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Getting in touch with government.

California's new automated government information system lets people get a lot of what they need from government on their own time at their nearby store. It may save money, too.

How do I get license plates for my car? Who can help me settle a dispute with my landlord? How do I obtain a license to operate a day care center? Is there a carpool that would work for me? What jobs are available in my neighborhood?

For residents of Sacramento and San Diego, the answers to these and other questions no longer require calls or visits to government agencies but a single trip to the local grocery store. Grocery store? Yes, California is trying out its new automated information system, Info/California, with information kiosks installed where the people are--in shopping malls, grocery stores and libraries.

The state embarked last fall on a nine-month trial of a multimedia computer system to answer some of the questions most commonly asked of state agencies. If it works out, the system will go statewide and be expanded to allow all citizens to conveniently transact their business with state and local government. They will be able, for example, to obtain copies of birth certificates, renew their driver's licenses and reserve campsites in state parks all in the same place--a sort of "one-stop shopping" for government services.

Info/California comes through a video screen in a specially designed station, or kiosk, that looks like an automated teller machine. For phase I of the project, 15 kiosks have been set up in shopping malls, grocery and discount stores, a senior citizens' center, public libraries and on college campuses.

For information on any of 90 subjects, citizens merely follow the instructions of the on-screen narrator and the graphic display to select their topics from a number of options. Touching a picture on the screen activates a videotape that gives the requested information in Spanish or English.

The categories currently available are employment, the legal system and business, education, health, environment and natural resources, transportation, family and children, and general assistance. (For example, is any of the unclaimed state property mine, or how can I prepare for an earthquake?)

Under Transportation, for example, citizens can get information about California's boating laws and driver's licenses, registering vehicles, joining Rideshare programs, and applying for license plates and placards for the disabled.

A special interactive program on the system allows citizens to use the state's "Job Match" program. By touching a series of screens, individuals define the type of work they're interested in. The computer presents the number of jobs currently available in the selected category and location and the salary range. The job information is updated daily.

The individual can use the "keys" on an on-screen keyboard to complete an application form, which the system prints out along with the name and address of the nearest employment office. The applicant can take the completed form to the employment office, thus saving time for both the applicant and the interviewer. This process formerly required a long, face-to-face interview.

"Info/California is a fresh approach to providing citizens with the attention and service they demand," says Governor Pete Wilson, "while containing the escalating cost of government services."

Info/California was made possible by a 1988 law sponsored by Senator Rebecca

Morgan, whose district includes California's Silicon Valley. Senator Morgan's legislation authorized the state to work with private industry to explore ways to increase public productivity with information technology.

"We are always looking for ways that we can increase government service without increasing government employment," Senator Morgan explained. "By using the technological advancements of the private sector, we can provide more government service for less."

The law established requirements for state government participation with business in advanced technology projects, and it authorized two major data centers, the Teale and the Health and Welfare Agency data centers, to allocate funds from certain unencumbered surpluses for projects that demonstrate or develop advanced information technologies.

Info/California is a product developed by the state in partnership with the IBM Corporation and North Communications. To date, the state has spent approximately $300,000 on the project, while IBM's out-of-pocket expenses, not including personnel costs, have been $750,000. In addition, for the pilot project IBM and North Communications lent the state software and equipment valued at $3 million to $4 million, according to IBM project leader John Allen.

The network uses state-of-the-art multimedia technology incorporating video, computer graphics, high-quality stereo and computer touchscreen operations. The technology was first developed for IBM's "24-Hour City Hall/County Courthouse" project in the late 1980s. The goal of this project was to make government more accessible to the public by providing access in convenient locations, not just local government offices, and by expanding delivery of government services beyond the 9-to-5 work day.

Working with Public Technology Inc. (PTI), a non-profit technical arm of the National League of Cities, the International City/County Management Association and the National Association of Counties, IBM developed multimedia touchscreen access systems for a number of local governments.

The California system in based on "Hawaii Access," a dramatically successful experimental touchscreen network started in 1990. Hawaii's multimedia network provides health, human services and employment information in English, Samoan and Ilocano (spoken in the Philippines). During its six-month pilot project, the Hawaiian system was used by 30,260 people, 216 percent ahead of projections for use.

Californians seem to like Info/California, too. In its first four months, 54,357 people used the 15 kiosks--that's an average of 33 contacts a day per kiosk and 10 percent more than projected. Although use of the system dropped from an average of 52 contacts a day the first month, officials attribute most of the decrease to the especially low use of the kiosk in the senior center. At the busiest sites, more than 50 people a day used the kiosk after four months.

Half of the users said Info/California saved them a phone call, letter or trip to a government office; 79 percent found the system easy to use.

Most of the people (57 percent) used the system outside regular weekday work hours. Eighteen percent of the usage overall was in Spanish; at one Sacramento grocery store 30 percent of the "customers" chose Spanish. (Usage statistics are compiled automatically.)

The most popular topics were Job Match, student aid, beaches, driver's licenses, the California State University system, in-demand jobs, community colleges, state parks, the University of California system and AIDS/HIV.

In the second phase of the project, which began this spring, citizens pay for services, such as copies of birth certificates or driver's license renewals, with credit cards. Currently, the certificates or licenses are delivered by mail, although the Health and Welfare Data Center is exploring ways to produce and dispense birth certificates from kiosks, according to center Director Russ Bohart. Each kiosk can "read" the magnetic strip on new California driver's licenses, allowing the system to verify the user's identity and record the name and address automatically.

Over the long term, Info/California may be integrated with other information systems to offer a broader range of services. Automated systems already in operation in California include the Tulare County kiosk used to prequalify residents for AFDC; the Long Beach municipal court kiosk, "Auto Clerk," which accepts major credits cards, personal checks or debit cards in payment for traffic fines; and the San Diego kiosk, which provides information about local services.

Bohart says the wave of the future may be kiosks that provide access to all levels of government service--city, county, state and federal. Integrated systems would allow citizens to resolve problems, obtain quick answers to their questions, and order, pay for and obtain government documents without the hassle of locating the correct government office and then getting to it during working hours.

"We're talking to [agencies and departments that handle] student aid, fish and game, licensing for health professionals, hairdressers--we're talking literally to every program in state and local government," Bohart says.

Making all these services available through an "information backbone," he says, would greatly simplify and expedite government service by providing a "single face to government" for all citizens.

A network of kiosks throughout the state could be paid for, Bohart suggests, by re-directing funds currently used for public education and outreach. The state could recoup the cost of operating the kiosks, estimated at $2,000 a month per kiosk, by charging agencies a fee for the video information provided.

Another potential revenue source is the money saved from existing budgets. Bohart explains that the California Department of Motor Vehicles currently processes about 250,000 address changes each month, at $5 each. If individuals made changes using the kiosks, the data center could provide address changes to the DMV in electronic form for $1 or $2 each, which would go toward operating the kiosks and would improve DMV's cost-effectiveness. Customers also could share the costs through user fees on special services received from kiosks, such as instant copies of birth certificates, Bohart says.

Shirley Marshall, IBM's project manager for "24-Hour City Hall," says that in a time of shrinking resources, multimedia technology can help governments provide quality services to an increasingly diverse and growing population.

Michael North, president of North Communications, explains that programs like Info/California also provide the opportunity to improve government efficiency. By turning over to the kiosks the repetitive tasks of answering the same questions, such as which office to contact, which documents to bring and how to fill out forms, government workers are free to spend time meeting people's special needs. Agencies with "intersecting missions," such as providing day care and child nutrition information to single mothers, can coordinate and consolidate their functions. North says that advanced technology can reduce the costs of administering government services and make dealing with government easier for citizens.

Other states are starting to use kiosks for some services. In February, New Jersey began offering "TAG, the Motor Vehicle Self-Service Helper" to process automobile registration renewals automatically. Ten machines placed around the state allow users, for a small fee, to connect with the state motor vehicle database and receive copies of vehicle registration cards on the spot. The TAG system was developed by the NCR Corporation.

Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and the District of Columbia offer job information through Automated Labor Exchange (ALEX) kiosks, financed by the U.S. Department of Labor. Job seekers can find lists and descriptions of positions open around the country. More then 1,000 people a week were using the machines in Virginia.

California's Health and Welfare Secretary Gould says that Info/California is an example of government working "smarter."

"People want government to be responsive to their needs, regardless of which level--federal, state or local--is responsible," Gould says. This technology is a tool to improve government efficiency and productivity while at the same time "bringing government directly to people's fingertips."

Information Kiosks Are Coming Up All Over

All around the country, people are using automated information systems to find out about the services of cities, counties and states. In Kansas City, Mo., they can go to "City Hall in the Mall"; in Orlando, Fla., they can learn "Orlando A thru Z"; and they can find out that "You Count" in Orange County, N.C.

Besides the usual rundown of how to get permits or financial aid for students, the systems offer some special services.

* A feature bound to appeal to politicians is offered by "The County Connection" in Anne Arundel County, Md. There, a visitor can touch the "Your Voice in Government" option on the screen and point out his residence on a map, and a picture of his council representative appears on the screen, delivering a taped message.

* Better than a list of rules is the most popular video of Plano, Taxes' Municipal Center in the Mall, "Fireworks," which explains fireworks regulations through a colorful dynamic display.

* "AutoClerk," a kiosk operated by long Beach (Calif.) Municipal Court, allows people to pay a traffic ticket using a credit or debit card or a personal check, plead not guilty, sign up for traffic school or choose a court date. The kiosk is open 24 hours a day and gives instructions in English or Spanish.

* Mobile kiosks give cities, counties and states flexibility in getting information where it's needed. Hillsborough County, Fla., located its mobile unit of The 24-Hour Courthouse in a library in an area of the county where the people felt they had not received their fair share of county services.
COPYRIGHT 1992 National Conference of State Legislatures
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:automated information system for government services
Author:Martinez, Jo
Publication:State Legislatures
Date:Jun 1, 1992
Words:2094
Previous Article:Public records go electronic.
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