From Leaug eof California Cities
June 9, 2016
This story is part of an ongoing series featuring Helen Putnam Award entries.
The 2015 entries are available on the League’s website as a resource for cities in a searchable database called California city Solutions. Irvine’s Mail Center project was submitted in 2015 for the Internal Administration award category.

For over a decade, the city of Irvine has outsourced internal mail service delivery with Project Independence, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting independence for the developmentally disabled. Project Independence provides an example of an internal administrative success story. Through continued assessment and management, this unique program highlights the ability of local government to provide economic and efficient service delivery through compassion, promoting an internal culture of acceptance and understanding. Project Independence reflects the city of Irvine’s efforts to be a disability friendly community including access to jobs, education, housing and the entire range of cultural and recreational activities.

The city’s mail center is a key service function that operates within the city clerk’s division, a section of the city manager’s department. On an annual basis, the city’s mail delivery team is responsible for the delivery of approximately 120,000 pieces of incoming mail, 20,000 pieces of interoffice mail, and 2,000 packages and parcels. With the advance of technology, traditional U.S. Postal Service mail service usage has declined. However, the city’s volume of mail remains high because of the 39 percent increase in the city’s population over the past ten years, and the growing volume of larger parcels with the expanded use of online services and greater logistics provided by shippers such as FedEx, UPS and the U.S. Postal Service.

Irvine had previously outsourced mail center services, which resulted in high consultant turnover, increasing complaints, inconsistent job performance and a need for direct supervision. Critical mail and packages often include time sensitive materials, checks, escrow documents and agreements. Misplacing and/or mishandling critical mail can severely impact city operations. The turnover of consultant staff was increasingly problematic, requiring recruitments and subsequent trainings on a continual basis. More than 45 consultants were hired during a five-year period, resulting in inconsistent performance and poor service deliverables. Once it was determined that a change in operations needed to occur, the city performed a focused research and evaluation process, and determined that the best solution for mail services would be a hybrid option, combining city oversight with outsourced services.

Irvine requires departments to run both efficiently and economically, with an emphasis on customer service. Through the analysis of mail center operations, a hybrid solution was developed that not only addressed efficient and economical management processes but also provided outstanding customer service and efficiency in service delivery that were unprecedented in this segment of city operations.

Project Independence is an Orange County based nonprofit with a mission to “to promote civil rights for people with developmental disabilities through services which expand independence and choice.” The organization carries out its mission through its creation of employment opportunities for individuals with developmental disabilities by providing support and training to employees and employers. Through the partnership between the city and Project Independence, teams of mail clerks were organized to perform mail delivery tasks for the city. This turned out to be highly successful, both by efficiently performing essential tasks and by providing a variety of benefits for program participants and the city as a whole.

Through this collaborative program, all city mail is delivered and picked up by a team of mail clerks comprised of adults with developmental disabilities. This team is supported by city staff members and skilled Project Independence job coaches. While the mail team includes adults with developmental disabilities such as autism, cerebral palsy and Down syndrome, the focus is on the abilities the team currently owns. In its daily service of 23 mail stops at city hall and 22 satellite facilities, the mail team displays the ability to provide accurate service while multitasking to ensure that daily goals are met. Job coaches drive the teams to the satellite facilities in vans that are provided and maintained by Project Independence. In 2014, mail delivery staff logged over 13,000 miles delivering mail for the city.

Irvine’s mail delivery team consists of two groups of four part-time mail clerks, one working in the morning and the other in the afternoon. The morning team is comprised of the Project Independence Community Day Service Program, which offers employees a higher level of support from job coaches. The afternoon team consists of employees from the Project Independence Supported Employment Program. This program is for employees who are able to work independently with occasional support from job coaches. Although different, both groups of employees have showed great ability to successfully fulfill the city’s mail delivery needs, with very few employee performance issues.

Continual communication and collaboration between city staff overseeing mail operations and Project Independence staff has virtually eliminated turnover in the city’s mail delivery operations saving time and money that is normally dedicated to training new staff. The city’s lead mail coordinator works with Project Independence job coaches and supervisors in a biannual performance appraisal of each mail clerk, allowing the city’s feedback on employee performance and individual goal setting.

Project Independence has proved to be an invaluable collaborator resulting in outstanding operational outcomes. The combination of efficient business practices and an immeasurable and intangible human value is indicative of the positive influence local government can provide in its daily operations. Through this program, the mail teams are encouraged and ultimately develop high self-esteem, independence, and an enhanced quality of life. This collaboration has become a model of inclusiveness, enriching both the mail teams and their customers (city employees) whose demonstrated acceptance and encouragement provides a winning combination for mail center operations.

Through the value and empowerment of employment and encouragement of independent living, Project Independence focuses on what their employees can do, rather than what they cannot do. On a daily basis, the mail teams assigned to the city of Irvine learn the value of pride in one’s work, the value of dedication and loyalty and the value of comradeship and acceptance. Often, those with intellectual disabilities feel isolated and different. Through collaborative programs such as Project Independence, those who face daily challenges can find fulfillment and purpose. City employees have been accepting of this program and admire the courage and dedication of its mail teams, finding inspiration in their determination to lead fulfilling lives under difficult circumstances.

The city’s partnership with Project Independence for mail delivery services has resulted in many supplementary benefits. In addition to providing an essential service, city employees have the opportunity to work in a diverse and inclusive work place, and to interact with a unique group of people that they might not have otherwise encountered. This level of integrative management has fostered a great source of pride for this unique program, one that will hopefully be modeled and shared with other municipalities.

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