Postal Service urged to offer personalized stamps

WASHINGTON -- Personalized postage stamps -- featuring the kids, the dog, the company logo -- may be in Americans' future.

Such special issue stamps, sold at a premium, were among the recommendations issued Wednesday by the President's Commission on the Future of the Postal Service.

The panel also called on the post office to cut its work force while increasing automation; to establish a bonus, or pay-for-performance, system for managers and union members; to set up a security system to track mail; and to make changes in its collective bargaining process.

Established in January by President Bush, the commission is scheduled to issue its final report by the end of the month. The major recommendations were approved at meetings Wednesday and last week.

Allowing mailers to personalize stamps would add value to sending materials by mail, said Harry J. Pearce, co-chairman of the commission.

"There's enormous creativity out there," added co-chairman James A. Johnson, citing the popularity of personalized license plates.

Personalized stamps were introduced in Canada in 2001 and have proven very popular, said Canada Post spokesman Tim McGurrin.

Customers send in a picture and Canada Post reduces it to a sticker which can be placed in a postage stamp that has a blank center. The Picture Post stamps sell for $1, compared with the 48-cent regular price for Canadian stamps.

Pictures of friends, babies and pets are most common, McGurrin said, as well as businesses or logos. There have been a few odd ones, he said, such as a large fish.

The customer must own the copyright to the picture, McGurrin said, and the agency reserves the right to refuse any it deems in bad taste.

The commission recommendations most likely to draw controversy were those dealing with its work force and collective bargaining. Indeed, these were the only recommendations not approved unanimously.

William H. Young, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers, said it was "inconceivable to envision a postal reform bill that would allow postal employees to receive differing levels of pay for the same work."

Noting that 47 percent of the postal work force will reach retirement age by 2010, the commission urged the agency to take this "unique attrition opportunity" to reduce its staff and increase automation.

Another proposal likely to attract concern focused on security, and suggested that the post office set up a system to track mail and obtain sender identification for every piece of mail.

If that had been available at the time of the anthrax-by-mail attacks it would have been invaluable, said Pearce. The commission didn't detail how such a system would work.

That idea drew quick criticism from the private Consumer Alliance for Postal Services, which charged it would infringe on mailers' privacy.

Last week the commission recommended that the Postal Service, a quasi-independent government agency, be given more flexibility to raise rates and close local post offices that are not deemed to be necessary.

On Wednesday, commission co-chairman Harry Pearce said that while the panel wants the Postal Service to be able to close unnecessary offices, it feels any office needed to assure the delivery of mail to a local area should be kept open even if it loses money.

Many of the recommendations will need approval from Congress and the president. Efforts to update the 1970 legislation that set up the Postal Service have been debated for some time in Congress, and this new report is likely to lead to new hearings.