Can digital identity services breathe new life into USPS?


The Postal Service is considering digital products and services to bolster its flagging traditional business. (Photo by AndyC, Wikimedia Commons)

The U.S. Postal Service, facing huge budget shortfalls and congressional reform efforts, is looking far and wide for ways to improve or reinvent itself. At a Nov. 14 discussion hosted by George Mason University’s School of Public Policy, researchers from GMU and the USPS Office of Inspector General’s Risk Analysis Research Center  (RARC) explored several new roles and revenue streams for a more-digital postal service.

The postal service has seen a 21 percent decline in mail volume since 2007, rising workforce and delivery costs, and a “youth gap” where younger people simply do not care about physical mail, presenters noted.  To remain viable, they argued, USPS must serve citizens in new and different ways – such as digital identity creation and authentication services.

A digital identity is a collection of attributes related to a specific person or organization, such as social networking accounts or email addresses. They are increasingly important for both commerce and government-citizen interaction, but are susceptible to fraud and ID theft, difficult for individuals to manage, and lack uniform, legally enforceable standards in the United States.

The OIG's ideas for addressing these problems, detailed in a paper titled “Digital Identity: Opportunities for the Postal Service,” include:

• Providing in-person authentication: As with passport verification, with permission “the Postal Service could verify a specific individual’s control over an online identity by matching an address and incoming mail, and checking physical identification.”

• Acting as a trusted third-party: USPS could serve as a trusted third party in order to verify an individual’s location of residence. In doing so, “customers could choose what to reveal about their real-world identity in a given transaction, with specificity ranging from street address to region, state, county, city or ZIP code.”

• Serving as a digital identity provider: “In addition to verifying attributes of identities issued by other organizations, the Postal Service could act as an identity provider itself,” verifying digital identities of individuals and organizations online.

A second paper, not yet published, looked to other nations for additional ways in which USPS could embrace e-government to better meet citizens’ needs.  Italy’s postal service, for example, provides electronic mailboxes and stores electronic health records, while Swiss citizens can pay traffic tickets,  renew licenses, and get other government certifications as local post offices.  In Ireland, post offices serve as public internet access points.

“Most of these countries are well ahead of the U.S. in terms of offering these services, and they have been doing this for a while in a very successful way,” Sasidaran Gopalan, a GMU graduate student working with RARC, said. “We can see the digital identity is being offered by almost all of the countries that we looked into.”

USPS’ Risk Analysis Research Center is part of the agency’s inspector general office. Ian Stanford, another RARC researcher contracted from GMU, called it a “think tank-like research group” tasked with keeping Congress, the USPS Board of Governors and others informed about critical postal issues.


About the Author

Emily Cole is an editorial intern for FCW.

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Reader comments

Fri, Nov 30, 2012

The USPS has botched my change of address requests on multiple occasions. Trusted by many, maybe. But trust doesn't translate directly to competency and it would be a large undertaking to re-tool the USPS for this task. This is taking an approach of trying to take an over-sized square metal peg (i.e. highly bureaucratic, slow-moving, incorrectly personnel-ed, and outdated organization) and shaping it into a much more efficient round hole with a nail file. Immensely inefficient and a waste of taxpayer money. If a government program is no longer needed, get rid of it. The government, specific agencies in particular, should not be in the business of making sure it is viable to a consumer market just to keep itself relevant. It is not a business driven by profits, but a governmental service that only needs to be downsized and streamlined to meet the existing demands. Government's first reaction is to keep growing. It should be to offer justifiable government services. You can argue if this is justifiable or not, but making the Post Office into something it's not (akin to making NASA a Muslim outreach agency) is expensive and irrational.

Mon, Nov 19, 2012

I think the digital ID business would be a great choice for USPS.

Mon, Nov 19, 2012 Beltway Billy

Excellent idea. USPS is trusted by many and they could fill the huge gap left by states not providing smartcard driver licenses / IDs (e.g. with PKI embedded) .... but how might they do this better, faster, cheaper than all their competitors?

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