In early 2011, the Wall Street Journal reported that the United States Postal Service was looking to close thousands of rural post offices around the country. In a small town in New York's Hudson Valley, NYU professor Steve Hutkins, who didn’t know much about the USPS other than chatting with two postal worker friends, wondered if his local post office might be one of them.
"I'm like, why would they want to do something like that?" Hutkins recalled recently over the phone. "We all love the post office."
Unlike when a local business announces it is closing and that is pretty much that, Hutkins realized the USPS announcement was just the start of a long, public process to determine which, and how many, post offices actually close. And the more he looked, the more he found. Between the USPS, Postal Regulatory Commission, USPS Office of Inspector General, and a host of other agencies, there was more data and reports than he knew what to do with.
But Hutkins also realized that local news outlets were focusing on individual post offices slated for closure, while no one was putting all of that information together on a national scale to provide a full picture of the USPS’s plans.
That spring, Hutkins started savethepostoffice.com to track the austerity measures being discussed by the Obama-era USPS, particularly the proposed post office closings. In the years since, and with the help of former USPS postmaster Mark Jamison, it has expanded to tracking not only post office closures, but also deeper questions about the agency's finances, Congress's virtually non-existent efforts to fix it, and the role of the USPS in modern society.
Hutkins was able to do this because the USPS, despite replicating a corporate structure in many ways, is still a part of the federal government and therefore required to disclose much more information than a private company, making it possible for independent observers like Hutkins to become an expert. "The transparency of the postal service," he said, "is one of the main reasons that I got interested in it."
That project made Hutkins one of the most consistent independent USPS observers looking out for the best interests of ordinary U.S. residents. While bulk mailers, USPS workers, or major contractors and shipping partners have their own industry groups, unions, or lobbyists working on their behalf, the hundreds of millions of U.S. residents that, technically speaking, own the post office have virtually no representation when decisions get made within the USPS.
Hutkins realized that "there were forces out there that wanted to privatize the postal service," a position he is vehemently against. "So it became a kind of crusade, in that regard, to fight privatization."
In a year where many of us have taken stock of the institutions that really matter, perhaps none have received quite the fervor of appreciation as the USPS. Due to a combination of the pandemic and surging package volumes, Trump's absurd bloviations about the USPS and Amazon's relationship, new Postmaster General Louis DeJoy's drastic policies that disrupted mail service around the country, and the post office's role in a heavily vote-by-mail election, Hutkins said this has been an extraordinary year to be writing about the USPS.
For relative USPS newcomers like me, his nine years of Save the Post Office archives proved an invaluable resource to getting up to speed on what exactly has happened, how we got here, and where we need to go.
In a way, Hutkins demonstrates the finest example of what a functioning civil society looks like in a year where we haven't had an awful lot of those. The entire premise of a representative democracy is that most people can't or don't want to pay close attention to what the government is doing all the time. But a functioning democracy also requires people, like Hutkins, facilitating an informed citizenry that puts a transparent government to good use. At the very least, they disseminate information about important government services and, if we're lucky, hold those institutions accountable in a meaningful way that creates positive change.
If nothing else, Hutkins has spent nearly a decade helping the people of the United States understand what is going on with the post office. Even he didn't imagine it would end up being as important as it was in 2020, culminating in a flurry of federal lawsuits in the days leading up to a massive election swung by mail-in votes.
Most years at Save the Post Office are not as eventful as 2020—he said the late-Obama years were especially dull for USPS news—so I asked Hutkins what keeps the site going. He said part of it is "being really committed to the idea of the people's public postal service and not seeing it dismantled piece by piece." But on top of that, he wants people to know the post office belongs to them.
"The owners of the postal service are the average people getting mail in their mailboxes," he said. "It's really hard for people to get across the idea, look: this is yours. You own this."