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Thinking about the future of the post office: An interview with Amanda Weaver

Imagine receiving a text message every time a new letter was placed in your mailbox, or your city receiving a notification when there was a new pothole in your neighborhood — courtesy of a sensor that had been placed on your neighborhood mail truck.

These are the types of things that Amanda Weaver and her colleagues think up at the Risk Analysis Research Center (RARC) at the U.S. Postal Service Office of Inspector General’s Office. Her team operates like a government think-tank, writing white papers on everything from 3D printing to the Internet of Postal Things to ways that post offices could provide financial services for underserved populations. They basically think about what a post office could be and how it could operate — and then research and write up reports that are relevant to the Postal Service.

We reached out to Amanda after learning about her work to see if she would tell us more about what the RARC thinks about and does on a daily basis.

Melody Kramer: You work with a research group at the Postal Service’s Office of Inspector General. Can you describe some of the projects your team works on and what you’ve published?

Amanda Weaver: We are a small research group generating strategic ideas for the efficiency of USPS. We work on different and interesting research topics — and have a diversified portfolio focusing on several major themes.

I’m going to list some of our current projects and things we’re thinking about:

Enhancing the value of mail to digital natives. We see these digital natives as the future. By 2017, they will be 40 percent of the U.S. population with the most economic purchasing power. We’re taking a two-pronged approach to this:

First, we’re trying to understand their revealed preferences using the latest scientific techniques from neuroscience. Second, we’re focused on innovations within the mail itself. How can we use the latest technology to make the physical mail piece more digitally interactive and thus more appealing to the digital natives?

A map of potential pieces of the internet of postal things A page from the report on the Internet of Postal Things

The Internet of Postal Things. We’re imagining how the rich infrastructure of the Postal Service could be used if it were outfitted with sensors and interconnected with each other as well as the internet. This would create useful information to make the postal system smarter, and allow it to collect really useful information to the localities as a byproduct — think about sensors that could measure road conditions, the strength of mobile signals, or monitor air quality. We are currently expanding on this concept in another paper to explain how the Internet of Postal Things could aid in the efforts of “Smart Cities.”

Keeping up with new technology. We also keep up and report on what’s happening in the parcel market in terms of new technologies (robots, algorithms, driverless cars, drones, etc.), and new entrants with new business models (startups like Postmates, Shyp, Deliv; regional carriers; retailers delivering their own goods like Amazon; and the traditional players like FedEx and UPS).

Monitoring innovation. To expand our research, we’ve recently started an effort to more closely monitor innovation and startups in Silicon Valley and other tech hubs. We reach out to people and companies there to meet and talk about their work.

MK: I’m really interested by the idea of the Internet of Postal Things. I know your office has written a white paper about this topic. You mention more than a dozen possible applications — I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about how the distributed infrastructure of the post office supports this kind of innovation, and the possibilities that the post office could provide based on having this distributed workforce.

AW: It comes down to ubiquity, frequency, and regularity. The Postal Service is everywhere: it works seven days a week and on a predictable regular schedule. Combine this with leveraging sensors on an infrastructure of over 500,000 employees, 31,000 post offices, and 214,000 vehicles and there are huge possibilities with the Internet of Things. I’m going to highlight some really interesting applications:

The “You’ve Got Mail” moment. We’ve thought about how sensors in mail boxes could send you a text message the second mail is delivered to your mailbox. This could make the mail moment more exciting (Think about the red numbers on Facebook that show you have a message. We could create a similar experience for physical mail.)

Sensors on postal vehicles to measure and report road conditions. Mail trucks travel down every street every day anyway. If we put sensors on mail trucks, we could provide valuable data about road conditions, potholes etc. without the need for cities, counties, or state-level Departments of Transportation to send people out to do it.

Sensors to report mobile signals. Postal trucks could also be equipped with sensors that test the strength of a mobile signal in every part of the country. This data could be valuable to companies that provide broadband internet to let them know where their signals are weak or non-existent.

MK: Jumping to a different white paper I read: How might 3D printing (pdf) disrupt logistics, and how is the post office thinking about that? I’m especially curious about those last mile regions: where they are and what innovations are out there to support shortening supply chains?

AW: What’s great about 3D printing is that it enables rapid prototyping and mass customization leading to more manufacturing of lightweight items locally. This is our strength, i.e. delivering stuff locally and the delivery of lightweight parcels. So the Postal Service would be ideal for delivering 3D-printed light objects and even the raw material to all those local small manufacturers (the so-called Makers). We think there is a $500 million opportunity in new parcels.

MK: What can we do as citizens who love the Postal Service to keep it going? Also, are there any changes coming for self-service, etc?

AW: Self-service kiosks require an initial investment that is probably very high. I don’t see there being a massive roll-out of them in every post office. But, I do think there is interest in having more of them in offices where it makes sense.

As people, in my opinion, I think the important thing to understand is how much of a role regulation plays in how the Postal Service must conduct business. The Postal Service faces regulatory hurdles that no private-sector firm would ever have to deal with. It’s expected to generate its own income, yet it’s stifled by legislation that doesn’t allow it to offer new products and services, participate in mergers and acquisitions, or move as quickly as a private corporation. I think knowing the impact legislation plays in the future of the Postal Service is critical to understanding the way forward. 

MK: How is the Postal Service Inspector General using current (and near-future) technology to change how it does business? (For example, are you testing with drone delivery, AI-routing for delivery efficiency, etc.?)

AW: We are currently surveying technological innovations and disruptions in last-mile parcel delivery, including robotics, drone delivery, autonomous vehicles, and dynamic routing.

MK: We’re starting to see user-facing improvements in delivery already, such as the recent feature for users to re-route packages in transit via the web. How important are these web-based customer improvements to the overall business of the Postal Service, and what can we expect in the future?

AW: The key is to allow customers more control over their mail and parcels through their digital devices — anywhere, anytime, on any device for a customer-controlled experience. The information about a package could be as important as the package and sometimes more. The Postal Service is starting to expand on these types of services with new features being added to the My USPS site.

MK: How has same-day delivery from internet retailers impacted your business?

AW: It’s a competitive pressure for sure, but it’s still not clear if the underlying economics will support this notion beyond niche applications. But certainly you cannot ignore it. People want their online purchases ASAP or even within two hours of that purchase — and retailers want to cater to the instant gratification from impulsive purchasing. This is an area we are monitoring within our research group.

MK: How does the Postal Service Inspector General’s office think about innovation when it comes to serving rural communities? I’m assuming there are different needs in a rural area versus an urban one — could you talk a little bit about how your office thinks about the various needs of different post offices?

AW: From a research perspective, we are very aware of the different needs associated with rural versus urban post offices, and we try to consider this with each research project. The experience is different, the needs of the customer are different, and the role the post office plays in those communities is different. I think that in considering what the post office of the future should be, you have to think about these different areas in different ways, and we’re always thinking about how we can’t take a “one size fits all” solution.

MK: I read about the Post Office in your Pocket and the idea of the post office as a community hub. Could you talk a little bit about those and other ideas your office is working on?

AW: The Postal Service is in every community every day anyway (and it would be costly for others to establish presence), and our presence in rural areas tends to be valued not just for postal services but also as a community hub. You can harness tremendous economies of scope by offering community services such as e-government and e-health using postal space and infrastructure.

With this in mind, we identified five areas of retail opportunity for the Post Office:

1. The Community Hub — an exploration of how the local Post Office can serve as a “one-stop shop” of community and government services and resources.

2. The Future is Now — a summary of ideas to address potential platforms, services, and products that might provide greater service to the public and improve the Postal Service’s outlook.

3. Innovative Post Office Facilities — creative enhancements at local Post Office facilities can enrich the customer experience.

4. Post Office in Your Pocket — digital and mobile products and services to go.

5. Getting There — fundamental restrictions, including philosophies, laws, and regulations to overcome.

These opportunities would compare with those of certain foreign postal organizations that are rapidly transforming into organizations that provide a range of business and innovative offerings and using mobile devices to create value for existing products and services.

MK: I want to learn a little more about the Inspector General’s Office, which sits outside of the Postal Service and operates more like a think tank that makes recommendations for the post office. How many people do you work with? What is a typical day like for you and your coworkers and how does user research inform the reports that you produce?

AW: There are about 30 of us. The work environment here is great. I say this because of the people here — everyone really cares about the future of the Postal Service and talking about the research we are doing. It’s something we even talk about at happy hour after leaving the office. When I first moved to DC, before coming to the Risk Analysis Research Center (RARC) in the Office of the Inspector General, it seemed like everyone here took themselves SO seriously. It’s such a relief to be in a work environment where people care about their work but are down-to-earth at the same time.

Here’s a photo of one of our whiteboards, where we track complaints of the RARCers who bike to work everyday.

A whiteboard with stick figures for every day o fthe week and a chart about the benefits of biking to work.

Check out these links (1, 2, 3) to see where others have been posted by another RARCer, John Pickett:

(Editor’s note: The Office of the Inspector General at the Postal Service is really serious about their biking.)

MK: One last question: what was your path to your current role? I’m always fascinated by the myriad of jobs that exist in the federal government: How did you get to where you are today?

AW: Where do I begin?? When I was a little girl….just kidding!

More seriously, I studied International Relations in grad school. At the time I was focused on foreign policy, and really wanted to work in government. After grad school I started applying to jobs that were research-focused, since research was my primary skill upon graduation. I attended grad school in London, and when it was over I moved back home while job hunting. “Home” was far from D.C., and I didn’t have much luck with applications not being in the area. I didn’t have the money to up and move to D.C. and hang out or intern until I got a full time job. So, I went to work for the Ritz-Carlton in New Orleans. I had worked there the year between undergrad and grad school.

I talked to someone in sales, who told me that at the D.C. properties, there are diplomatic sales positions. With my background, she thought it would be interesting to me to work with embassies. When one of these positions became available, I applied and got a job in the D.C. area. I quickly moved out of this sales position and into a more market research and communications role.

After being there for about eight months, I received an offer at RARC. Whoever tells you that USAJobs is a black hole for resumes may be telling the truth. But, in my case, it worked! I work on the Global, Digital, and Innovation team within RARC, so when I was applying, the “global” part of the description caught my eye. Once I went online and saw the type of research the group did, I was curious to say the least. May marks two years that I’ve been here.