City Voices

Richard Ryan
User-Friendly Government
Autumn 1993

Automated teller machines, introduced in the early 1980s, freed customers from the long lines and restricted hours that once were an inevitable part of even simple banking transactions. Now many state and local governments are catching up with the Information Age, using interactive computer terminals known as information kiosks to make citizens’ encounters with the government more efficient and pleasant.

Users of the Info/California system, for example, use a touch-sensitive screen to operate a multimedia terminal that provides information from a variety of state agencies in both English and Spanish. The terminals, which were tested in Sacramento and San Diego and are now being installed statewide, allow citizens to order birth certificates, renew car registrations, and read up on such diverse topics as student aid, earthquake preparedness, and beaches. The most popular function during the nine-month test period was Job Match, in which users browse employment listings from the state Department of Labor and can print out an application if a position catches their interest.

In Arizona, the state court system is testing a kiosk system known as QuickCourt, designed to speed up basic legal proceedings. A litigant in an uncontested, no-fault divorce, for example, can fill out a petition on the terminal, which will walk the user through eight different forms and even calculate child support payments. When the paperwork is complete, the terminal automatically prints it out, and the petitioner simply drops it off with the court clerk. The kiosk will also print out eviction notices in landlord-tenant disputes, provide hard copy on a variety of legal procedures and services, and direct users to an attorney if a problem appears to be beyond the machine’s capacity.

QuickCourt users are guided through the system by “Victor the Talking Head,” a professional actor taped for the software, who translates legal jargon into everyday language (“neutral third parties” become “helpers,” for instance). The kiosks are a hit with the public, according to Barbara Roach, a spokeswoman for the state Supreme Court. “The one at the courthouse in Mesa is so popular that people are making appointments to use it.”

Other kiosk systems have been installed by state governments in Hawaii and Nebraska; city and county governments in Arizona, California, and Florida; and the federal Health Care Finance Administration and Social Security Administration.

Not all such systems have succeeded. In Hawaii, for example, the state government installed a system in 1990; after six months an average of only 33 people a day were using each machine. When use declined even further, the state decided to delay any expansion of the system. A key feature of the more successful systems seems to be that they are “transactional.” That is, beyond merely providing information, they allow citizens to conduct business with the government more quickly and conveniently than in the past.

New York City’s government is beginning to experiment with information kiosks. Mayor Dinkins’s office recently installed two 24-hour machines at City Hall. The system, which bears the rather grandiose title “Key to the City,” provides tourist information and a guide to city services. The on-screen program opens with a videotape loop of the mayor welcoming visitors. Next, terminal users are presented with a menu of information: maps of Manhattan transportation routes, guides to local tourist attractions, photos and job descriptions of all elected city officials, and overviews of each city agency. One screen is devoted to the ten most frequently asked questions at City Hall. (Topping the list: “Where do I get a marriage license?”)

The city’s Department of Probation plans a more sophisticated system to monitor nonviolent offenders. Currently, some ten thousand such low-risk probationers are required only to fill out a survey form and mail it in periodically. The Probation Department has no way of knowing who is actually filling out these surveys and can’t respond to problem cases quickly enough.

The department plans to require that low-risk probationers make monthly visits to information kiosks, which will be installed at department offices. The probationers will be positively identified, perhaps through handprint recognition devices, and then asked to fill out the usual surveys on-screen. If, at any time in the process, it appears that a probationer ought to see an officer, the system will alert department staffers. And if the probationer wants to talk with his counselor, he will be able to switch from the kiosk to a face-to-face meeting. The machines will actually help humanize the process, according to department spokesman Gerry Milgiore: “In terms of the low-risk probationers, this actually gets them into the offices and gives them a chance to talk directly with a probation officer.”

Less specialized uses of information kiosks; may also be on the way in New York. MetroNet—the local subsidiary of North Communications, the country’s largest kiosk software developer—is planning to create a network of as many as a hundred kiosks in building lobbies throughout the metropolitan area. These kiosks will present much of the same information as the terminals being installed in City Hall, and perhaps additional information about state services.

MetroNet plans to provide the service to the government free of charge, because it will be part of a commercial network dispensing other, fee-based services as well. The company is modeling the New York project on a network recently installed in Minneapolis. Some of the applications there are quite advanced. A user who wants to buy tickets to a Minnesota Twins baseball game, for example, can press a button on the screen to request available seats in a certain price range. Before settling on a ticket, he can watch a video clip of a game, shot from the area where the seat is located.

Could information kiosks supplant New York City employees, allowing the city government to cut costs without slashing basic services? Ernie Satterwhite, MetroNet’s project director, says a kiosk system poses no threat to public jobs. “Where it’s been implemented, we find it gives [government] employees more to do. It really drives people to the right clerk.” Such claims, however, may simply be a matter of marketing. Given the political power of municipal employees, the systems’ ability to cut jobs is not their strongest selling point with city leaders.

Then again, the kiosks will ultimately have to earn their keep on qualitative rather than economic grounds. If city agencies are going to respond to demands that they treat citizens like valued customers, they will have to deliver services in a way that makes the process of dealing with government more pleasant and less time-consuming. Kiosks can certainly play a role in accomplishing that.

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