While touch screen devices might look dated, they can smooth front office savings

Self-service touch screen policing kiosks debuted in Cheshire last year. They proved popular enough to be rolled out across several stations; good news for Telford-based specialist Scream Interactive. And now Essex Police – which announced this week that it would reduce staffed front counters from 25 stations to 10, and cut customer contact administrator jobs from 98 to 36 – is checking out the technology. To test the concept, and as long as the price is right, it plans to deploy one self-service device in a staffed front counter, one in an unstaffed front counter and potentially a further device in another public location.

The obvious niche for this technology is transactions which are simple but need to be carried out at a station. Physical presence is relevant to signing-on for bail, immigration or registered sex offender purposes, or to checking in for an appointment. Coupled with a secure storage box, self-service devices can also handle lost and found property reporting. Essex wants its kiosks to support all of these, with biometrics to support mandatory signing-on. It also wants them to enable digital services which – in principle – could be delivered through other online channels, such as crime reporting, live chat, payments for services, and completion of various forms. Integration with Athena and other assets will need to be part of the service.

Should police IT industry giants rush to elbow small kiosk suppliers out of the way in Essex? And how closely should IT chiefs from other forces monitor developments in Essex and Cheshire? On the one hand, Essex’s Stephen Kavanagh is the national lead on digital policing capabilities, commanding enormous respect across the police service and ultimately driving the development of IT-enabled business transformation for Athena forces. Anything that is done in Essex on his watch repays inspection and collaboration. On the other, touchscreen kiosks appear increasingly quaint in a world of ubiquitous smartphones. While a purely digital solution for bail sign-on, relying on smartphone biometrics and GPS to confirm identity and location, would be seen as spoofable and insecure, much of the other functionality which touch screen devices provide should be replicable as online applications.

So perhaps Essex and its peers studying the usage of kiosks should concentrate most on take-up and associated savings for mandatory signing-on. But all the evidence will certainly be helpful. In a perfect world, police chiefs would be able to test channel shift enablers, choose them at their leisure, and only then determine where they will cut costs. Well-run forces these days do not have that luxury. Savings from civilian staff reduction need to be accessed immediately, and the replacement arrangements will have to be relatively fluid.

With a lot for police forces to gain from understanding the lessons from Cheshire and Essex, it’s something of a shame that the trial will only involve a single non-police location. If concerns about secure wireless connectivity are preventing Essex or other forces from trialling a portable kiosk in assorted public places, then there could be brownie points on offer for any telecoms firm willing to help prove the concept.

It may well be that kiosks are no more than a waypoint on the journey to channel shift and digital maturity. Anything, though, which nudges citizens who seek face-to-face access towards an electronic platform will smooth the transition to unstaffed counters. And these deployments will provide invaluable pointers on how to develop the next generation of citizen-facing police applications. The Essex pre-tender closes on 19 October.