If you’ve been following the US Postal Service’s various travails, you’ll be interested in Sasha Issenberg’s profile of Swiss Post in Issue 30 of Monocle. Unfortunately, it’s a subscriber-only piece, but this is a flavor of it:
Facing diminishing demand for its core service, Swiss Post has emerged as a model for state-owned utilities looking to remain relevant. It is reimagining itself as a global media and technology company, both competing and collaborating with some of Switzerland’s largest publishers, banks and tech start-ups. Swiss Post executives see themselves on unique turf at the intersection of data networks and the old-fashioned letter routes, with the ability to carve out an unrivalled position in the digital age. “We believe we are in the communication business, not just in the physical letter-mail business,” says executive vice president Frank Marthaler. “The internet is a fantastic place, and we want to work with the internet and not against the internet.”
Swiss Post was created in 1997, when the government split the postal and telecom functions from the country’s PTT utility. Nine years later, the Swiss parliament abolished the company’s parcel monopoly, and is now considering a bill that would do the same in the domestic letter business. Yet instead of fearing private-sector competition, Swiss Post is moving into new spheres.
Basically, Swiss Post was given additional flexibility about its business model and has been able to adapt to a changing landscape even while remaining a state-owned postal service. This seems to be basically what Postmaster General Potter is looking to do, but the Post reports that “As for Postal Service plans to sell banking, insurance and cellphone services through post offices, the consultants point to the agency’s lack of start-up funds and inability to afford potential short-term losses.” I’m not sure how Swiss Post got around this. What’s needed, presumably, is some way to access private capital markets without changing the USPS’ underlying ownership structure—some kind of joint venture model perhaps.
It’s worth emphasizing that though the downward trajectory for the USPS’s core business is real enough, the multi-billion dollar losses you see in the news are largely a result of an accounting rule related to prepayment of retiree health benefits. I didn’t realize this during the round of “USPS budget disaster” stories a few months ago, but it’s a key piece of context.