Wanted: Qualified USPS Board Nominees

Some years ago, more than I care to recall, I attended a 13-week postgraduate program at Harvard Business School. It was quite a program, using the Harvard case study methodology for three case discussions a day, six days a week.

I came away with the understanding that to succeed, corporations must ensure that they understand what problems need to be solved. The problems facing the U.S. Postal Service are generally well understood. In brief, they are:

* No growth.

* A decline in First-Class volume.

* 80 percent of costs related to labor, with associated high pension/health increases.

* High fixed costs (universal service).

* A highly regulated environment.

* Difficulties in implementing changes.

* Congressional involvement.

* Competitors generally unencumbered by regulation.

One could go on and on.

The 1970 legislation establishing the postal service gave the responsibility for controlling the USPS to its board of governors. The president selects the governors, subject to Senate confirmation. No more than five of the nine governors may be from the same political party. The governors select the postmaster general and deputy PMG, approve significant capital investments, meet monthly for two days and generally function as a corporate board of directors would.

Several recent nominees appear particularly suited to BOG tasks, ensuring that postal management tackles the right problems. Board chairman James C. Miller III seems particularly well positioned. He previously served as director of the Office of Management and Budget and was a former chairman of the Federal Trade Commission.

Indeed, both Senate and House of Representatives versions of postal reform bills include qualification requirements for governors. The House version states that at least four be chosen solely on their demonstrated abilities in managing organizations or corporations of substantial size (at least 50,000 employees). The Senate version also provides that governors be selected based on their experience in public service, law or accounting or their demonstrated experience in managing.

In that light, let’s look at the two current board nominees: Mickey D. Barnett of New Mexico and Katherine C. Tobin of New York.

Barnett is the managing partner of the Barnett law firm in Albuquerque, NM. The firm appears to have a general practice involved with various New Mexico clients. However, he also has several ties to Washington. He was a legislative assistant to Sen. Pete Domenici from 1972 to 1976. He also was a New Mexico state senator from 1980 to 1984. And, probably most importantly to his nomination, in the very close 2000 presidential election in New Mexico he intervened for the GOP on issues related to a potential vote recount. His most recent resume shows no public or private sector board memberships.

Tobin is highly educated, with a master’s degree and a Ph.D. from Stanford University in administration and policy analysis. She also was a dean of a master’s degree program at Manhattanville College and a faculty member at the University of Nevada. In the business world, she has designed and managed market research programs at Hewlett-Packard.

She is now with an organization called Catalyst as senior director of research and speaks around the country on issues relating to women’s advancement in business. According to Catalyst’s Web site, it is a “research and advisory organization working with business and professions to build inclusive environments and expand opportunities for women at work.” Tobin’s recent resume does not show any private sector board memberships and but a few small public sector boards.

Can these nominees help direct the USPS in solving its critical problems, or have they been nominated to resolve an unrelated political problem?

Let me segue for a bit and look at recent nominees to the Federal Reserve Board and Federal Communications Commission. The reserve board nominees were a University of Chicago economics professor who also served as a member of the Council of Economic Advisors, and the second a White House economics policy aide. The FCC nominee had a 16-year career as a telecommunications lobbyist. The resumes for the two USPS board nominees show no involvement in postal, direct mail, printing or any industry related to the postal service.

It’s unfortunate that governors’ seats too often are given out as a reward for political or public service endeavors with little regard to what the individual can bring to help the USPS solve its own set of difficult problems. For it seems clear that these two nominees, however upstanding or well educated they may be, bring little in background or experience to help or guide postal management.

What can be done to get qualified board nominees? First, the mailing industry needs to develop a list of individuals who are well qualified by experience and education to serve on the board. And it needs to ensure that the White House and Congress know of that list.

Second, industry leaders should establish a panel to review the qualifications of nominees. The panel must be willing to issue its review conclusions publicly, similar to the way the American Bar Association does for judicial nominees.

It will be interesting to follow the nomination hearings before the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, chaired by Sen. Susan Collins, R-ME. I wonder whether anyone from the mailing industry will testify? I wonder how the senators will vote? I know how I would.

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