Postal Slip Gets New Life

The paper trail in Shoshana Grove's post office in Bethesda, Md., just got Webbed. The U.S. Postal Service last month launched an electronic record management system that will capture and store an estimated 400 million signatures annually, including the tens of thousands of slips for express-, registered- and certified-mail receipts that collect dust in Postmaster Grove's office.

"For certified and registered mail," Grove said, "you want a signature to know someone received it." A customer who sends a letter by certified mail, for example, can later ask to see the signed receipt for proof that it was delivered.

The new system allows postal employees to scan all signatures into a central database, where they can be retrieved within seconds by any post office in the country, said Julie Rios, the system's program manager. The $360 million system was successfully downloaded in late July via very small aperture terminal satellites and is now networked across 35,000 post offices via the satellites.

"The transition [to the electronic system] went very smoothly," Grove said. The new technology promises an overnight improvement to a process invented in the late 1790s by Benjamin Franklin, the first postmaster general, and updated only slightly in the intervening two centuries. Until July, in fact, you could still find the same process in operation at Grove's Bethesda workplace.

Letter carriers first received the signed receipts via the process of delivering registered and certified mail along their daily routes. Then they filed each slip by address in hundreds of cubbyholes -- Franklin's preferred method, Grove said. Clerks would periodically empty the cubby-holes by sorting them into lockers in the back of the office. Retrieval of a single signature, she added, often required a 15- to 20-minute search.

Rios believes the new system will bring more revenue to the Postal Service as it competes against the likes of United Parcel Service of America Inc., Federal Express Corp. and perhaps its biggest overall rival, e-mail.

The new storage system will allow postal managers to track each other's certified mail receipts across the country, she said. Although that ranks as an improvement for the agency, it still trails the efficiency of e-mail's instant delivery and UPS' and FedEx's track-and-trace technology. The two parcel giants can track packages anywhere within their processing systems.

A track-and-trace system is now impossible for the postal service, Rios said, because USPS often relies on commercial airlines for transportation. "It's hard to be technologically on par with the competition when they out-spend us 10-to-1," she said. "In the future, I expect we'll have something like that."

The e-record management system also marks the latest technology introduced by the agency's pioneering Expedited/ Package Services division, based in Atlanta, which markets and improves the lucrative priority-, express-, certified- and registered-mail products. In early 1999, for example, the division launched the delivery confirmation system, for which customers pay extra to confirm within one day whether a package they sent was delivered.

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