Postal slip gets new life

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

delivered.

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 satellites.

"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

rival, e-mail.

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

that."

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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