UNINFORMED LAUNCH: AN OPEN LETTER TO THE MAILING INDUSTRY FROM POSTCOM AND IDEALLIANCE

We know from their commercials that the Postal Service considers its customers’ business to be their business. We also know that – because they face stiff competition across the entire product set –they can be trusted to act like a responsible business partner even in the event legislation provides relief from prefunding requirements or the Postal Regulatory Commission relaxes or eliminates the CPI price cap. As they make the public case for legislative and regulatory relief, the Postal Service asks the mailing public to trust them to be responsible stewards of the mailing industry, promising aggressive management actions to promote efficiency and improve service. That’s a big ask at a time when the mailing industry faces ongoing consolidation and contraction and there are billions of dollars at stake. Unfortunately, some recent events call into question USPS’ commitment to its business customers’ interests and its ability to deliver collaboratively on initiatives deemed critical to the future of the mail.

In 2015 the USPS began a pilot program using their next platform, Informed Visibility (IV). IV would allow customers to access information about their mail on a single platform, information that today exists among a number of aging legacy systems. USPS asked for – and received – 42 volunteer companies for a pilot originally expected to last a few weeks. In the time since the commencement of the pilot, each of these companies has pulled daily data from the new IV platform, compared it to the current IMb tracing platform and provided detailed results on errors, issues and missing data (all of which would be expected in a pilot program), and met as a group with the Postal Service on a weekly basis. By May 2017 industry participants began to strongly urge the USPS to postpone the anticipated September 2017 IV Program release because the data produced by the pilot system was prone to errors and contained serious latency issues.

Despite lingering concerns among pilot users, on Friday 8/11 the USPS IV department announced to the industry:

“I am pleased to announce that the United States Postal Service® (USPS®) is making the Informed Visibility® (IV®) Mail Tracking & Reporting application available to everyone in the mailing industry. We have piloted the system in recent months and have determined that now is an opportune time to expand access to all Letter and Flat mailers.”

Unfortunately, the announcement came as a complete surprise to members of MTAC User Group 4, the IV Pilot participants, and the IV steering committee (established by USPS) who understood the IV platform to still be in a “pilot” phase and in need of significant improvements before final launch.

On Tuesday 8/15/17, users of the Postal Service’s IMb Tracing platform were informed of the launch of the Informed Visibility (IV) Mail Tracking & Reporting, an application that will provide near real-time, enhanced visibility of mailpieces (letters and flats), bundles, handling units (trays, tubs, and sacks), and containers. As recently as last week, customers were informed by USPS of upcoming enhancements without any indication that final launch was imminent, only to find out Tuesday morning that the pilot was over, and that any user data entered in legacy systems after August 5 would have to be reentered into the IV platform manually, until users completed the cutover. To add to the confusion, these also went out to those customers that had already been migrated to IV and to their customers.

To its credit, the Postal Service established the IV steering committee to get feedback in recognition of the need for users to provide input into creating a stable, useful platform for piece and container tracking before abandonment of the legacy systems on which so many users have come to rely. USPS also accepted user feedback throughout the pilot and as a result had acknowledged that the planned September 30 cutover to secure file transfer protocol (SFTP) was no longer realistic. This makes the sudden announcement all the more bewildering; the USPS’ established steering committee had been clear that outstanding data integrity, a lack of improved data latency and efficiency issues necessitated continuation – and possible expansion – of the ongoing pilot. There is no questioning that USPS has the authority to launch but the wisdom of doing so now can and should be questioned.

Joint USPS-industry forums like MTAC can be effective platforms for sharing information, collaborative problem solving and can even function as laboratories for innovation. But for any of these to happen there must be a shared belief that participants are acting in good faith. It’s not necessary for all participants to agree all the time. In fact, constructive dissent and open discussion will often produce superior outcomes, but there needs to be a commitment to agreed-upon processes that seems to have been violated in this case. Establishing workgroups and steering committees only to then disregard their recommendations is a sure way to undermine trust in an approach that the Postal Service and the mailing industry need now more than ever.

Fortunately, there is still time to remedy this situation. While acknowledging an error is never easy, the Postal Service should reconsider the timing of the IV launch and instead announce that the rollout will:Incorporate findings from the experience of pilot users.

  • Wait until the new platform has been stable – free of data anomalies and latency – for six weeks.
  • Allow a 90-day transition period for customers to migrate to the new platform.

A brief postponement would allow both the Postal Service and the mailing industry to transition to the new platform without the unnecessary costs, frustration, and loss of customer goodwill that would inevitably result from a rushed implementation. Without a delay, mailers and their clients will experience missing, inaccurate and/or delayed data. Pilot members do not believe the data has reach a level of quality and stability to be used for business processes. We are therefore advising against our members utilizing the IV platform for production purposes until data validation has been completed and the service reaches a satisfactory level of quality and stability.

Unfortunately, this is familiar territory. In 2014, at the advent of mailer scorecards and the attendant assessments that would result, Idealliance presented some principles (copy appended) that should guide implementation of new systems and requirements. Though the conversion to IV does not yet envision surcharges or assessments, PostCom and Idealliance strongly recommend that USPS adhere to the spirit of those recommendations and delay the implementation of IV until a more appropriate time.