Runyon left his stamp on America’s mail

Most Americans don’t care about the post office, at least not politically. America’s foreign policy, its military, its welfare regulations and taxes are all worth the attention they get. But when was the last time the Navy showed up at your front door? And don’t forget just how tax forms and welfare checks are delivered — by mail. Kevin Costner was onto something in his recent big-screen bomb, “The Postman.” In that film, post-apocalyptic America was revived by a drifter who simply delivered the mail. Alone of all federal agencies, the U.S. Postal Service rivals local fire departments and police forces in its direct effect on people’s lives. Even then, most people only meet a cop once every few years. The post office sends an agent to everyone’s door six times a week.
The fact that Americans don’t have to think very much about their mail is a tribute to Postmaster General Marvin Runyon, who announced his retirement yesterday. He was the 70th postmaster in U.S. history and arguably the best since Andrew Jackson established the post in 1821. A list of Runyon’s accomplishments is exhausting. He cut 23,000 administrative jobs in his first two years. In 1992, many in the postal service thought a 35 cent stamp would be needed by today, with higher rates before the year 2000; Runyon held first class rates to 32 cents with only one increase — a penny — planned before the century’s end. In the same period that prices remained low, the post office turned chronic deficits into annual profits. Last year the service earned its third consecutive yearly surplus, a first in U.S. history.
While a $4.7 billion profit over three years is impressive for a government agency, the improvement in mail service since Runyon took office is simply wonderful. In 1991, only 78 percent of mail delivered within the same metropolitan area was received the next day. Runyon set a 90 percent goal for 1996 and beat it. Overnight delivery topped 92 percent last year, and inter-city delivery is getting faster as well. The post office, long the butt of anti-government jokes, is in better shape than most businesses.
Runyon’s tenure as postmaster can be an example for most government agencies. With effective management, costs can be cut and services improved at the same time. At the top of the organization, Runyon instituted performance bonuses for executives. By meeting service and cost goals, postal administrators can boost their pay to the federal maximum of $148,400. Already, more than 36 postal managers have received this level of merit pay, equal to the salary of a cabinet member. At the other end of the ladder, where the real work is done, Runyon involved employees in setting and meeting new standards.
Runyon always followed a success with an even greater challenge. Rates steady for three years? Make it four. Performance up to 90 percent? Make it 92. But these weren’t top-down initiatives; they were boasts. Runyon was proud of the post office, and never doubted that his employees could live up to the highest standards. Faster, cheaper service was always their success, not his. In the midst of downsizing and cost-cutting, employee morale improved.
For all his achievements, and for the Elvis stamp, America will miss Postmaster Runyon.