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11/21/2011
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Should Postal Service Offer Email, Online Storage?

USPS Inspector General urges development of digital services so postal service can take advantage of Internet economy and ease some of its financial woes.

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The U.S. Postal Service should offer email, secure document storage, and other online services as a way for the financially strapped agency to leverage the Web as a service platform, according to the USPS office of Inspector General.

A report from the IG outlined a digital platform the agency could create to offer services such as eMailbox and eLockbox to help the USPS take advantage of the Internet economy and recoup some of the more than $5 billion it lost in 2011.

However, questions remains about whether the agency has the qualifications to offer such services and where they would get the cash to create the platform for them.

As described in the report, eMailbox would be a "closed-loop" Web-based email service that would allow people only to communicate with others using the service, and access their email from various Web-enabled devices, including smartphones. eLockbox would be a secure document storage service that would be a subfolder of the email service and let people archive legal and business documents.

[ Would you trust the Postal Service with your data? Read GAO Rips IRS Taxpayer Data Security . ]

The report is the fourth in a series by the IG describing how the USPS can use the Web to diversify its service portfolio and adapt to the changing economic market.

The IG thinks the services "reflect a natural extension of the Postal Service's role in the physical world," and cites the agency's longtime role as a third-party that is trusted with handling people's personal and confidential mail as one factor that makes it suitable for transferring this role to the digital milieu.

While online email services like Google and Yahoo use information contained in people's emails for targeted advertising, the IG points out that the USPS's historical role of privacy protector would provide a level of comfort for customers.

The USPS also already the advantages of maintaining the Address Management System (AMS) and the National Change of Address System (NCOA) databases, which could be linked technologically to email addresses and provide a high level of privacy and authenticity for online transactions, according to the IG.

Still, there are challenges to the plans the IG has for the agency. The USPS has never offered online services as described in the report, while other big-name providers have been doing so for more than a decade. With the federal government struggling lately to keep its websites online, offering an entire digital platform that would compete with Google and Microsoft could be a tall order for a federal agency.

There is also a question of how the financially troubled agency--which already has laid off thousands of workers and closed thousands of facilities--would fund such an endeavor.

Still, the agency is not without a history of creating new opportunities through technology. Its Full Service Intelligent Mail, introduced in May 2009, won a 2010 Government IT Innovator award from InformationWeek.

The sophisticated bar-code service handles a half-billion pieces of mail and 1 billion scan transactions daily and was expected to generate $25 billion in annual revenue per year for the agency.

Our annual Federal Government IT Priorities Survey shows how agencies are managing the many mandates competing for their limited resources. Also in the new issue of InformationWeek Government: NASA veterans launch cloud startups, and U.S. Marshals Service completes tech revamp. Download the issue now. (Free registration required.)

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