Smart kiosks on every corner

The face of public services is set to change dramatically. By Paul Gosling
A few days before he was promoted to Paymaster, public services minister David Willetts told a conference that the introduction of multimedia kiosks could cut jobs and public spending. If claimants entered their own details directly into an interactive electronic terminal, programmed to calculate benefit entitlement from the claimant's own computer records, there would be greater efficiency and less need for data processing or benefit calculation from government staff.

Mr Willetts' ideas are anything but fanciful. Already in Spain, the unemployed use smart cards - pieces of plastic resembling a credit card, with their own computer chip on the back - to plug into kiosks, which process their claim, pay their benefit, arrange for training courses, and notify them of relevant job vacancies. Users place their fingers on to a reader on the machine, which compares their fingerprint with the record stored on the smart card to ensure that payments are not made fraudulently.

And while Britain is not at the cutting edge of public-sector use of kiosks, some are already in operation. Last week, the London Borough of Newham and the Metropolitan Police opened their first two multi-media kiosks, one in Stratford benefits office and the other in Forest Gate police station.

It is intended that eventually in Newham there will be several dozen kiosks, which will have videoconferencing facilities enabling the public to speak to officials without having to visit offices. The terminals will be equipped with document scanners that will enable the police to inspect vehicle registration and MOT certificates and driving licences, without motorists having to visit a police station.

As the kiosks' functions evolve, they will be able to accept council tax payments, by cash, cheque, credit card or debit card, and give welfare rights advice. And, with thousands of Newham's residents unable to speak English, they will also give access to interpreters, who will no longer need to travel to meetings to translate.

Newham's kiosks have been funded by the European Commission as part of a pilot programme to determine how the technology might become more widely applied. But Mr Willetts believes that it will be possible to fund a generation of kiosks through the Private Finance Initiative. Terminals for unemployment benefit claimants might be paid for by the private sector, with the Government paying a fee, less than the current cost, for each claim processed.

The Labour Party also supports the principle of using the PFI to fund kiosks, but has a different vision of their functions. Shadow information technology minister Geoff Hoon believes the obvious application is for public information, rather than for administration at the expense of public workers' jobs.

"In principle, in the longer term, it might be possible to use them for unemployment or housing benefit," said Mr Hoon, adding that he believes the benefits system would have to be simplified first. "I hope that kiosks would not be used to replace people in offices, but allow them to perform different and more useful tasks, rather than just calculate entitlement to benefit."

Mr Hoon's fellow Labour MP Anne Campbell has developed a network of kiosks, with the support of Andersen Consulting and others, in her Cambridge constituency which shows how Labour would like to see the technology operate. Ms Campbell was repeatedly lobbied by single parents who wanted to return to work, but found it difficult to organise. With finance from Cambridgeshire Training and Enterprise Council, kiosks will be installed later this year to provide the public with details of job vacancies, training courses and child-care providers, together with details of state benefits enabling users to see if they would be better off taking the job.

British Telecom is also about to launch a network of multimedia kiosks, having bought 200 terminals from ICL to site on the streets of London. These will contain public information, ranging from interactive maps to details of what's on and where. Most inquiries will be handled free of charge, with BT's profits coming from the sale of advertising space. Users will also be able to buy products through a credit card reader attached to the terminals.

It is expected that local authorities will develop similar profit generating systems, financed under the Private Finance Initiative, with the encouragement of the Public Private Partnerships Programme (the 4Ps), the new body that is helping to arrange for PFI deals in local government. Terminals run by councils might encourage an inter-agency approach by public bodies, the 4Ps hopes, giving health authorities the opportunity to display information about which hospital will immediately treat particular types of injury, for example.

Olivetti, ICL, NEC and IBM are all involved in negotiations with a range of public bodies to provide kiosks, and Andersen Consulting has arranged for kiosks around the world. In some countries, travel agents have sponsored kiosks where passport applications can be made and hotels and air tickets can be booked. NEC has supplied kiosks to the Victorian state government in Australia, enabling users to pay fines, taxes and utility bills, or receive public information, with the cost met from advertising, fees from referrals and grants from local government.

Public services information is about to hit us in a very big way, courtesy of the electronic touch screen. But it will also be courtesy of the advertiser, whose role in financing the public sector looks set to expand rapidly.