For IG, the future is now at USPS

David Williams, IG of the Postal Service.

Inspector General David Williams takes a broad view of his role at the perennially cash-strapped U.S. Postal Service, including the development of new technologies and revenue streams.

It's amazing what a little destruction can accomplish.

The onset of the digital age, evolution in the way mail is delivered and budgetary constraints have combined to create a perfect fiscal storm at the U.S. Postal Service. And Inspector General David Williams is in the eye of it.

"IG's involvement with the digital age might be more dramatic at the USPS because it has been hit with such creative destruction," Williams said. "But it's the job of the IG to try and find a way forward, and the fact that the postal service is in this radical transformation puts the IG here in a different spot."

Like many agencies facing fiscal challenges over the past few years, the USPS has been trying to keep its head above water. What separates the post office from most other federal agencies is that it earns its money through the sale of products and services, not through congressional appropriations. The USPS lost $2 billion in the April-June quarter, despite a 2 percent increase in operating revenue over the same period a year ago.

Another problem that has made it more difficult to keep abreast of breakneck changes in information technology, according to Williams, is the mandate that the post office prefund its retiree health benefits, at a cost of about $5.5 billion a year for 10 years (the post office announced with its earnings report Aug. 12 that it would not be making the payment this year, the Associated Press reported).

"It's been a real hurdle," Williams said. "It prevented them from investing in the migration to the digital age, and upkeep of physical infrastructure and vehicles."

But the digital age arrived in any case, and Williams has had to deal with it.

The Office of the Inspector General in government was established in 1978, in the wake of the abuses of the Watergate era. The first IGs were largely paper-based and spent most of their time investigating allegations of the proverbial "waste, fraud and abuse."

These days, the job more closely resembles another product of the digital age, an accountant's version of continuous diagnostics and monitoring -- but for auditing rather than cyber intrusions.

Williams has been an IG at five federal agencies and has seen firsthand the way technology has changed his job -- especially the way in which digital analytics have revolutionized the way IGs collect, audit and monitor information.

USPS programs such as the Risk Assessment Data Repository give IGs and auditors a real-time overview of risks and possible malpractice.

Tammy Whitcomb, deputy IG at USPS, said it's like having a monitor that lights up when something goes wrong.

"You don't have to go and find the problem," Whitcomb said. "And because you already know the problem, it makes the report we issue much more interesting."

Today, some of those reports even come in interactive form.

Mail carriers could be an important part of the sensory net of things -- they could report real-time traffic, highway bridge conditions and can read meters.

The postal service OIG issued its first semi-annual report to Congress in a digital dynamic format online in March. Previously, reports were either in paper copies or online PDFs, and looked the same in both formats. Now, the data in the new online report format gives users a chance to interact with visuals, graphs and data.

Another advantage: The digitization of IG reports allows for people to make observations across government and make connections that wouldn't have been possible before, Williams said.

More than an IG

While not every IG office is as in tune with its organization's mission and technology, Williams said, circumstances have forced IGs and technology to meet each other head on.

His vision for the USPS is not limited to the duties of his office. Whitcomb, who has been a deputy under Williams for 2 1/2 years, said seeing the bigger picture is a key part of his leadership style.

"He sees things and opportunities that most people don't see, and he leads through a path to get there," Whitcomb said of her boss.

The Postal Service is one of the oldest branches of the federal government. It played a crucial role in uniting the fractious former colonies into a unified whole in the early republic, through the building of roads and the fostering of an early communications infrastructure. Williams sees a similar role to be played today.

"A country can only progress as rapidly as the society is able to understand and adapt," Williams said. "You need the ability to have an infrastructure to help people through that, particularly the awkward young systems that you associate with the digital age. I think the ability of the government's infrastructure to assist that is going to dictate the pace of change."

And who, Williams asks rhetorically, has more hands on the nation's infrastructure than the post office, with branches in almost every community.

"We go through every street in the United States every single day," Williams said. "Mail carriers could be an important part of the sensory net of things -- they could report real-time traffic, highway bridge conditions and can read meters."

Williams said he thinks mail carriers could eventually act as "logistics managers" in every neighborhood in the U.S., almost like a warehouse manager for the community.

Finding the future

As many challenges as emerging technologies present for the Postal Service, they also offer opportunities.

As everyday communication turns increasingly electronic, the shipping of packages is becoming a crucial element in the agency's survival.

Williams expects the growing popularity of 3D printing to popularize -- and increase -- parcel shipments. The materials that 3D printers use -- plastics, powders, metals -- tend to be transported in smaller quantities than bulk raw materials shipped by truck, plane or train.

"The increase in the number of parcels I believe is going to explode as 3D printing catches on," Williams said.

And this is not a pie-in-the-sky projection, he contends. "It was futuristic five minutes ago."

The USPS also has the capability to help with security and privacy by acting as a third party in identity management.

"There's a problem today with privacy, security and confidentiality, and I think the Postal Service could be an important part of verifying someone's identity without compromising all the metadata that makes up that person's profile," Williams said.

The USPS is the technology service provider for the Federal Cloud Credential Exchange (FCCX) project unveiled a year ago. The idea behind it is to help agencies avoid the expense of credentialing the same person multiple times, while also making life easier for customers.

"With agencies throughout government, we could be their front office, particularly when budgets come under pressure," Williams said. "The giant field structures of all these parallel agencies, they're going to be very difficult to sustain and it'll be very tempting to go to e-Government."

The concept and pilot is still in the design process, but Williams is optimistic that FCCX will become a reliable revenue stream.

And he said thinking on the money side of things is essential for the IG office at the USPS.

"Because the Postal Service generates its own revenue, our role is a little broader than IGs in agencies that are appropriated. We're able to look at things that result in revenue," Whitcomb said. "We see it as a part of our mission to look at what the future could look like."

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