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Postal Mail, Post-Internet

Hoping to save money and paper, governments are giving a new service that replaces postal mail a try. Will it catch on?


Ellen Perlman

Ellen Perlman was a GOVERNING staff writer and technology columnist.


Commented December 11, 2009

So I sent an email out to Sacramento's Mayor Kevin Johnson explaining to him what Zumbox.com is capa...

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Scroll to the bottom of the city of Minneapolis' home page, and you'll see links to Facebook, Twitter and, as of last week, Zumbox.

Zumbox? Is this more social-media stuff?

Not exactly. Zumbox is potentially a money-saving, environment-protecting, clutter-reducing way for residents to get their postal mail-including utility bills and service notices and news that come from their local governments-virtually. For the benefits of Zumbox to be realized, however, it requires residents to sign on and claim a virtual mailbox. Some people-already feeling bombarded by new Web sites, digital concepts and social-media services-might not be thrilled about yet another online offering. But an increasing number of cities-including New York, Newark and San Francisco-are willing to give it a shot.

Why? As far as these cities are concerned, there's little to lose and much to gain by being able to communicate with residents more efficiently. "We figured there has to be a catch here somewhere. There never was one," says Tim Baldermann, mayor of New Lenox, Illinois, which ran a pilot early this year and saw many residents sign up. Cities don't pay for the digital mailings. Businesses pay for what they send, which also supports the service. And for every resident who signs up for a Zumbox, that's one less stamp and zero printing costs for mailings the city sends.

What is Zumbox? It's a bit tough to understand at first. It functions like the U.S. Postal Service does but without the paper or stamps. Digital envelopes and their contents appear in a virtual mailbox the resident signs up for, and the information looks like the paper notices that would have arrived at the house. Notices might come from a utility company or the tax department or another business or organization that chose to use Zumbox. The letters and bills are delivered instantly, with no chance of getting caught in rain, snow, sleet or hail.

But why is this any different from or better than e-mail? Zumbox uses street addresses to assign a mailbox, not a random e-mail address of the user's choosing. Baldermann, for one, can't imagine the city trying to obtain the e-mail addresses of its 25,000 residents for the purposes of sending city e-mails, especially since e-mail addresses change all the time.

Even if Zumbox continues and is successful, New Lenox doesn't expect to stop sending paper notices or communicating through newspapers and local-access television. Only 84 percent of local households have computers. "But if even a third said 'don't send us paper,' what a great benefit to the community," says Baldermann. He says that could save taxpayers some amount in the six figures and eliminate a lot of paper.

Zumbox already has created a mailbox for every address in the United States. I decided to see what would happen if I signed up (although as far as I know, my city of Washington, D.C., is not participating yet.) I entered my address but didn't get a Zumbox right away. I got a message telling me I would be sent a security code via the postal service to verify that I live where I said I live. I did receive that code and finished the sign-up. I was excited to see if anyone in my billing world was participating. Nope. So far, I have no mail except a welcome explanation from Zumbox.

So what's the big deal about a service such as this one? For San Francisco, it's about finding new ways to communicate with constituents, says Brian Purchia, spokesman for Mayor Gavin Newsom. The city also hopes to reduce the amount of waste it generates to zero by 2020. "It's a new opportunity for us to cut down on the amount of paper being sent," Purchia says. San Francisco started testing the service about two months ago, using Zumbox to send a letter from the mayor about recycling efforts.

The other benefit is the ability to contact people geographically. For instance, if there were a water main break on Main Street, a city would be able to send a notice only to the affected addresses. "If we're doing street repairs, we can target an area in town and say, 'Hey, your street is going to be closed this day and time for street repairs,' and give a little more information out there," says Baldermann. The mayor can hit the whole town with information, or choose an area or target by street names and just send information to those people. "It has that ability," Baldermann says. "As a government, that's what we'd use."

Then the question is: How do you sell it to constituents? The advantages might be difficult to grasp, at first. For instance, many people already get electronic bills. Why would they want to switch to a different way of getting them?

Well, there is one distinction with Zumbox: Most utility, phone and other companies don't actually send bills to your e-mail account. They send an e-mail telling you to navigate to their individual secure Web sites where you complete the transaction. Because Zumbox is compliant with the security standards for financial, health care and credit card information, all those bills could come to that one Zumbox mailbox and be paid there and then. Zumbox even tracks when each piece of mail was opened and gives users the opportunity to block any particular sender. That's not possible with snail mail without notifying each sender.

For residents, there's another novel aspect to this whole thing. People can send paperless letters and postcards to other people's Zumboxes. This might have helped when I found myself in an odd situation in May. I was awakened by the blaring of a strange siren, as were many of the neighbors in my condo building. None of us had a way to communicate with one another building-wide. But if a service such as Zumbox were ubiquitous, someone with information could have sent a message to all of us-and no one else-explaining what the siren was all about. And then I could have stuck in a pair of ear plugs and gone to sleep with some peace of mind.

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