Getting to grips with the Government's requirement for councils to submit reports on the ethnic and disabled diversity of its staff has forced many county halls into a paper-pushing quandary, writes Marc Ambasna-Jones.
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Should councils automate the process or throw manpower resources at the problem?
For Devon County Council,with 26,000 staff, it had to automate to ensure accuracy and an on-going, easily updateable means of reporting. It could not keep collating data on paper and filing them in large cabinets. As well as the manpower required, there was information retrieval time and reporting accuracy.
The council's human resources team heard about a system at Brighton and Hove Council where diversity data collection was successfully implemented. After sending scouts to check out Brighton's system, Devon's HR team finally contacted Southampton supplier Kendata Peripherals.
"We needed the diversity data in electronic format so that it could be entered into our personnel payroll system (PPS)," says Maggie Anderson, Devon Council's HR department information officer.
The Autodata system comprises a high-speed 65ppm scanner, forms processing software, Microsoft Word templates and special Truetype fonts. Forms can be designed "in the familiar Word environment, greatly reducing the learning curve," Kendata says.
The software reads data in check-marked boxes, barcodes, printed type and hand-written characters. Devon's HR department, after training from Kendata, devised a questionnaire with these formats. With forms returned, they were scanned in batches with data entered directly into an Excel spreadsheet for transfer to Devon's PPS system. After automated error checking, data could be used.
Tim Moore, senior consultant on the Brighton project, claims it was essential for his council. "We can produce our own forms without being reliant on third-party designers. Surveys can be carried out quickly, accurately and cost-effectively."
While some councils are seeing HR departments burst from staff monitoring and diversity reporting, Moore adds that Devon and Brighton have maximised resources.
"Brighton bought the system to monitor job applicants with regard to diversity questions and had utilised it for a census of the 4,500 staff. We now use it repeatedly, without key-to-disc staff for any survey or census," explains Moore.