USPS puts signatures into tracking system
The paper trail in Shoshana Grove's post office in Bethesda, Md., just got
Webbed. The U.S. Postal Service last month launched an electronic record
management system that will capture and store an estimated 400 million signatures
annually, including the tens of thousands of slips for express-, registered-
and certified-mail receipts that collect dust in Postmaster Grove's office.
"For certified and registered mail," Grove said, "you want a signature to
know someone received it." A customer who sends a letter by certified mail,
for example, can later ask to see the signed receipt for proof that it was
The new system allows postal employees to scan all signatures into a central
database, where they can be retrieved within seconds by any post office
in the country, said Julie Rios, the system's program manager. The $360
million system was successfully downloaded in late July via very small aperture
terminal satellites and is now networked across 35,000 post offices via
"The transition [to the electronic system] went very smoothly," Grove said.
The new technology promises an overnight improvement to a process invented
in the late 1790s by Benjamin Franklin, the first postmaster general, and
updated only slightly in the intervening two centuries. Until July, in fact,
you could still find the same process in operation at Grove's Bethesda workplace.
Letter carriers first received the signed receipts via the process of delivering
registered and certified mail along their daily routes. Then they filed
each slip by address in hundreds of cubbyholes — Franklin's preferred method,
Grove said. Clerks would periodically empty the cubby-holes by sorting them
into lockers in the back of the office. Retrieval of a single signature,
she added, often required a 15- to 20-minute search.
Rios believes the new system will bring more revenue to the Postal Service
as it competes against the likes of UPS, FedEx and perhaps its biggest overall
The new storage system will allow postal managers to track each other's
certified mail receipts across the country, she said. Although that ranks
as an improvement for the agency, it still trails the efficiency of e-mail's
instant delivery and UPS' and FedEx's track-and-trace technology. The two
parcel giants can track packages anywhere within their processing systems.
A track-and-trace system is now impossible for the postal service, Rios
said, because USPS often relies on commercial airlines for transportation.
"It's hard to be technologically on par with the competition when they out-spend
us 10-to-1," she said. "In the future, I expect we'll have something like
The e-record management system also marks the latest technology introduced
by the agency's pioneering Expedited/ Package Services division, based in
Atlanta, which markets and improves the lucrative priority-, express-, certified-
and registered-mail products. In early 1999, for example, the division launched
the delivery confirmation system, for which customers pay extra to confirm
within one day whether a package they sent was delivered.
Trimble is a freelance writer based in Springfield, Va.
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