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Way Too Long

by John M. Hotchner

A discussion thread on the former Virtual Stamp Club message board discussed the time it takes to get a stamp issued, from idea to availability in post offices. Today, the minimum time is in the neighborhood of three years. That seems like a long time, and indeed some of the comments were a good deal less than complimentary about it; witness these examples:

“I’d bet dollars to donuts that the current 3-year timeframe is not tied up in ‘design’ issues, but rather the usual bureaucratic nonsense.”

“I see no reason why the timeline needs to be longer than six months.”
It is the inalienable right of people in this nation (and in some others as well) to deliver themselves of uninformed opinions and assumptions about the efficiency of processes that they don’t understand. I suppose these are in the category of “If I ruled the world things would be different!”

Maybe. Maybe not. Given my twelve years associated with the stamp subject selection and design process as a member of the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee from 1998 to 2010, I would like to try to shed a little light on the time-line issue.

First, keep in mind that from the moment an idea arrives at the U.S. Postal Service, it is one of a flow of ideas that is constant and in the tens of thousands. It needs to be screened to be certain that it meets the criteria for a stamp subject [Editor's note: An older version is shown. The current guidelines are no longer on the USPS website.], and then it needs to be put in précis form and put on the agenda of the Committee for its next meeting (which may be as much as three months away — CSAC meets quarterly). This does not happen instantaneously, as the USPS CSAC-support office has lost half its authorized staffing over the last several years. So, right there, we have as much as six months before the Committee sees an idea.

Once the Committee picks an idea that seems to have merit, the idea is put “on hold” for further development. A Committee member agrees to become the champion for “on hold” ideas, and writes up a creative work plan (CWP) that explores the merits of the idea, how it might best be portrayed, whether it might be combined with other ideas into a larger concept, and where it might best fit into the national issuance schedule that is as much as five years into the future.

Because there are more ideas that achieve “on hold” status than can be issued in the immediate future (let’s say that is within three years), the CWP is examined by the Subject Subcommittee at its next meeting or the one after that, and voted upon. If it passes muster, and some don’t because further study surfaces problems, the idea in the form of the CWP is held for one more meeting and probably voted out of Subcommittee, and probably approved by the whole Committee.

If this seems cumbersome, it is important to realize that with the number of ideas competing for 25-30 slots per year, it is the best of a lot of wonderful ideas that must be selected. Literally, there are far more worthy ideas than there are slots. The process is intentionally deliberative so as not to let members’ enthusiasm run away with them.

There are also glitches that can develop. Is the subject of a recommendation an American citizen? Are the claims of accomplishment precisely accurate? How do they stack up against others in the same field?

And keep in mind that because there are more claimants than slots, and because each year’s program must be balanced in content, with fun and serious subjects, with things that relate to peoples’ recollections and also history back beyond living memory, and with another dozen considerations, there is almost always a waiting list for any given subject area.

Take for example Black Heritage. Throughout most of my time on the Committee, there was a waiting list, as we had people slotted against that guaranteed yearly issuance for several years into the future. So, if you sent in a terrific nomination, and the Committee recommended it, it would still have to wait its turn. Sure, you don’t want to have to wait for the subjects you like, but then, neither do the people who have been in line before you like waiting for theirs.

Once the subject is adopted and there is an idea of when it will be issued, it is turned over to the Design Subcommittee for design development. Here, we deal with an issue that was not much of a problem in the Good Old Days of non-litigious society. It is now required that if there are appropriate family members (and sometimes family members don’t agree with each other), art depicting the honoree must be approved. If the person being honored is a financial entity (e.g. Elvis Presley), then those managing the estate have to approve (knowing that the USPS does not pay for such rights). As a matter of courtesy, state governors are asked their opinion on statehood anniversary stamps. It goes on and on, and sometimes the negotiations are protracted.

The art itself can be contentious within the Committee. Seldom is there a Eureka Moment on a single effort. Normally, several different approaches are tried, one or two are selected for further development, and several iterations getting down to fairly nitpicky issues (including assuring precise accuracy) may be needed before the Committee is ready to recommend approval. It seems to me to be a national sport to criticize what comes out of the design process, but this is another “If I ruled the world…” situation. Only a small percentage of artists know how to do this sort of designing-in-miniature well, but it seems like everyone in the collector community knows how to do it better.

The bottom line is that it is not easy, and the final product benefits from having time to try different approaches, and to get the final as right as it can be. And that includes having the design conform to the requirements of the expected method of printing.

I might also mention that it is necessary to have different styles of art, just as it is necessary to have different subjects represented in each year’s program, and that is a guarantee that nothing done will please everyone. I will say here that there are some designs I like a lot less than others. That’s the way it’s going to be. But we really must resist the temptation to condemn the entire program because we don’t like some of it.

Finally, everything approved, the stamp goes off to be printed. While not a lengthy process unless there is something about the stamp that requires unusual technology, or new equipment is being used, there are several steps that take place in sequence. There are no shortcuts. And because stamp printing and finishing is now done on contracts that allow for little down time, scheduling to distribution for a release date is a challenge all its own.

I have tried to give you a window on the process, and in doing so give you some idea of why idea-to-issuance requires much more than six months. In a perfect world, it could probably be shortened somewhat, but my feeling is that costs would go up, for not very much benefit.

Should you wish to comment on this editorial, or have questions or ideas you would like to have explored in a future column, please write to John Hotchner, VSC Contributor, P.O. Box 1125, Falls Church, VA 22041-0125, or email, putting "VSC" in the subject line, at jmhstamp@verizon.net

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