August 2007

Information Kiosks

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By placing kiosks in highly trafficked public areas and in remotest areas, the government can achieve the cost-efficiency of electronic services while providing a solution to the supply side of the digital divide problem and convenient access points to different user groups. However, there are significant managerial and policy challenges in these kiosk projects, which often result in project failures and underestimated financial burdens for government agencies. Based on the lessons learned, specific recommendations have been made for policy makers and public IT managers on future

India ranks 44 among 122 countries throughout the world with a network readiness score of 4.06 (The Network Readiness Index 2006-2007 Rankings). According to the UN e-Governance Readiness Report (2005), India ranks 87 with an e-Government Readiness Index score of 0.4001 against a world index of 0.42. According to e-Government  Readiness Data (2005), India has a Web Index Measure of 0.58, Infrastructure Index of 0.02 and Human Capital Index of 0.59. India ranks 34 in terms of e-Participation Index of 0.15. A UN study (2003) also points out that countries such as India could benefit from e-Government if literacy and basic infra-structure can be improved. e-Government models that do not support the rural delivery system will not contribute to good governance.

Information Kiosks

Information kiosks (Internet kiosks) are being popularised both for delivering government services and for socio-economic development of rural areas. Delivering relevant knowledge and services in local languages is the promise of village kiosks in India, a technology that is expected to spread to every village by the end of 2007.  Kiosk systems, in combination with smart card systems or identification systems, may even perform some highly secured functions, such as verification of personal identity when traveling, application for certificates and other public services, and financial transactions with the government.

Though Information kiosks provide an easy access to information and services and also bridge the digital gap in society, many such kiosk initiatives have failed to sustain in long-term, thereby, creating significant administrative and financial burdens for governments. Therefore, policymakers and public IT managers should focus on long-term business planning, strategic management, and stakeholder partnership in future kiosk development and similar e-Goverment projects.

This article analyses an e-Government initiative called RASI (Rural Access to Internet Services) – a government-private initiative in Tamil Nadu to promote rural development and e-Governance. Though the e-Government services were received with great enthusiasm by rural communities since its inception in November 2001, the project failed to sustain and came to an end by December 2002 while some of the private services sustained. This article, besides assessing the potential of e-Government, identifies the critical factors responsible for its initial successes and subsequent failures for a long-term sustainability of future projects based on the findings of recent studies and also based on the researcher’s telephone interviews with some of the managers of this project.

e-Government through RASI kiosks: An Overview

The RASI project aims at the social, economic and political development of rural people by establishing a network of village Internet centers. The original pilot initiative was launched in Melur, a small hamlet in Madurai District of Tamil Nadu in the name of Sustainable Access in Rural India (SARI) in 2001 to bridge the digital divide between urban and rural areas. After its successful implementation, the government of Tamil Nadu scaled up the project as e-Government service delivery centers throughout the state in the name of RASI. It was planned to cover all the districts in Tamil Nadu in a phased manner starting with 10 districts
— Madurai, Cuddalore, Coimbatore, Kancheepuram, Theni, Thiruvallur, Erode, Salem, Tirunelveli and Nagapattinam. The RASI project was conceived by developing institutional
partnerships with other public and private agencies for delivering its services. The project at its peak established over 80 such kiosks in rural communities in Melur Talukthat work on self-sustainable rural entrepreneurship model.

Local entrepreneurs, Dhan Foundation – a community-based NGO, local schools, and other public sector facilities house the computer facilities. ICICI bank provided core fi nancial support to the RASI project along with a private agency n-Logue Communications Pvt. Ltd. A majority of kiosks are locally owned and operated by self-employed entrepreneurs, while some by self-help groups of a local NGO. The Tamil Nadu government proposed to provide a subsidy of up to 50% of investment for setting up another 2000 centers in the state. As of June 2004, 51 RASI kiosks were in operation. The rural Internet revolution covers 68,000 villagers in 40 villages of Melur taluk. In Tamil Nadu, currently, the project covers 155 Village Information Centres run by Dhan Foundation and about 100 Centres by n-Logue Communications. The
project currently functions in 40 districts throughout the state including nearly 500 village kiosks in fi ve different States. Tamil Nadu has a 40% penetration of the total number of kiosks around the country followed by Rajasthan and Maharashtra.

OBJECTIVES OF RASI PROJECT

The project has been designed around the following guidelines:

  • Use a shared platform to deliver a variety of high quality services, allowing Internet access to be fi nancially selfsustaining or profi table while reaching the rural poor.
  • Help markets to work by networking regions densely and creating a local network effect.
  • Create and develop new access devices and applications to appropriately serve user needs and account for environmental conditions.
  • Undertake research on RASI’s impact on the existence of rural information and communication markets
  • Offer access to schools and health clinics at low or no cost, and help them learn to use it effectively.
  • Value local champions and entrepreneurs and encourage their leadership; cooperate with residents and existing organisations.
  • Not to exacerbate existing divides or power inequities.

BENEFITS OF RASI INITIATIVE

Introduction of RASI made the access to government information and services by the villagers  much easier. In addition to government services, a host of private services were also   provided to rural citizens through these kiosks. This project did not aim at computerising  or transforming the back offi ce operations. The procedural changes that     occurred in the taluk offi ce was, at the front end, added an electronic mode for receipt of the applications for certain certifi cates. Once processed electronically, the villagers were notifi ed  about the date, time and fee to collect the certifi cates in person from the concerned offi ces, resulting in considerable savings in time, money and overcoming diffi culties with respect to middlemen. In December 2002, 491 applications were received at the Melur taluk offi ce, 345 at Melur municipality, 15 at Melur Sub-registrar’s offi ce, 36 at block development offi ce and 10 at the Madurai north taluk offi ce. Data related to rural development can be tracked through Internetbased applications. In addition, the kiosks have compiled databases of villages for specifi c uses and for dissemination of information on health and government   announcements using local radio. Overwhelming public response led to scaling up of RASI centers as e-Governance Centers.

RESULTS OF STUDIES

In their study of Kiosks, Kannabiran et al. (Kannabiran G., Xavier, M.J., Enabling   e-Governance through Citizen Relationship Management – concept, model and applications, Journal of Services Research, Vol.4-2, 2004, pp-223-240), reported that the Internet kiosk project in Tamil Nadu meant to deliver e-Governance, e-Commerce and e-Banking, is used for offl ine services such as DTP, telephony, photocopying and Web browsing. In one of the districts, the project (RASI) has deviated from its objectives of delivering essential services     such as education, healthcare and tele-administration due to lack of government support, non-scalable technology and lack of motivation among kiosks operators. The study found that 35 out of 60 kiosks surveyed are either closed or nonfunctional. Also, the profi le of users changed over a period of time in terms of literacy and nature of employment. As a result the benefi ts did not reach the target groups. The initial motivation of rural masses to avail of  government services was diluted over the two years. According to an operator, the project suffered due to lack of government support which clearly shows that political will is a major determinant in implementing projects. According to both offi cials and kiosk operators, e-Governance being the primary service expected out of the kiosks, the inability to offer such services has really decreased the level of satisfaction.

Rajendra Kumar and Michael L. Best (Kumar, Rajendra, Best, Michael L. Impact and Sustainability of e-Government Services in Developing Countries: Lessons from Tamil Nadu, The Information Society, Vol 22, No. 1, 2006) surveyed 12 kiosk (offering both electronic and traditional methods) and 72 non-kiosk villages (offering only traditional methods) in Melur Taluk, Madurai for six relevant e-Government applications such as birth certifi cates, death certifi cates, income certifi cates, community certifi cates, petitions of grievance to government offi cials and old-age pensions from November 2001 to November 2002, and examined local government records. Data was then collected through survey of end-users (citizens) and operators and interviews with the government offi cials involved in the project  in 2003. The study reports that e-Government services through the RASI kiosks had led to an increase in the number of applications for birth certifi cates and for old age pensions. e-Government services led to savings in time, cost and effort required in obtaining these services. The kiosks had a positive social impact particularly on the disadvantaged section of the community by creating awareness about these services that led to an increase in the number of applications at kiosks. However, the e-Government program was not able to  maintain the necessary level of local political and administrative support to remain institutionally viable. The initial motivation to deliver government services could not last  long due to political and institutional sustainability failure. It was found that the taluk offi ce  received a large proportion of the total applications through kiosk villages both electronically  and traditionally. Despite having a computer, the taluk offi ce was still maintaining  hand-written registers of the applications received from these kiosks and there were diffi  culties in obtaining quick and adequate responses from the taluk offi ce. Collection was still offl  ine and did not eliminate all visits to the taluk/municipal offi ces.

Inadequate training for Government offi cials to deliver e-Government services electronically  and the frequent shifting of those with technical expertise resulted in short-term sustenance of  this initiative. RASI witnessed a weakening of support from the local bureaucracy due to  lack of institutionalisation and top-down approach to e-Government (support from the lower level offi cials remained only as long as initial champions were in offi ce). Other reasons being  lack of internet connectivity in all government offi ces, lack of effective public leadership and  sustained commitment; lack of proper evaluation and monitoring, especially for services that  require coordination between different levels.

The local elected representatives were not found to be actively involved in the project. There  was a perceived shift in the existing power relationships in the delivery of services due to the  presence of kiosks. Kiosk-based e-Government services was opposed by taluk and village level  offi cials for fear of erosion in their authority. Therefore, RASI e-Government project suffered a  political and institutional sustainability failure due to people, management, cultural and  structural factors, far less being technological, economical, sociocultural and environmental.

In yet another study, M. Srihari (A Study of the impact of Information and Communication  Technologies on the residents of Melur Taluk in Madurai District, Tamil Nadu. Ph.D thesis,  Bharathiar Univerisity, Coimbatore, 2006) analysed the ICT usage patterns among the users  of the rural Information kiosks and the nature of socio-economic, political and technological  context within which the kiosks operate. Data was collected through a survey and interview during April-May 2005. The study shows that rural women, younger age groups and the  unemployed are proactive towards adaptability of information kiosk services. While the higher educational groups utilised ‘e-Governance’ services to their benefi ts, the illiterates and  the low educational groups have been left behind. This may be a cause for concern that it  would further widen the digital divide. However, economic status was not found to be a major  barrier to the use of ICT when the services are offered at lower costs.

To draw current insights into the effectiveness of RASI kiosks, a telephone interview was scheduled with the offi cials and members of technical committee at the Melur Taluk from June 27 to June 29, 2007 by the authors of this article. The excerpts of the interview are as follows:

The Rural Internet revolution now covers, 68,000 villagers in 40 villages of Melur Taluk, Madurai District. According to S. Arunmozhi, Block Integrater, Dhan Foundation, as of
now, 122 rural internet kiosks are there in the entire state of Tamil Nadu. There are 50 rural  Internet kiosks functional in Madurai district. About 70 such kiosks are on the coastal side. On  an average, 25 users utilise the value-aided services in a day. These kiosks function from  9 am to 7 pm. The most popular services include video-conferencing and for educational  purposes. Kiosks are mostly occupied by the students in the age group of 17 to 22 years.  Children below 17 years also use these kiosks for playing computer games and recreational  activities. Video-conferencing attracts the noneducated villagers with 5 farmers on an  average visiting these kiosks per day. The Kiosk operators are effi cient in providing relevant  services as demanded by the villagers. Currently, the kiosk operator is responsible for  handling all the applications ranging from government forms to applying for loans, birth certifi cates, death certifi cates and other services through email for a nominal fee ranging  from Rs.50 to Rs.75 depending upon the types of services demanded.

According to B. Sarangan, Technical Engineer, n-Logue Communications, Melur, and Mohan,   Technical Engineer, n-Logue Communications, Chennai, there are approximately     2000 kiosks run by n-Logue Communications throughout Tamil Nadu, of which only 500 are active kiosks. There are two types of service applications offered through these kiosks: online and offl ine. Offl ine services include: e- Governance, computer education, computer-aided adult literacy, content training, content developing and job work. Online services include email, browsing, videoconferencing besides agriculture, medical and other services.

POLICY RECOMMENDATIONS FOR FUTURE KIOSK-BASED E-GOVERNMENT PROJECTS

The performance of a kiosk, in fi nancial terms as well as in terms of its reach, is largely dependent on the kiosk operator. Factors determining the success of the kiosk are a rigorous selection procedure and regular training of the kiosk operator, location of the kiosk, affordability and relevance of services. Thus, the value and process change provided by the kiosk operator is a crucial factor determining the popularity of e- Governance services at the kiosk.

RASI e-Government project had great initial potential success and obtained strong political support, which is a critical factor in introducing technological innovations in public  organisations. Unfortunately, the personal zeal of elected offi cials and immediate political  interests sometimes replaced the interest in implementing these best practices and makes  many IT projects vulnerable to managerial challenges and failures. Institutionalising was  found to be a very crucial factor in determining e-Governance development. There was  absolutely no backend restructuring and email was only used to change the mode of applying  for certifi cates. Thus, e-Governance will work best if the underlying government processes/documents are restructured.

The following are the recommendations for policymakers and public IT managers on future  kiosk development:

Government process engineering before computerisation to drastically reduce the numbers and duration of successive steps required obtaining services. This redesigning of government processes will enable accountability, effi ciency, productivity as well as transparency of  policies and processes Policymakers and IT managers should evolve a strategic plan with a  well-defi ned purpose and scope for realistic and measurable expectations indicating long-term  developmental goals to avoid creating unnecessary fi nancial and administrative burdens.

The importance of awareness raising about the accessibility and potential of services being  offered by the kiosks as rural ICT-projects are intrinsically concerned with creating demand.

As several kiosk projects involve multiple external partners that may have confl icting goals  and expectations, it is critical to pay more attention to the management of intergovernmental relationships through effective private–public partnerships to make such initiatives  successful in the long run. Public agencies need to fi nd a proper balance between showing  visible successes, such as placing kiosks in major public places, and investing in costly and  inconspicuous IT infrastructure that is not publicly visible but is critical to the agencies’  long-term capacity to implement e-Government strategies.

Policymakers need to think about performance issues of a kiosk system over a longer time and to pay attention to system sustainability.

CONCLUSION

Internet-kiosk based initiatives promises an easy and equal access in hard-to-reach areas  deprived of basic infrastructure and Internet access. The prime motivation of such initiatives is the provision of e-Governance services in rural areas. But the inability to effectively deliver  such services has drastically reduced the level of satisfaction among its end-users and created signifi cant administrative and fi nancial burdens for governments. This article shows  that causes for kiosk project failures were not technical issues but are political and institutional problems and planning failures. An important reason for the deterioration of the  e-Governance services offered by RASI was the continually dwindling support from the  bureaucracy. To have greater future success, policymakers and public IT managers should  pay close attention to long-term business planning, strategic management, and stakeholder  partnership in future kiosk development and similar e-Government projects.

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