USPS isn’t rich, but it’s pretty fast

Paul Sakuma/AP

The U.S. Postal Service is highly capable at its core service of delivering the mail, according to a working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

In the report, titled “Letter Grading Government Efficiency,” economists from several universities tested the efficiency the postal systems in 159 countries by mailing letters to nonexistent addresses around the world -- 10 letters to each, 1,590 letters in all.  

USPS had the quickest and most effective service, returning the test letters within 16 days on average. It topped other high-income countries tested, including Canada, Norway and the Czech Republic. The most dismal postal services included those in Somalia, Myanmar and Ghana, which rarely returned letters to senders. El Salvador was second fastest, with a return rate that averaged 39 days.

The paper aimed to use mail service as an objective indicator of government efficiency.

“In some ways, it is not surprising that a measure of the quality of government constructed to be relatively free of political influences in fact correlates with standard determinants of productivity,” the report stated. “Yet it is still important to recognize that not all bad government is caused by politics.”

According to the authors, the results showed that many factors contributed to slower mail rates. Better classification systems for addresses, for instance, tended to result in faster returns. Countries that primarily use the Latin alphabet fared better in the study, which used what it called a “postal convention” of addressing the mail in Latin letters.

The study also aimed to test the effectiveness of government managers. In the case of returning incorrectly addressed mail, a lower-level employee would have to take care to mark the envelope and put it in the correct bin, which by extension reflects the quality of the agency’s management. “Corruption, for example, might be in part a manifestation of the failure of monitoring and incentive systems,” the report said.

The study comes as the USPS implements deeper cuts to its daily service in the midst of economic turmoil. The agency defaulted on a scheduled pension payment last week, and by the end of July several thousand postmasters had left USPS with voluntary separation incentives.

As a Washington Post item on the report noted, this study was not intended to assess USPS. 

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