The postmaster general, a fellow named William F. Bolger, made the papers the other day: "33 percent Postal Increase Essential, Bolger Warns," the headline read. In what was described as a tough speech, he said the boost of one-third in postal rates would provide "the minimum revenue we need to carry on our work." From what he says it appears certain the the cost of the mails, due to increase again next month, will go up once more next year. This, of course, comes after plans to add four more digits to the zip codes, all in the interest of greater postal efficiency, and eliminate Saturday deliveries, an already haphazard occurrence in my neighborhood.

So be it, Mr. Bolger. If it takes more money to do the job, lay it on us. You'll get no complaints from this corner on that score. But don't try to con me into believing money -- more or less -- has anything to do with the real postal problem. That involves the virtually nonexistent quality that is supposed to be the hallmark of your department, service.

I speak from personal, and painful, experience, certain that I am far from alone. Herewith Citizen Johnson's testimony on why money's not what ails the U.S. Postal Service -- and why what's wrong with government goes way beyond the budget cuts or budget increases.

Let it be said I have nothing against what we used to call mailmen (today's "mail carriers"). When I was growing up in New York City, the mailmen had the respect of the entire community. The same was true of the people who brought the mail, by car, on our Rural Free Delivery dirt road route in Connecticut. They, like their big city counterparts, became friends of the family. You knew they took pride in their work, and cared about providing the best possible service. If a problem arose, they went out of their way to correct it. They were reliable. That old inscription carved over New York's Main Post Office that I used to see on trips to Penn Station, which comes to us from antiquity thanks to Herodotus -- you know, "Neither snow, nor rain, or heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds" -- truly described them.

Nor, in these fulminations, do I write without some good personal appreciation for the difficulties of the postal employe's job. As readers of these Page 3 scribblings may recall, I have accompanied letter carriers on their appointed rounds and have spent late-night hours watching others contend with the overwhelmingly intimidating flow of mail pouring past them on conveyor belts back in the hidden recesses of Washington's Main Post Office. The work is hard, the tedium numbing. Neither do I wish to consign all to blanket condemnation. But, caveats aside, enough is enough. The present appalling system -- and especially its so-called "service" -- is a national disgrace.

On my street in Northwest Washington, I regularly get mail for ny next-door neighbors, and those diagonally across the street. That's on Broad Branch Terrace, my street. I also regularly get mail for addresses on Fessenden and Ellicott Streets. In recent weeks, I've been receiving mail for a woman three blocks away. Since moving into this otherwise pleasant section of single-family homes, I've frequently had important correspondence -- book manuscripts, contracts and checks among them -- go astray. A year ago an out-of-town friend called to ask if I had moved. No, why? I asked. Seems my letters had been returned, stamped with one of those pictures of a hand showing a finger pointing to a printed postal explanation: "No Such Address." The address, and zip code, had been correct.

The day the postmaster general gave his warning about stiff rate increases being imminent, I found a notice inside my mail slot from one of the national credit card companies. Call them if I hadn't received my new cards, it advised. I hadn't, and called. Turns out they had mailed the cards at the end of December; the Post Office had returned them because the address supposedly was wrong. Naturally, it was a Post Officer error: this time the credit card computers were correct.

After a while you begin to feel paranoid about such experiences -- they've got to be harassing me deliberately -- and enraged at any attempts to remedy them. Calls or a trip to the local postal branch only add to the frustration. A sign now adorns our post offices. It reads: Service Is Our Last Name The U.S. Postal Service Is Committed to Give You OUR CUSTOMER Courteous, Efficient and Prompt Service

Another sentence tells the citizen/customer: "Any Variations of These Standards Should be Brought to Our Attention." "

Forget it.

If mine were only an isolated experience, I wouldn't be wasting your time. But nearly every friend, it appears, offers one horror story after another -- of being insulted or treated with sullen indifference at some branch, of having letters delayed or misdirected, of finding W-2 forms lying in the back yard where the carrier dropped them, of becoming accustomed to expect nonservice. Something more than lack of funds or failure to utilize modern equipment and techniques is wrong.

Before he took office, Jimmy Carter received thoughtful advice from Robert Ball, senior scholar at the National Academy of Sciences. Ball, who was instrumental in establishing and administering the Social Security system in the 1930s, said in a memo:

"People will certainly judge the next administration in terms of how effectively it deals with the big issues -- foreign affairs, unemployment, inflation, national health insurance, welfare, and the restoration of financial integrity of the Social Security program -- but the efficiency of government will, in my opinion, be judged primarily by the effectiveness, the helpfulness and the overall impression that people have of three huge agencies of government: the Post Office, Internal Revenue and the Social Security Administration."

As Ball said: "These are the only direct-line operations of the federal government that huge numbers of people come in contact with every day. They are Uncle Sam in every town, village and city in America. If the employes of those organizations are friendly and considerate and the organizations give good service, that will mean to most people that government can make things work. If these three organizations are unresponsive, bureaucratic, and make mistakes, then that is the impression that the ordinary citizen will have of his government."

I'm here to tell you that the government with which I deal most personally, the Post Office, has deteriorated instead of improved these last four years. And the problem has nothing to do with poor pay or benefits -- postal workers rank at the top of government in this category -- or automation or new zip code numbers or bigger rate increases. It has to do with intangibles, with attitudes, with a declining sense of esprit and pride.

So go ahead and get your latest big rate increase, Mr. Postmaster General. But do me a favor. Put some of that dough into establishing a complaint section in branch offices where citizens like me can take their gripes. Give it sufficient authority to cut the red tape, punish or get rid of the incompetents, and generate what you promise but fail to deliver, customer satisfaction.

One final suggestion. About that new section, just call it SERVICE.