec 201913 comments

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One of the reasons why Europe has a much more all-encompassing welfare state than the USA is that in the US government services are poorly run. Whether it's providing healthcare , building high speed rail , or Issuing Drivers Licenses, the typical American's experience with government services is one of incompetence, corruption and failure to innovate.

There are lots of plausible explanations about why this might be. Maybe the US is too big to govern effectively. Maybe our two-party political system is uniquely polarized leading to gridlock and a lack of progress. Maybe government service isn't glorified by society, leading all of the would-be competent managers to pursue careers in finance or Silicon Valley.

Yet, there is one government service in the US on which every single person depends, which serves hundreds of millions of requests every day, and which does its job virtually flawlessly for less than its European counterparts. Every single difference mentioned above would apply just as much or more so to the USPS. Our political system hasn't been particularly favorable to the USPS. The US's expansive geography should be more of a hindrance to mail than almost any other service. And postal work is far from glorified in the US social consciousness.

So, why is the mail so much better than every other government service in the US?

If we could answer this question, could we use the answer to fix the rest of the government?


A couple of theories:

1) Culture of competence:

Not only is the mail famous for its motto "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds", but it is also the one of the few government services enshrined in the constitution. Perhaps its unique foundational values create a culture that "the mail must go through" that lends itself to promoting competent leadership.

The weakness here is that it seems like an overly large effect. If a motto could really produce competent government, why hasn't anyone come up with one for other agencies? Why is it only Europeans who can "make the trains run on time"? Doesn't anyone believe "Veteran's deserve the best health care possible"?


2) Political Immunity:

Yes, the USPS is a political football. But it's less of a political football than almost anything else, because nobody is really against mail. Even its competitors benefit to some degree from having a uniform system of addressing and delivery so there isn't much of a lobby to kill the Post Office like there is with something like Obamacare.

All in all I consider this one a toss-up.


3) Measurable Outcomes:

If the mail stopped coming tomorrow, everyone would immediately notice. If even 1% of the mail started getting lost every day, the economic consequences would be sudden, dramatic and widespread. Bills wouldn't get delivered, checks wouldn't come in the mail, people would be upset. This instant feedback allows the USPS to continually innovate and improve.

The strongest argument against this is that lots of other government services are measurable too. Utilities, for example, and yet plenty of those are poorly managed.

4) Money:

Same a measurable outcomes but repeated for emphasis. The USPS delivers a product that consumers pay for. They compete (at least somewhat) with other businesses. And they are self-funded (more or less). If there is one thing American culture does well, it is running businesses at a profit.

Again, "but utilities" is a good counterargument.




PS. The USPS may not be the only competently run organization in the US Government. The TSP is one government program that pleasantly surprised me for being logically implemented and well-run. I've also never heard of anyone complaining about the US Mint. The Park Service has more issues than either of these, but is still generally well-run.



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NB: I ended up accidentally wiping out this comment in the process of editing it on 2019-12-30, so I rewrote it

One of the reasons why Europe has a much more all-encompassing welfare state than the USA is that in the US government services are poorly run. Whether it’s providing healthcare , building high speed rail , or Issuing Drivers Licenses, the typical American’s experience with government services is one of incompetence, corruption and failure to innovate.

I disagree with this statement for a variety of reasons. First of all, most Americans get their health care through private corporations, so it seems strange to me to say that the US government is incompetent at providing health care. The parts of the US government that do provide health care, like the Veteran's Administration, seem to be rather well regarded.

I don't have much of an opinion on high-speed rail except to note that the US is much more geographically sparse than Europe. As a result, high-speed rail makes much competitive with air travel in the US, given that air travel is lower cost for distances of more than a few hundred miles.

Thirdly, I'd like to note that I've always had rather pleasant experiences with the DMV. Even when I've done things like accidentally mis-fill a form, they've gone out of their way to help me. In fact, the worst customer service experiences I've had have been with private entities. For example, when I moved into my home, and set up gas service through Center Point Energy, I accidentally typoed my bank account number. Rather than informing me that they were unable to charge my account, and ask me to reconfirm the account details, they locked my account. I had to spend multiple hours on the phone with customer service to get the account unlocked, and then, even after I'd got my account unlocked, I was banned from paying with a bank account for twelve months. Rather, I was forced to pay with a credit card and accept a $3.75 "convenience fee" for doing so.

Likewise, when I moved from Seattle to Minneapolis, I canceled my Comcast account in Washington, because I was moving out of state and I was planning on living with my parents while I bought my house in Minnesota. After I purchased the house, I found that I couldn't activate Comcast service at the new address. When I tried to enter my information, it said that I already had an account. Moreover, there didn't seem to be any way to "un-cancel" my existing account and change the address to reflect my new Minnesota location. It required multiple trips to a Comcast (XFinity) location to get someone who possessed the necessary privileges to create a new account on my behalf. Overall, my experience with the government is has been far more pleasant than my experience with private monopolies.

I’d also like to add that the US government (like most governments) is many times larger than even the largest private-sector entity. The vast majority of it runs out of sight and out of mind. The only times we hear about many government departments is when there’s a scandal or mismanagement that begets news coverage. As a result, most people have strong a availability heuristic that favors a view of the government being incompetent or corrupt, when the reality is that they only see the times when the government is incompetent or corrupt but not all the times when the government does what it should.

A contributing factor to this is that the government is a public entity. As a result, its failings, whether large or small are public and are available for public scrutiny. A private corporation (even if it is publicly traded, on the stock market), on the other hand, does not have the same transparency requirements. As a result, the amount of waste and mismanagement in the corporate world is very difficult to estimate, which makes any comparisons with government rather dubious.

A lot of the top of a ministry in the US is run by people with political appointments. It's very different compared to career bureaucrats who raise through the ranks of the ministry based on their performance.

The current Postmaster General of the United States is Megan Brennan who joined the Postal Service in 1986. She was preceded by Patrick R. Donahoe who spent spent decades at the Postal Service. He was preceded by John E. Potter who also spent two decades at the Postal Service before becoming Postmaster General.

One possibility is that

1. The DMV is especially bad, because people don't have to tolerate using it on a weekly basis.

2. The USPS isn't especially good, but it's hard to notice because American delivery companies aren't much better by comparison.

I think competition explains a lot of it. Using USPS instead of UPS or Fedex is a free-market choice, but I don’t have much choice where to get electricity for my home or where to get a driver’s license after moving to a new state.

It would be interesting to explore what metrics you're using to determine what's working and what's not.

I grew up in the US, but have lived for a few years in the UK, and healthcare, at least, is more complicated than you say. UK healthcare is more universal and way smoother for well-understood common problems. It's far cheaper. It's incredibly lacking in mental health care, there are very long waits for advanced diagnostics, and risk/benefit choices about treatment for severe things are nowhere near as transparent as in the US.

Also, a part of the analysis has to be is the breakdown of federalism in the US. The weird split in provision and taxation between states and federal government leads to finger-pointing and rent-seeking across different levels of agency.

Post office work is often solitary, and benefits from good memory, quick information-processing, and spatial ability. So, at least in the US, intelligence testing has factored more heavily into who gets hired for the postal service than in a normal workplace, where it also makes sense to select highly on traits like "plays nicely with others." This is a much more reliable way to create a 'culture of competence' than just having the right motto.

Well, it looks like the correct answer was "the post office has avoided politicization"

😒

The DMV, by definition of what it is isn’t a profitable enterprise. Therefore, it has to be paid for with taxes.

Americans hate taxes. Especially conservative Americans. My negative expreinces with the DMV have been entirely a plain lack of infatuate. My county has two offices for around a million people

This results in 7+ hour waits, characteristic of what people complain about from the DMV.

This isn’t the DMV, but rather an unwillingness in the local gov / citizenry to raise taxes in order to build offices.

I guess my answer to the question would be because American have a really high level of what is worth funding with taxes.

This might also be because the DMV is state level, while the Post Office is federal level. People seem more willing to pay Federal Taxes for services than state taxes. Tho, this is something I’d need more data to believe whole heartedly