“But in daily practice, I think a lot of what we’re doing is ensuring that The Postal Service’s rates and service levels comply with legal requirements, approving new rates for mail and packages, producing several annual reports, including one called our Annual Compliance Determination. This evaluates whether The Postal Service’s operations complied with law in the previous year. We publish data about The Postal Service’s operations for the public. I think I alluded to this in my last answer, but speaking a little more specifically from the commission perspective, really listening to input from a variety of postal stakeholders, including businesses of all sizes, nonprofit organizations, industry, trade organizations and citizens who use the mail in all parts of the country.”

That’s Ashley Poling, this week’s guest on Why Public Service?, discussing the mission and role of the Postal Regulatory Commission.

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Transcript:

Kevin Kosar:

Welcome to Why Public Service? – a podcast of the R Street Institute, a free market think tank in Washington, DC. I’m your host, Kevin Kosar. In each episode, I speak with an individual who made the choice to participate in governing our nation. Some of my guests have worked for the government. Others have toiled in various private sector organizations including think tanks, philanthropies, and political groups. All of them share the same goal, however, which is to improve our country through public service.

Kevin Kosar:

Today’s guest is Ashley Poling, a Commissioner on the Postal Regulatory Commission. It is an independent federal agency that has oversight of the US Postal Service. Ms. Poling has worked for over a year at the commission. She previously spent more than six years working in the Senate for the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, and also for Senators from Montana, North Dakota and Michigan. You can learn more about Ashley Poling by visiting her profile on LinkedIn.com or at prc.gov. Ashley, welcome to the Why Public Service? podcast.

Ashley Poling:

Hi, thank you so much for having me today.

Kevin Kosar:

Now as our listeners have heard, you are a commissioner for a federal regulatory agency. My first question for you is, was this your dream when you graduated from college? Was it your plan all along or did some other path lead you there?

Ashley Poling:

I think that’s a great question. Well okay, when you hear Postal Regulatory Commission, which is where I am a commissioner, I think a lot of folks probably don’t know what that is. And also, I can tell you, I certainly did not when I was in college. I know we’ll probably jump in a little bit more to the everyday work that we do soon, but it probably would be helpful just to give you a sense of the different steps in my career that got me to this role where I am now.

Ashley Poling:

I will say this: I have always enjoyed writing letters, so in that way, I’ve always been a fan of the postal service. But I would say it really was during my time, particularly working on Capitol Hill, where I really developed this interest area. But backing up just a little, I graduated from college as an English major and went to law school not that long afterwards. I actually had an experience where I served as the clerk of the Pattern Jury Instructions Committee, for the Criminal Subcommittee, actually in North Carolina, where we took statutes from the North Carolina General Assembly and turn those into jury instructions. I think that was a moment for me where I really realized how interested I was in legislation.

Ashley Poling:

Fast-forwarding again a little bit here, that led me to the Senate and I had the opportunity to work for three senators in my time there, from Montana, North Dakota and Michigan, and was really fortunate in the way that I got to work on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, where I think with committees, you really a chance to hone in on the details a bit more than in personal offices. There’s just a bit more capacity to really get into the weeds of the legislation, particularly on one specific topic. Postal is such a unique and I think complex topic and I was really able to do that on the committee. It was really though I would say through the Montana and North Dakota work where I really dove into rural postal issues and service issues and really gained an appreciation for how The Postal Service connects everyone in our country.

Ashley Poling:

I think, from there, I would just say there’s some lessons here from the Hill, but I think it really was a perfect background to have going into the commission. I never would have anticipated getting this involved in postal issues, but I was so fortunate to have been able to form the relationships that I did across the postal community when I was on the Hill. Those relationships are so crucial when you are putting together legislation and trying to get everyone to come around the table, and at least find something that… Happy is probably too strong of a word, but something that everyone can really live with, you know?

Ashley Poling:

But those relationships are ones that I still have today at the commission and I feel really grateful that I got to form them then. When I say stakeholders, maybe this is helpful too, it was working with unions; it was working with mailers, small businesses, individuals. I’ll get more into a little bit of our commission work later, but really having that chance to work with such a variety of people gave you such a good feeling, and/or a strong feeling, of how the postal industry works together. I think it also gave me the ability to really practice finding creative solutions, which I think has been a excellent training going into this position.

Kevin Kosar:

Yes. It’s remarkable how often life carries us in directions we hadn’t expected. You’re a commissioner, that’s very top position at the Postal Regulatory Commission. What are your responsibilities?

Ashley Poling:

Yes. I know I said in the beginning, “What is the Postal Regulatory Commission?” Maybe it’s helpful just to take a quick step back for the folks listening. There are five of us actually. There’s five Presidentially-appointed Senate-confirmed commissioners at the PRC and we serve six year terms. I think it’s also important to say it’s a bipartisan commission and you can’t have any more than three commissioners from one political party. I am one of currently two Democrats serving on the commission.

Ashley Poling:

And so, the mission of our organization is to ensure the transparency and accountability of The Postal Service and to foster a vital and efficient universal mail system. But in daily practice, I think a lot of what we’re doing is ensuring that The Postal Service’s rates and service levels comply with legal requirements, approving new rates for mail and packages, producing several annual reports, including one called our Annual Compliance Determination. This evaluates whether The Postal Service’s operations complied with law in the previous year. We publish data about The Postal Service’s operations for the public. I think I alluded to this in my last answer, but speaking a little more specifically from the commission perspective, really listening to input from a variety of postal stakeholders, including businesses of all sizes, nonprofit organizations, industry, trade organizations and citizens who use the mail in all parts of the country.

Kevin Kosar:

For those of us, who’ve not been to the Postal Regulatory Commission and walked about its offices, what does the average day there look like for you?

Ashley Poling:

Well, I think there really is not an average day, to be honest. I think there’s so many different issues that we handle. And depending on what’s going on, additional ones could arise in the environment. But I think so much of what I find fascinating about the commission is even though we are a single agency in many ways, in the daily sense of these five offices, of the five commissioners, I think tend to really operate almost as five independent offices; so a lot of my work actually consists of communicating with my fellow commissioners and our technical staff. We’re very fortunate. We’ve got great institutional knowledge at the commission with fantastic lawyers and economists and the career staff that works there, but it’s a lot of contact back and forth regarding what is coming before the commission, working through decisions, getting different perspectives. It’s a lot of communication, I would say, in that way before you come to a decision.

Ashley Poling:

I would also say, obviously, the primary part of the job really is involved in creating rules and regulations that govern how The Postal Service interacts with its customers and the American people. I would say personally, for me, I think really having a strong understanding of the legal and economic consequences of potential rules and gathering evidence to answer those difficult questions related to creating those rules and regulations is really important.

Kevin Kosar:

When I came to Washington DC, after many years of studying political science and government and politics in college, I had all sorts of ideas about how things should work. Suffice to say, 17 years later I’ve had quite an education. In your experience, both in the legislative branch and working in the executive branch for a independent regulator, what lessons have you learned about governance?

Ashley Poling:

Quite a few and I think I’m still learning for sure. But I would say I think the three main lessons… and I’ll talk about them maybe in different contexts… but are really engagement, building relationships and persistence. I think these are things that have really served me well and are lessons that I really learned on the Hill. When I talk about engagement, in that sense, I think so much of the work I was able to work on with postal through the years, for the various bosses I had, came as a result of really understanding what constituents we’re dealing with Particularly in rural America because those were the states I worked on the postal issue, the longest… was really for the State of North Dakota… and really understanding what those constituents were dealing with, what the problems they were facing on a daily basis with service, or whatever it else it might be, understanding that I think really helped our office know what we needed to do in terms of legislation and what that legislation should look like to best serve those customers.

Ashley Poling:

I think that engagement is just so important between citizens and the government and it really helped us figure out how do we craft national solutions to local problems? That made such a difference, I think. Especially for me in that role: getting out there on the ground, visiting North Dakota, visiting Montana, really understanding where people were coming from. I think it’s just so important generally for citizens to really stay engaged with government and to ask questions and to participate in the process. I think it’s just so important for government to always understand where people are coming from.

Ashley Poling:

Secondly, I mention building relationships and this is something that was so important to my work on the Hill. Postal is an interesting issue. It’s something that really affects everyone, no matter what side of the aisle you’re on. Every household has a relationship with The Postal Service. It’s a mail carrier they see every day, sometimes it’s their primary relationship with the government on a daily basis. Because I think of rural communities, we found a lot of commonalities with members on different sides of the aisle.

Ashley Poling:

I worked for Democratic members, but we were often able to find consensus with some Republican counterparts and I think that was so important to find those areas where you really do agree. It’s not going to be on everything, even in the postal universe, but I think sometimes there are places where you can really work together. We really tried to do that. I think having that ability to undertake stand where someone else is coming from on that other side of the aisle is so important. But then also, sometimes you can even come up with something better at the end because you’ve met in the middle as well. And so, that’s something working on a Bipartisan Commission, having worked across the aisle in that way, I think that’s been a great skill to take with me into this job.

Ashley Poling:

As I said, I’m very fortunate. We are very bipartisan. Doesn’t mean we always have the same perspective on things, but I think having those skills that I really developed on the Hill have really continued to help me in this job. And then, finally, I would just say, when I mention persistence, you’ve really got to with things. I think on the Hill that kind of came in with… and I know, Kevin, you will understand this from your own understanding of the Hill, but you can work on a lot of bills before anything goes anywhere, and sometimes it doesn’t, but maybe a concept does. It took quite a long time to even get some of the areas that we worked on included, even in legislative efforts through the years.

Ashley Poling:

But it takes a long time. I think you’ve got to really stick with it and I think you’ve also got to really make sure you’re staying engaged with the people on the ground who were in those states, and who are experiencing those issues, and for them to know that you’re not going anywhere. I think that’s also something I would say I’ve really taken with me into this job is spending time with people, understanding where they’re coming from, understanding what their business is dealing with.

Ashley Poling:

I make a point in any speeches I give today in my capacity as a commissioner, to say, “Please reach out to my office, reach out to me. If you’re in the area, I’d love to meet with you,” and I mean that. I think that’s something I really did throughout my time on the Hill and I feel very strongly about continuing to do that throughout my role at the commission as well.

Kevin Kosar:

You’ve alluded to the unpredictability of the work, day to day, and the complexity of the issues that you have to tackle. What’s the toughest part of your job? Is it those things or is it something else?

Ashley Poling:

Well, it’s a unique time that we’re in right now, obviously with the pandemic. We went into a more virtual environment and it was only about six or seven months into my time on the job. I just started; I was sworn in last August, so I’ve been there a little over a year at this point. I would say, obviously, I am still learning new things every day. Again, having not been there terribly long time yet. But I would say, for me, I think the commission has done a tremendous job really shifting to the virtual environment. We had a good practice, I suppose, early on because the number of our annual reports come out in the spring and that was at the same time that there was the shift for most folks to this virtual environment. And so, we really had a lot that we really needed to get out there and we were able to do it in a very timely way, which I think speaks to the incredible staff we have and the ability to seamlessly transition to that environment.

Ashley Poling:

But what I would say that I really miss, I am someone who is an extrovert. I really like meeting with people in person. Obviously, I’m still getting to know some of these people, particularly in our career staff side of things. Like I’ve worked with them, but obviously, still building those relationships; so for me, I really miss that. I really miss getting to do things in person, so I will look forward to the time when it is safe to do that again. But I think we’re doing as well as we can be, especially all things considered in this environment, but that’s something I miss.

Ashley Poling:

I wouldn’t say this is a tough thing. I think this is actually a really unique thing, is really understanding… and I think I brought this up a little bit before… but just having worked on federal workforce issues in the Senate, I thought a lot about federal agencies and a lot about recruitment and retention, and all of those things. I knew I guessed that there would be an interplay between political appointees and career staff, but I think actually being in that environment and experiencing it, it is something that’s different. But I think what’s great about it is understanding the amount of institutional knowledge that these folks have and how much work they really do to support the commission. It’s really a privilege to get to work with them, so I’ve really enjoyed that. But I think just learning new ways of navigating things and they’re not all bad or tough or any of those things; I think they’re just different, but I really enjoyed it. I always feel challenged and that’s how I like to feel.

Kevin Kosar:

Certainly, working in a new position, a complex position during the time of COVID sounds awfully challenging, but it sounds like it’s a challenge you’ve embraced. Let me get to my last question. You could have chosen another career path, why public service?

Ashley Poling:

Yes. I was very fortunate. I was raised by two incredible public servants. I grew up in North Carolina. My mom was a public school teacher and my dad was actually a professor at a public university, so I think I was always around this… growing up in my house… this incredible sense of passion that my parents had for their careers, but also for the issues that they really focused on in those careers. They had this tireless dedication to always doing what they could to improve the lives of others. I think that had such a powerful impact on me. I don’t know if I can tell you the exact year, but I know from a pretty young age I knew I wanted to do something in my career where I could help other people. Little did I know that Capitol Hill would help me find that, but it really was the perfect fit for me when I realized that I was so interested in shaping policy through legislation. I would say, I realized that before… Little did I know I’d get so into postal, but it actually turned out to be a perfect fit for me.

Ashley Poling:

As I mentioned before, this issue is so broad in terms of it really impacts everyone across our nation. I really enjoyed getting to bring… particularly focusing on rural America because of the States that I worked for… taking those rural postal issues at the local level, and really turning them into national postal policy that could benefit postal customers and the American people. That was that being someone who wanted to do something where you could really help other people, it made me feel like I was at least doing a little bit to help at least work on efforts that might ultimately help them in their service and other things. But obviously those are long-ranging efforts, as you know postal reform takes a long time, but it was just such a privilege to get to work with them and to get to understand what they were dealing with.

Ashley Poling:

And then, I think I would finally say serving again the postal customers and the American people, that was part of that job in the Senate. But also, I am still committed to serving those same people, the postal customer and the American people, in the job I’m in now. Our mission is obviously to ensure transparency and accountability of The Postal Service and to foster that vital and efficient universal mail system, and that’s something that I am absolutely committed to in my role every day as a postal regulatory commissioner, and I will continue to look for ways that we can meet that mission.

Kevin Kosar:

Commissioner Ashley Poling, thank you for joining me.

Ashley Poling:

You so much Kevin. It’s been such a privilege to get to speak with you about public service.

Kevin Kosar:

Thank you for listening to Why Public Service? – a podcast of the R Street Institute. Please subscribe to the podcast and share it with your friends. Even better, rate and review us on iTunes, so we can reach more listeners. Tell us what you thought about it and who we should interview next by finding us on Twitter: @RSI.

Kevin Kosar:

If you want to know more about R street, sign up for our newsletters at www.rstreet.org. I’m your host Kevin Kosar. Thank you to producer William Gray and editor, Parker Tant, of parkerpodcasting.com.