The disgrace of our Post Office

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June 07, 2010

By Richard Coulson -How long does it take for a delivery truck to drive from a bank on Frederick Street in downtown Nassau to Cable Beach? Maybe 45 minutes on a bad traffic day. How long does it take for the Bahamas Post Office to deliver an ordinary letter that distance? How about 20 days. And from the BEC office on Baillou Hill Road to Cable Beach? How about 21 days via our Government-run postal service?

These examples come from comparing the postmark date with the first date the letter was found in my mail box. I happened to use the private Mail Boxes facility rather than the Cable Beach branch post office, but that should add another day at most, since Mail Boxes pick up from the nearby branch three times a week, and the branch gets two deliveries a day from the central Post Office.

__gallery__ And these delays do not even represent true delivery periods, since it is not known how long letters dropped in any post office sit around the central office before the postmark is affixed. These unbelievable delivery times are typical of all my mail I have checked in recent weeks, and my experience is typical of every other person I have questioned. And this is local mail, in the 21-mile long island of New Providence,

Let's not even discuss inter-island mail (despite daily flights to most locations) and, even worse, international mail, where months can pass for inbound and outbound delivery, and complete untraceable loss is not uncommon. The unreliability has caused a local club with many overseas members to advise them not to address mail to the club's Nassau P.O. Box, but to use a special convenience address established in Miami - a solution used by many establishments, together with the ubiquitous, but expensive, reliance on FedEx and DHL couriers.

Mail service is not a glamorous subject, but it is a public utility as much as electricity, telecommunications, and water and sewerage. Because the Post Office is not set up as a separate corporation but simply buried as a department of the Ministry of Works, it has not received the public scrutiny of a BEC or BTC, but its capabilities are just as essential to an efficient public sector, and provide a guide as to whether a nation has escaped "third-world" status. By this standard, the Bahamas is failing abysmally.

What is the effect on our economy? Thousands of bills are late in arriving, and payments are equally late, putting a squeeze on the billers' cash-flow. Some private companies have virtually abandoned the post office, relying on local messengers for specific communications. But this is not an option open to private citizens, or to the public utilities, banks and insurance companies, who send out thousands of bulk-mail monthly mailings. Of course, the deficiency is intensified because our lethargic Central Bank and financial industry have not taken the steps, normal in other counties, to initiate on-line payment systems (said to be coming soon, hopefully).

For comparative experience in the "real world", I consulted the websites of the UK's Royal Mail and USPS (United States Postal Service), particularly to learn their assured delivery times. For the cost of a 41 pence stamp (about $0.60), letters are delivered anywhere in the United Kingdom within one or two days; a 32 pence stamp brings three-day delivery. Despite well-publicized budgetary constraints, USPS still offers six-day per week service and three-day standard delivery for a $0.44 stamp, increased by 10 cents during the last 10 years.

And, of course, this means delivery directly to a subscriber's home or office box, requiring thousands of staffers, trucks and bikes whose expense we do not bear in the Bahamas.

By contrast, our website (, says nothing - perhaps wisely - about assured delivery dates for our standard $0.15 New Providence stamp. It contains the grandiloquent mission statement "to be recognized and respected for its timely collection and transmittal, and of postal products", as well as photographs of smiling employees operating computers and stamping machines, or struggling with huge sacks of mail in the cavernous central sorting hall. We can also find information about branch offices, box rental and philatelic offerings.

We learn about 10 main and branch post offices in New Providence, with a total of 24,750 boxes and 900 more planned "in the future". But all this information may be out-of-date, since the website appears to have been prepared in 2005 and still bears the handsome portrait photograph of Postmaster-General Godfrey Clarke, who happens to have retired over a year ago. I was informed that he was replaced by his deputy, Leslie Cartwright, whose appointment has never been officially announced. My attempts to reach him by telephone or via his designated e-mail address proved fruitless.

The greatest irony of the website is (the retired) Mr Clarke's proud announcement that, as a member of the Universal Postal Union (UPU) since 1974, the Bahamas Post Office adheres to a "quality of service policy that focuses on meeting and exceeding customer expectations". The UPU, a little-known affiliate of the United Nations, cannot compel any member nation to follow its strictures but does its best to draft standards and encourage compliance. One does not realize the complexity of international regulations, protocols and technical research required for efficient international mail until one reads the voluminous reports churned out by the UPU at its quadrennial Congresses, prepared by its 150 headquarters staff in Berne, Switzerland. At its 2004 and 2008 meetings, the UPO adopted the important 'J-5 Worldwide Standard for International Postal Service Quality', setting five days for normal mail delivery, with an objective of 80 per cent worldwide compliance.

Clearly, the Bahamas is far from meeting this standard. Even in New Providence, with all its geographic advantages for prompt service and about 30,000 widely-scattered mail boxes (if we include Mail Boxes Ltd and other licensed private operators), good roads, none of the jungles, deserts, mountains and poor infrastructure that impede delivery in, say, African nations, the standard is a disgraceful two to three weeks.

The private citizen, and even the press, cannot penetrate the hermetic post office bureaucracy to discover the problems. As with other failing organizations, the problem probably does not lie with the low-level employees, who act as they are directed. It is likely to start at the leadership (government) and senior management level and then filter down, perhaps some combination of aversion to modern technology and indifference to customer service. The retirement of Mr Clarke and the ambiguous position of Mr Cartwight cannot help but worsen the situation.

If money is the problem, the Government might well be justified in raising the long-frozen price of the standard $0.15 stamp. But this would only be acceptable if accompanied by visible signs of improved efficiency.

In our view, the only solution is for the chief executives of our banks, insurance companies and public utilities - the major parties victimized by the postal catastrophe - to come together and make a unified complaint to the Prime Minister, demanding a revolutionary change to the status quo. This should then lead to an investigation and report by an independent consultant in postal services - there are many - followed by not only a restructuring of management but also a modernization of the doubtless archaic systems presently used in the receipt, sorting and delivery of mail.

There is no reason why the Bahamas needs to struggle with a third-world postal system.

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News date : 06/07/2010    Category : Tribune Stories

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