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Are Government Kiosks Making a Comeback?

Left for dead after the rise of the Internet, kiosks are returning to government offices to augment recession-thinned staff.

In the 1990s, kiosks were king. Government agencies that wanted to provide a self-service option for constituents chose kiosks to handle a variety of transactions and offer a wide array of information, often taking significant pressure off front-line staff.

But as public use of the Internet took off and personal computers became cheaper, more sophisticated and easier to use, many government agencies found that websites could replace kiosks. Developing a simple website application was much cheaper and easier than placing kiosks around town, which often needed constant updating and maintenance. Thus, kiosks took a back seat as agencies focused on building website applications.

“Kiosks definitely died off for a while,” said Francie Mendelsohn, president at Summit Research Associates Inc., a Maryland-based company that focuses on the kiosk industry. “As Internet technology took off in leaps and bounds, kiosks remained pretty stagnant for a while.”

Today, however, kiosks may be poised for a comeback. While the Internet and the proliferation of smartphones and mobile apps give agencies more options for interacting with constituents, the kiosk has reinvented itself. Vastly improved technology and a much wider range of capabilities are allowing kiosks to play a larger role in some government agencies’ arsenal of tech-based offerings. Now more and more agencies are going back to kiosks, begging the question, were the early kiosks just ahead of their time?

“As the saying goes, this is not your grandfather’s kiosk,” said Mendelsohn. “There are more options for government agencies available now, and I think many agencies have found that some areas are very well suited for the new generation of kiosk technology. The technology and reliability have improved vastly.”

And there’s evidence of this sophistication in technology and implementation. “We are seeing a very significant renewed interest in kiosks by government,” said Don Lineburg, chief financial officer and vice president of business and operations at Phoenix Kiosk, which recently completed a kiosk-based jury check-in system for Maricopa County, Ariz., in conjunction with ACS. “Kiosks can help agencies raise revenue and reduce expenses, which is exactly what they need right now.”

As state governments continue to grapple with tight budgets and reduced staff, several have turned to kiosks to alleviate the pressure from departments that are struggling to keep pace with citizen demand. The Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration (MVA) has used kiosks for several years to help support its customers. But today, the role kiosks play has grown significantly. The MVA recently deployed third-generation kiosks in its offices.

Kiosk Creative

“A lot of the revenue going into kiosks this year is from the government space,” said Craig Keefner of the Kiosk Industry Group. “And agencies are doing some interesting things with them.” According to, a few examples of governments that have recently launched kiosk applications include:

Missouri, which uses kiosks to help citizens gain access to $700 million worth of unclaimed property.

Orange County, Calif.’s jail system, which will soon deploy bail and transaction kiosks from EZ Card & Kiosk, a California company that specializes in self-service transactions for jails. The service will let inmates, and family and friends, post bail via the lobby kiosks using cash or credit/debit cards, or through an online service from anywhere in the world.

San Antonio, which is deploying interactive video kiosks that residents can use to resolve municipal court offenses without leaving their neighborhoods. The kiosks have touchscreens and key pads, and provide a live video feed in which a municipal court judge can speak to residents about their cases.

“In general, we are trying to find ways to allow the customer to complete transactions on their own,” said Al Short, CIO of the MVA. “The improvements in kiosk technology have given us opportunities to introduce services that, in the past, required us to use an agent. We’ve had great success in offloading more and more transactions from our front-line staff and improving efficiencies.”

Among other things, citizens can use kiosks in MVA offices to renew their vehicle registration and receive a renewal sticker instantly.

Short said he’s surprised by the number of calls he’s received from other states about the success of the devices and how they’re being used. “On the flip side of that, we’ve seen other states doing things with kiosks that we want to start exploring as well,” he said.

Clark County, Wash., recently launched a kiosk application that lets pretrial offenders check in weekly at a kiosk rather than in-person with a probation officer. The kiosk performs a biometric scan of the veins in the offender’s finger to verify his or her identity. “Our caseloads were growing, and we couldn’t keep up,” said Lisa Biffle, project manager for Clark County, adding that 800 people currently participate in the program. “When they check in, we know it’s them and we can verify they are still in the area. Prior to this, they were calling in. They could have been anywhere and we wouldn’t have known it.”

Pretrial offenders are registered at intake. From that point forward they use the kiosks to check in each week. The vein reader on the kiosk interfaces with the county’s database, so once offenders are identified, the system displays their data onscreen and they are asked a series of questions. Offenders also can leave messages for and receive messages from their probation officer via the devices.

“Kiosks are completely new for us, so there has been a learning curve. But it’s already saving us a huge amount of time,” said Biffle. “The kiosks are allowing us huge efficiencies at a time when we have growing caseloads but we can’t hire any more staff.”

Biffle said the county hopes to expand into other kiosk-based programs. “There are a lot of possibilities,” she said.

Maricopa County launched a kiosk-based juror check-in system in Phoenix in February. The county is using 25 kiosks to process 600 jurors per day. There, jurors use a kiosk to scan a bar code that was printed on their summons. The system confirms their attendance and that they are appearing on the correct day. “What used to take an hour of waiting in line to check in with a live person now takes a total of 15 seconds,” according to Ron Graves, account executive at Phoenix Kiosk. “When the juror is subsequently dismissed, he or she can then use the kiosk again to instantly receive a check and a letter of appreciation they can present to their employer as proof of their service.”

In some cases, states have set off to use kiosks in one way, only to later redeploy them in another manner. In 2009, New Mexico received a federal Children’s Health Insurance Program reauthorization grant to find innovative ways to increase enrollment among underserved populations. The state used the funds to purchase kiosks that would allow constituents to apply for Medicaid in rural areas where Internet access wasn’t available.

“We put the kiosks in places where they should have helped increase enrollment, but it turned out they didn’t,” said Kathy Slater-Huff, marketing and outreach manager for the New Mexico Human Services Department. “We realized that because we were only offering Medicaid enrollment, people weren’t using them. Our constituents had a more immediate need to get food on the table and to heat their homes than for medical coverage, but because we had a funding issue, we couldn’t offer all three programs on the kiosks.”

Self-Service Evolution

1977 The first interactive, self-service kiosk is created by Murray Lappe, a pre-med student, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The device is used as a campus resource for finding maps, courses, etc.

1984 More than 600 kiosks are deployed for use by Florsheim Shoe Company, a Chicago-based business. Customers can shop and pay for merchandise using the machines.

1991 The first commercial kiosk with Internet connection debuts and is used to locate missing children.

1997 KioskCom launches a trade show for companies that want to deploy kiosks.

2007 A government entity — Virginia State Parks — launches a statewide interactive kiosk program. Thirty-one kiosks in the state park system let visitors get emergency information, maps and video of the trails.

2012 Kiosks are prevalent, with companies like Redbox, Skype and Groupon customizing them to provide their own services. The machines have also changed in appearance — having gone from clunky to a svelte futuristic design and even as portable devices.

Rather than scrapping the entire program, New Mexico moved the kiosks and split them between 12 state and field offices, where they are now used to handle 1,000 to 1,200 Medicaid applications every month. “They are much more efficient from a client standpoint,” said Slater-Huff. “They use kiosks instead of waiting in line for two to three hours. The applications also get approved faster, and constituents get coverage much quicker.”

The kiosks also are helping New Mexico Human Services’ staff. The applications completed via kiosk go into a central processing unit, so staff at the local office doesn’t even touch it. “They are very easy to use, and the client does most of the work on their own,” said Slater-Huff. “All our staff has to do is scan some documents, so they are dealing with the client for five to 10 minutes versus an hour. With all the health-care reform changes coming, it will be interesting to see what role kiosks will play. We are hoping to be able to purchase many more to increase accessibility.”

Meanwhile, New York City is exploring replacing an even older technology — public payphones — with touchscreen kiosks. The city is preparing to launch a pilot that will provide up to 250 touchscreen kiosks in pedestrian-centric locations in all five boroughs. Pedestrians will use the kiosks to access local information, such as street maps, local dining information and transit schedules in multiple languages, eventually increasing to about 10 languages. Screens also will feature an icon that links directly to 311 Online for users to access city information or file complaints.

According to a spokesperson at the city’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, feedback from the program will inform New York City’s ongoing efforts to assess the future of traditional payphones, the franchise agreements for which expire in October 2014.

While kiosks may help agencies offset tight budgets once deployed, upfront costs for purchasing and setting up a kiosk-based system can be significant, so some agencies are pursuing mobile apps instead. “Government has to have a much stronger business case now than ever before to invest in kiosks because of the growth of mobile technology,” Mendelsohn said. “You can do a lot of things from a PC at home or from a smartphone, so many agencies are moving things right over to mobile devices. It’s happening very quickly and at a low cost.”

But experts say it really comes downto what you’re trying to deliver and who you are delivering to. Mobile apps won’t work for all situations or people. “Mobile apps are going to have their place, especially in individual transactions,” Lineburg said. “But they lack the robust nature needed for broad public use.”

Craig Keefner of the Kiosk Industry Group, an informal networking group of people involved with kiosks, agreed. “When you are doing more complex transactions on the government side where there are liabilities, it’s going to be harder to use mobile apps,” he said. “You could probably do a lot of things more cheaply with them, but when you get into fingerprints and other sensitive information, you have to be careful. The last thing you want is to have a breach in security.”

Soon, agencies will likely strive to employ a combination of technologies — including kiosks, Web-based applications and mobile options — to deliver information and services in the most efficient and appropriate way. For example, in addition to new kiosks, Maryland is delving into mobile apps in the driver’s education arena, where users are likely to be younger and tech-savvier. “We’ve introduced a driver’s practice test that’s available as a mobile app,” said Short. “We are also exploring options in the mobile space for new drivers to maintain a logbook of their behind-the-wheel time.”

Miriam Jones is a former chief copy editor of Government Technology, Governing, Public CIO and Emergency Management magazines.