The Buzz

Stamping Out a New Year

Beginning Jan. 8, postal rates will rise about 5.4 percent. It's the first rate hike since 2002 and results not from increased costs, but from a 2003 law, PL 108-18, requiring the U.S. Postal Service to establish a $3.1 billion escrow account.

A 2001 Office of Personnel Management audit found that the Postal Service was overpaying into the Civil Service Retirement System, so Congress passed a law reducing payments for USPS. Legislators directed the postal service to restart regular payments at the end of three years and put the money into an escrow account. Suggestions for using the money have appeared in various postal reform bills, but USPS awaits instructions from the Hill.

Anyhow, First-Class letter rates will jump from 37 cents to 39 cents.

The Postal Service delivers to 143 million homes and businesses six days a week, the only entity that visits every address in the United States. It delivers 206 billion letters, ads, periodicals and packages a year.

First-Class mail has been declining since 2000, mostly because e-mail has replaced snail mail for personal correspondence and commercial transactions. Through 2004, First-Class volume dropped 5.4 percent. Standard mail, what we used to call bulk or junk mail, grew 6.1 percent during the same period. Last year brought a small bump in First-Class volume, but the changed mail mix still will cost USPS. Standard mail has averaged 19 cents per piece while First-Class pieces brought in 37 cents.

At the same time, the Postal Service has had to deliver to more addresses. Combined with a decrease in the number of pieces delivered per stop, these trends will make it more and more costly for USPS to provide universal service.

Who Knew?

About one-quarter of the American labor force, 35 million people, spends 3.5 hours a week reading blogs at work, according to an Oct. 25, 2005, report on AdAge.com, the Web site of Advertising Age. That amounts to a daily blog break of 40 minutes.

  • 551,000 Work years that went to reading blogs unrelated to the job in 2005
  • 2.3 million The equivalent number of jobs that went to perusing blogs
  • 25% Proportion of blog visits that might be related to work, if you count all business blog traffic, half of that going to tech and media blogs and a quarter of what flows to political/news blogs
  • 19.6 million Number of blogs counted in 2005 by blog search engine Technorati. Total has doubled about every five months in the past three years

The Army's AC/DC Tribute

The Army is looking for a few good entertainers. In November, the service posted a notice on the FedBizOpps Web site for "a tour manager and artists" to head over to Iraq and Kuwait to perform for the troops, starting in late 2005. Specifically, the bid request seeks acts in the following areas: Top 40, country, rap/soul/r&b, comedy, Latin/Hispanic, Polynesian dance and "AC/DC tribute band."

The Army emphasizes that the acts, which will perform 90-minute gigs, must not "offend a follower of any faith," use "profanity, vulgarity or connotations of sexual depravity and perversion," or defame or ridicule individual deformities or "military, racial, religious or national groups." It also warns against "any criminal conduct or absence which prevents timely starting of the performances" and "indecency or obscenity, drunkenness [or] damage to government property." Also verboten: "influence of narcotics or hallucinatory drugs."

In addition, the contractor must provide "commemorative color autograph cards featuring photos of each individual and their biographical information," at the rate of 2,000 autographed cards per tour. In case you've started tuning up the garage band for the trip, you should know that "indoor toilets may not be available at all locations."

BlackBerry Scare

Federal BlackBerry addicts, who are legion, might get a reprieve if a legal battle shuts down operations at manufacturer Research in Motion Ltd. in Waterloo, Ontario. Judge James Spencer of the Virginia Federal District Court issued an opinion Nov. 30 declining to enforce a $450 million settlement between RIM and the Arlington, Va.-based patent-holding company NTP. This could mean that RIM would no longer be allowed to support or sell the devices in the United States.

The Justice Department filed a brief with the court in mid-November asking for a 90-day stay to ensure that government workers can continue using the service in the event of a court-mandated shutdown. According to Justice, "It is imperative that some mechanism be incorporated that permits continuity of the federal government's use of BlackBerry devices and establishes some procedure for identifying those devices that lie outside the scope of any injunction entered in this action."

The brief asked for time to create a "white list," in the form of a database that would identify users with e-mail addresses ending in .gov or .mil. Because there is no central purchasing office for BlackBerrys, each agency would have to compile a list of users. This would be time-consuming and difficult, Justice said.

In November 2004, Government Executive reported there were 100,000 local, state and federal government customers out of a total of 1.3 million users. In preparation for a potential injunction, RIM said, it has prepared a software workaround. The Patent and Trademark Office also must finish proceedings related to NTP's patents, which it has declared invalid.

Waiting for Benefits

EXTRACT:
After more than a decade of research, GAO has determined that federal disability programs are in urgent need of attention and transformation. . . . Specifically, the disability programs administered by the Veterans Affairs Department and the Social Security Administration lagged behind the scientific advances and economic and social changes that have redefined the relationship between impairments and work. For example, advances in medicine and technology have reduced the severity of some medical conditions and have allowed individuals to live with greater independence and function in work settings. Moreover, the nature of work has changed as the national economy has moved away from manufacturing-based jobs to service- and knowledge-based employment. Yet VA's and SSA's disability programs remain mired in the past and are poorly positioned to provide meaningful and timely support for Americans with disabilities.
-"Veterans' Disability Benefits:
Claims Processing Challenges and Opportunities for Improvements,"
Government Accountability Office testimony, Dec. 7, 2005,
GAO-06-283T

The Veterans Affairs Department has struggled without much luck to speed processing of disability claims. The backlog increased by over one-third from fiscal 2003 to 2005, from 254,000 to 346,000.

Fiscal Year Pending Claims
2000 228,000
2001 421,000
2002 346,000
2003 254,000
2004 321,000
2005 346,000

Source: Government Accountability Office

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