Thursday, March 12, 2009

Kiosks - An Old Program That Still Has Potential

I’ll bet you didn’t know this. The federal government has a small, little-known, kiosk program that has produced great results serving citizens, particularly low-income citizens. Maybe – with a little TLC – it could do even more.

More than 10 years ago, HUD rolled out its first citizen “ATM,” – a touch-screen kiosk that provided basic information about HUD’s programs. It was then Secretary Andrew Cuomo’s baby. He wanted to harness technology to deliver information to citizens where they lived, worked, shopped, and played.

Eventually, HUD placed more than 100 kiosks around the country in locations specifically chosen because they are frequented by low-moderate income Americans – shopping malls, grocery stores, libraries, community centers, and street corners. Four years ago, EPA, Education, IRS, and Labor joined the effort, turning the “HUD Kiosks” into “Government Kiosks.” At a touch of the finger, citizens get simple, basic information – in English or Spanish - about buying a home, getting rental help in the local area (including a searchable list of government-subsidized rental units), retirement savings, free tutoring, student financial aid, poison prevention, and earned-income tax credits. And they can print it all out and take it home.

Because the kiosks are web-based, content can be updated quickly and easily. They’re not intended to be internet workstations – you can’t use the kiosks to surf the web. Content is light – about 100 pages – because they’re intended for quick service. Stop by, spend 5 minutes getting what you want, print, and move on. The ATM concept.

But what’s really terrific about the Government Kiosks is that they actually help citizens improve their lives. How do I know? Well, when the Bush administration came in, they commissioned a study of the program to decide if they should continue it. The answer? You bet! The study concluded that 74% of the 1,500+ kiosk users across the country who were observed and/or interviewed in the study acted on the information they found on the kiosks – from talking to a housing counselor to visiting a HUD office to returning to the kiosk for more information. Those are pretty impressive results.

But I also want to tell you about a personal observation. While I was working out of HUD’s Tucson Office, 4 years ago, I noticed a young man standing at the kiosk that was located right outside the office door. He seemed quite intent on copying something he’d seen on the screen, so I decided to watch for awhile. I walked across the street and checked my watch. 17 minutes later, he left. When I walked over to the kiosk to see what had interested him so much, I saw a list of local homeless shelters. If the kiosk helped him - or someone he knew - find a place to sleep...well, isn't that what public service is all about?

But, you say, pretty much everyone has access to the internet these days. Why do we need kiosks? Well, they serve a different purpose. They reach people who might not think to come to a government website for help. Or maybe a person has tried to use a government website but found it too complicated. Or maybe they just didn’t know the government had free tutoring programs, until they passed by a kiosk and saw it on the screen.

According to the February statistics (which you can find on the HUD website, for those of you who care about transparency), 31,000 visitors stopped by one of the 64 Government Kiosks currently operating.

I’d like to see the Obama team look into this program – see if it could/should be expanded…more kiosks in more cities with state-of-the-art equipment and publicity to let citizens know about them. Deliver government to more citizens. Maybe add real-time chat or other interactive citizen support services. Or don’t add anything. After all, it’s working.

Kiosks aren’t a new idea – but sometimes, old ideas deserve a fresh look.


Anonymous said...

Where would I be able to find the study commissioned by the Bush Administration?

Candi Harrison said...

You can contact the HUD Web Manager at: