**USPS Inspector General Criticizes Agency's Revenue Assurance Program

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A much anticipated report from the U.S. Postal Service's Office of the Inspector General that attacks the agency's revenue assurance program began making the rounds in Washington this week.


The RAP ensures the collection of postage and fees due the USPS for postal products and services. It has been a controversial topic in the mailing community for several months, with mailers complaining that the USPS unfairly demands payment of back postage for unclear, ambiguous or inconsequential violations of the Domestic Mail Manual and then does not afford mailers the appropriate due process.


The report uses relatively harsh words about the RAP program. It said the program was inefficient in meeting its objectives, that some mailers were treated unfairly, and that the USPS' corrective actions did not fully address mailers' concerns.


The report found that:


• Revenue assessments were not timely.


• Mailers did not receive advance notice of deficiencies.


• Deficiencies assessed were sometimes attributable to incorrect information given by USPS personnel at the time of mail acceptance.


• Mailers perceived that deficiencies were driven by monetary goals.


• The appeals process is flawed.


The report was prompted by a meeting earlier this year between members of the mailing community and the House subcommittee on the postal service to allay mailers' concerns about the billing practice. Because of their complaints, the chairman of the subcommittee, Rep. John McHugh, R-NY, began investigating the program and wrote a letter to the USPS' inspector general asking that the program be evaluated.


The inspector general's office gave the report to McHugh and his staff in July.


"The revenue assurance process did not balance revenue collection goals with preventing and correcting deficiencies," the report said. "The organizational structure and financial incentives also contributed to the imbalance."


In addition, the report said that even though the USPS "launched several initiatives to improve working relationships with its mailing partners, correct deficiencies before they occur, and ensure more consistent treatment of mailers … they did not fully address all of the issues raised by mailers."


The postal service put new plans in place for RAP in January 2000 that included developing a quality charter to ensure quick resolution of quality assurance problems; making sure that communication is ongoing between the USPS and its mailing customers; developing an appeals process; and making sure that the USPS' Bulk Mail Acceptance and Rates and Classification Service Center personnel are available to work with customers.


The report makes recommendations that would complement those changes. For example, to ensure that mailers are treated fairly, it recommended that the chief financial officer and executive vice president, in connection with the chief marketing officer, senior vice president and other officials, make sure that postmasters and other staff who assist mailers are properly trained in business mail preparation standards.


It also recommended reducing the period for assessing deficiencies; giving mailers the opportunity to correct mailing practices prior to the assessments of revenue deficiencies; and making sure the USPS communicates that monetary goals have not been established for the revenue assurance process.


The report said management has generally agreed with the recommendations and will issue revised instructions for management on handling revenue deficiencies in the first half of fiscal 2001.


Robert Taub, McHugh's chief of staff, said that "all the recommendations pointed out [in the report] were really good ones, and we will continue to help follow up on those recommendations in oversight hearings." Taub said its annual, general postal oversight hearing of the USPS will take place next month.


Neal Denton, executive director at the Alliance of Nonprofit Mailers, Washington, said he hopes the process improves because "every pocket of postal customer -- whether it's nonprofit or commercial, whether Standard-A or periodical -- was outraged at some of the strong-arm, 'I gotcha' tactics that they were experiencing," he said.


However, Denton said some nonprofit mailers are still slogging through unfair appeals processes that seem designed to squeeze revenue from honest and loyal postal customers.


"I remain concerned that some large revenue deficiencies are still sitting out there that have not been resolved yet," he said.
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