Forms processing system enables councils to monitor diversity

Devon County Council and Brighton & Hove Council are on track to meet a new government requirement for diversity reporting thanks to an AutoData forms processing system supplied by Southampton-based Kendata Peripherals.

During the past year, councils up and down the country have been faced with the task of collecting sometimes huge amounts of data from their staff in order to provide information on the percentages of ethnic minorities and disabled people employed in local government.

At Devon County Council, the Human Resources Department recognised that obtaining the necessary information from its workforce of 26,000 and entering it into the computer within the time available was a job best suited to some form of automated data entry.

As the department's information officer, Maggie Anderson, commented: We needed the diversity data in electronic format so that it could be entered into our personnel payroll system (PPS), and although this could have been achieved manually, it would have been a costly and time-consuming exercise.

Through links with Brighton & Hove Council, the Devon team became aware that diversity data collection was being successfully carried out there using an AutoData forms processing system, so representatives from the team travelled to Brighton to see it in operation for themselves.

At Brighton, senior consultant Tim Moore had purchased the system initially to monitor job applicants with regard to diversity questions and had subsequently utilised it for a complete census of the 4500 staff directly managed by the council. Conceivably, all this could have been done manually, he said, but it would certainly have been resource-heavy. By investing in AutoData, we now have a system that we can use over and over again, without the need for key-to-disk staff.

Comprising a high-speed scanner, forms processing software, Microsoft Word templates and special TrueType fonts, AutoData enables customised forms to be designed in the familiar environment of Word, which greatly reduces the learning curve for users. The software is capable of reading data in a variety of formats, including check-mark boxes, bar codes, printed type and hand-printed characters.

We chose AutoData because, as far as we knew, there were no comparable systems on the market, continued Moore. It gives us the facility to produce our own forms without being reliant on third-party designers, and this has enabled us to carry out surveys quickly, accurately and cost-effectively.

After seeing the work that Brighton had undertaken, the representatives from Devon County Council concluded that AutoData was also suitable for their purposes, and a system was subsequently purchased and installed in the Human Resources Department at Exeter.

Following some initial training by Kendata, the department came up with a simple diversity questionnaire using a mixture of check-mark boxes, bar codes and free text entry fields. These forms were mailed out to staff together with an explanatory letter, and after two such mailings more than 80% of the forms had been returned.

Completed forms are scanned in, in batches, with the data being entered directly into an Excel spreadsheet for subsequent transfer to the PPS system. Forms are automatically displayed on the computer screen if additional comments have been written in free text fields or if the system's error-checking procedures detect an incorrectly completed form, e.g. two marks placed in the ethnic group field or a form with no marks at all. On one day a total of 6500 forms were entered into the system, due in no small part to the scanner's high rated speed of 65ppm.

The AutoData system has certainly helped us to gather the diversity information within very tight timescales, said Maggie Anderson, and to keep it up-to-date, we have also embarked on a programme of diversity monitoring for the thousands of job applicants we have each year. This required a slightly modified form design, but with AutoData we can change it as often as necessary.

February 2001 Ref: KE/151/A