Situation: The National Performance Review proposed creating an electronic infrastructure that would link all levels of government into a single system.
Solution: The U.S. Postal Service is defining how to provide access to government information and services using kiosks.
Jurisdictions: Colorado, California, Texas, New Jersey.
Vendors: U.S. Postal Service
Contacts: The U.S. Postal Service has information about its kiosk program on the Internet at: www.usps.gov
Get your index finger ready. Touch-screen kiosks soon may be popping up by the thousands in cities and towns across the country, providing interactive government services for citizens. Sometime later this year, the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) will begin the mammoth project with a pilot test of a small network of information kiosks in the Washington, D.C., area.
Within two years of completing the pilot, the federal government, under the direction of the USPS, hopes to begin deploying as many as 10,000 kiosks at an eventual cost that could reach as much as $956 million, according to a draft report from the Interagency Kiosk Committee. The kiosks would deliver a host of federal, state and local government services via the now familiar touch-screen, computer-in-a-box format, using images, video and audio for navigation and instruction.
"We're seeking to develop kiosks that are user-friendly, functional in that they let citizens interact with government, and come in at a cost that makes sense," said Robert Reisner, vice president for USPS technology applications. Exactly what kind of technology and infrastructure will be used to bring this about is still in research and development, he added.
The USPS' role in leading the charge toward a national kiosk system came about when the Government Information Technology Services Working Group approached USPS and several other federal agencies about how government could become more accessible through technology. Agencies discussed a number of concepts, including electronic bulletin boards and 800 numbers, but Reisner said the USPS took the lead with kiosks.
States with their own kiosk systems have, in general, praised USPS' initial efforts to construct a national system. Hal Ferber, project manager of the Info/California kiosk system, said he hopes the Postal Service becomes an energizing force that spreads the kiosk vision throughout government.
In New Jersey, where the Department of Labor is testing six kiosks that provide job information, the reaction to the Postal Service's project was positive. "We feel the kiosk concept is a good idea that makes people comfortable with using technology to access information," said David R. Crane, director of the Office of Publications and Special Projects.
He cautioned that kiosks need to be in locations where people can use them nearly round-the-clock, and not in places, such as post offices, that shut their doors at 5 p.m.. Crane said the most popular kiosk in New Jersey's JobsPlus system is located in a mall where it's used heavily during evenings and weekends.
The report advocates placing kiosks in a variety of public locations, including post offices.
A stronger concern about federal deployment of a national kiosk system came from Bob Rantschler, technical director of Project Colorado, a five-kiosk system serving communities in the Rocky Mountain state. While pleased that the Postal Service is taking the lead in moving the country toward a national system of kiosks, Rantschler worried that local communities will end up with the least say in the kinds of applications that the kiosks will provide.
People do most of their government business at the local level, so it makes sense that local leaders have a strong say in what applications their citizens will use, explained Rantschler. "The key to success is to achieve buy-in at the community level," he said. "One federal agency isn't going to know everything in terms of what communities want and need for kiosk services."
According to Reisner, the Interagency Kiosk Committee believes that a project of this scope needs a coordinating council that sets policy guidelines to deal with issues concerning kiosk ownership and control of applications. "While a postal kiosk on a postal location would likely be managed by the Postal Service," he said, "I think it [application content and control] needs to be done cooperatively with a group including federal, state and local governments where they all feel they have a voice."
"Customers will use kiosks if the kiosks meet their needs," stated the Interagency Kiosk Committee report concerning strategies for kiosk applications. To ensure that happens, a national network of kiosks needs to provide services for (1) agency-specific transactions, (2) transactions related to specific services and products, and (3) real-life scenarios.
The first two options would serve customers who know which agency they need to contact or the specific service or product they desire. Even if they aren't sure, the kiosk would lead them to their "destination" through the use of key words and icons.
The third option is probably the most complex. It might involve job changes, family changes or location changes and would require the kiosk to guide a customer to services at different levels of government. For example, someone seeking a new job would enter basic information and the kiosk could display pertinent government and private sector job openings with detailed information about type, salary and location.
It could provide a print-out of the information, electronically submit an application to the employer and schedule an interview. The kiosk could also offer related information and services, such as information on job training or unemployment benefits, information on and applications for scholarships, grants and loan programs, welfare and Medicaid, and the locations of the nearest shelter or health clinic.
The Committee foresees using modular kiosks to provide flexible and comprehensive services. All kiosks would contain a core set of capabilities and functions that could be used and completed in high traffic areas, such as shopping malls or post office lobbies. More enhanced kiosks -- with keyboards, for example -- would enable more lengthy transactions, such as filing income taxes, and would require a secure, private setting, such as a library or community center.
NETWORKING: TWO APPROACHES
Recognizing that the cost of networking thousands of kiosks for multimedia could be formidable, the Committee report suggests two possible architectural models for developing a national system. Both would deliver similar services but use different system designs.
The first architecture model is a networked-based, client/server solution, where applications reside at each agency and access is provided in real time through a hierarchical network of servers. The second model is called a kiosk-resident solution, with applications residing on each kiosk and communications lines being used only when it is necessary to communicate with remote databases and agency servers outside the region where the kiosk is located.
The networked model requires only one version of each application, which is fully controlled by the agency that developed it. The model also allows for complete integration of existing government servers and databases, leading to a simple management structure, similar to the Internet. The primary disadvantage of the networked model is its cost. Such an approach would require lots of high-bandwidth communications to deliver services to a customer in a multimedia format.
The kiosk-resident model requires each kiosk to contain all the applications, potentially limiting their number, size, and multimedia intensity. Access to remote databases is possible, but is limited to text when accessing over standard telephone lines. The key advantage of the kiosk-resident model is its low cost.
MANAGEMENT BY ALLIANCE
No matter how many kiosks end up being networked, the national system stands little chance of succeeding unless participating government agencies adopt a uniform set of standards, protocols and navigational tools for linking the providers of services. To achieve that goal, the kiosk network needs an organizational structure to support it.
One choice would be to have a single federal agency responsible for governing and coordinating the network. But the Interagency Kiosk Committee report recommends that a coalition of agencies set policy and procedures for operating the network, as well as establishing electronic development, standards and protocols to be used across the system.
The Committee envisions an overall national support group or hub, as they call it, and five regional support hubs, which would primarily fill a coordinating role rather than a governing one. The regional hubs would work with state and local agencies, helping them to partner with each other, sharing new applications with other states in their region.
COSTS & FUNDING
The Committee report looked at building a 10,000 kiosk network and came up with four possible cost scenarios, based partly on which networking model is chosen and how fast the system is deployed. The total costs range from $413 million to nearly $956 million, and would include hardware, software, personnel, maintenance, telecommunications, advertising and interest.
As for funding, Robert Reisner referred to the example set by Info/California as a possible model. The state earns money for its system using three different types of charges. First, an agency pays the people who run Info/California to develop the interactive application. Second, an agency contracts with Info/California to put their application on the kiosk and, third, in some but not all cases, there is a charge for individual services.
Private funding is another possibility. The Committee recognizes the private sector's ability to deliver cost-effective services in a competitive environment, but assumes that in such a venture, firms would expect to recover all costs plus a profit from later usage fees.
Another form of private funding, not mentioned in the report, but practiced in a limited way by some states, involves cost-avoidance. In Texas, the Employment Commission only pays the kiosk vendor (North Communications) the actual costs to deliver job information via kiosks, a significant savings over what the Commission used to pay to do it themselves. That difference is enough to cover the Commission's cost for using the network. The Commission also pays North a monthly fee for each kiosk that provides employment information [see GT, Sept 1994].
State and local governments have been testing kiosks in a number of formats since the late 1980s. Today, the few small-scale systems in operation are a far cry from what many government visionaries believed would be possible by 1995. Recognizing the slow growth in government kiosk services, the Interagency Kiosk Committee cautions that a national kiosk network will not be created overnight.
Technology is dynamic and kiosk applications are still in their infancy. But with the federal government finally pushing the idea forward, and with more state and local governments developing innovative ideas for multimedia services, the future for government kiosks looks bright.
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