posted 30 May 2007 in Volume 10 Issue 8
Case study: Worcestershire County Council
Scanning the horizon
The drive towards e-government in the UK is reaching maturity. Worcestershire County Council is beginning to scan many vital documents, starting with its Public Rights of Way unit.
By Heidi McIntosh
Faced with an imminent move to new accommodation with limited file-storage space and around 8,000 files (over 400,000 pages) with nowhere to go, it would be easy to panic! You might rush out to find a company that could scan the files in bulk and throw out the paper. Then you might really have panicked if any of the files were subsequently needed in court…
Fortunately, Worcestershire County Council is developing a structure to deal with such a situation. Worcestershire County Council is a major local authority in the English West Midlands that runs services including schools, social services, environmental services and cultural services, centred upon the city of Worcester and the surrounding county. It administers an area of more than half a million people.
Its Making Information Manageable (MIM) programme was devised to help the Council use records-management techniques and tools to manage its information more effectively. This includes clear-out days, advising on retention and disposal, electronic filing schemes and security guidance for all. Building on this first phase, a series of information-management-related projects have been developed to improve efficiency and processes. Through a network of MIM project officers (one per directorate), scanning projects have been captured at an early stage so that the proper advice and support can be given.
One such project being implemented concerns public rights of way (PROW) files. Public rights of way is a long established concept in the UK, covering much of the countryside. Regardless of whether open land is publicly or privately owned, the public have a legal right to roam over ancient recognised footpaths and fields.
Worcestershire’s PROW team forms part of its Countryside Services unit within the Environmental Services directorate. Its files needed to be scanned over a tight timescale so that the team could be moved into new accommodation – offices with reduced storage space.
The scanning of documents was also intended to help staff work in a more mobile and flexible way; freeing them up to be able to access files from alternative places of work, at home, on site or in the field (in every sense of the word). The team was also keen to explore ways of improving efficiency and offering an improved service, both to make them more responsive to members of the public and to have an auditable system in place to keep track of requests.
Because of the large number of office moves taking place across the Council, there was a lot of talk about scanning as the simple answer. However, ad hoc scanning to file servers poses a number of difficulties in terms of the management of the files – they can easily be lost in the electronic melee and security is also a problem as files are unprotected from malicious or accidental damage. Furthermore, without the backing of an electronic document and records management (EDRM) system across the Council, it would be difficult to ensure legal admissibility of scanned files due to the lack of an audit trail.
The Corporate Information Management Unit (CIMU), together with the Council’s IT department, developed a scanning standard and toolkit to give people guidance on scanning, such as what decisions need to be made and what sort of formats to scan to. Although this could not be fully tested until it was put into practice, a lot of research was conducted beforehand in order to make sure that the standard fitted in with advice and best practice from other organisations.
Scope of the project
The PROW team look after all the public rights of way in Worcestershire, ensuring that they are maintained appropriately. They also deal with any enquiries from the public. The files to be scanned therefore contain a variety of material, including maps and drawings, legal orders or applications, a record of the history of the path and related correspondence. Clearly, they are not just text and need to be scanned to a high standard.
Although some of the files (about 500) are ‘closed’, which is to say that staff do not need to refer to them any more, the vast majority are ‘open’ and therefore still need to be added to. This may be simply through files ‘born digital’, such as from Microsoft Word or Excel, but also through scanned copies of paper correspondence that arrives in the department on a daily basis.
In terms of the quality of the files, some of them go back to the 1950s, so they have different standards of typeface, including early type-written and handwritten material. For the same reasons, the paper quality varies dramatically as the earlier information tends to be on thin carbon copies. The files also contain confidential information about members of the public, so are covered by the Data Protection Act.
Although the PROW files are being referred to all the time, there is no way of predicting which ones will be required next. Some may end up becoming very large files, while others may only contain a single piece of paper or a map. It all depends on how many calls are received from members of the public and how many problems relating to the particular right of way might arise.
The files need to be kept permanently as they cover the history of public rights of way. Furthermore, because legal admissibility of the scanned records cannot currently be guaranteed, the PROW team will be retaining the original paper files. However, scanning means that this can now be stored in a cheaper offsite storage location, with the team being able to refer to the electronic copies on a daily basis.
The PROW team consists of 45 members of staff, who all need access to the files, although only five of these are required to administer the files, including full checking-in and checking-out facilities. As well as desktop PCs in the PROW office, staff need to be able to access the files via laptops (either in the office or from home) and via handheld devices while working in the field. This also raises the issue of access to the files from at least 16 individual geographical locations across the county.
As part of the project plan, three distinct work streams were identified, each with the ability to work independently. This gave the project the flexibility to halt the course of one, if necessary, without detrimental impact on the others. These were as follows:
- Work stream one. Data capture – bulk back-scanning of all public rights of way and other related files;
- Work stream two. Addition of new documents to the electronic file system, whether scanned in or ‘born digital’;
- Work stream three. Linking the scanned files to the enterprise content management (ECM) system being implemented by CIMU.
Initially the plan was for all files to be scanned in and accessible by March 2007. Ideally, the team wanted a month’s overlap time with both the paper and electronic system running concurrently before this date. This timescale of five months for the whole project was very tight and the majority of vendors did not feel that this was feasible.
After discussions with PROW it was decided that the best solution was to scan the files in batches. The files would therefore only be out of the office for two or three weeks at a time and the team could manage operationally without them for this period. The vendor agreed an emergency return time if necessary. Overall, the complete scanning process was due to take approximately ten weeks from start to finish. The imminent accommodation move was also postponed, so this took some of the pressure off both the team and the vendor.
Various steps were taken to ensure that the highest possible quality was achieved. Although the project was being managed by the MIM team, the PROW managers were involved throughout, particularly during the shortlisting and selection period.
Team members were kept up to date with all aspects of the project. The IT department, of course, was also involved from an early stage and was consulted on key issues such as vendor selection, electronic-file management and file sizes. It was felt that this was a suitable division of labour, combining the records-management knowledge of the MIM team, the operational knowledge of the PROW team and the technical knowledge of the IT department to ensure that all issues were covered and dealt with appropriately.
Prior to the MIM project the PROW team had started to investigate various scanning companies. However, without knowing what the team really wanted, it was difficult to draw up an exact specification for the vendors. In September 2006, this project was brought to the attention of the MIM team, which assessed the scope of the project and then began work on developing a full specification. Once the specification was agreed by all parties it was published on Worcestershire County Council’s e-tendering portal.
Because of the number of enquiries received about the types and quantities of files, an open morning was arranged for potential vendors to come and visit the PROW office, view the files in situ and ask any additional questions. All vendors who had either been in contact with MIM or had viewed the specification online were invited. The invitation to the open morning was also added to the portal.
Twelve vendors attended and any pertinent issues were captured and published online for those unable to attend. As a result, nine quotes were received and the MIM team did the initial shortlisting, passing the files to the PROW team to ensure they were happy with those selected. Two vendors were shortlisted to do some sample scans of a few files to the required file formats and standards.
The shortlisted companies were asked to sample-scan during the first week of January 2007. The PROW team reviewed the samples as a team and a report was compiled of the positives and negatives for each sample. This was then reviewed and confirmed by MIM. The project board approved the selection of the preferred vendor and the unsuccessful vendors were informed. The contract was drawn up with the help of the Council’s legal services department and work on the boxing up, listing and back-scanning of the files commenced.
As the files were open and needed to be added to, the PROW team also purchased a high-volume scanner and attached it to a single dedicated PC. This was a short-term measure prior to the team’s move to more centralised offices, where multi-function printer-scanners were in use.
The initial business case for the project covered time savings per viewing of the files and time in retrieving work in progress files, as well as desk-space savings covered by the floor space occupied by the files. As the project is still in its infancy at the time of writing, these savings have yet to be realised.
However, in the short-term the PROW team is certainly more than happy with the quality of its scanned files and are particularly impressed with the scan-quality of the older material. It may take a little longer for the team to become familiar with the full system and with the process of attaching new documents to the back-scanned files, although the chosen solution presents a standard Microsoft Windows appearance and functionality so it should be fairly straightforward and easy to follow.
As this was the first of many scanning and IT-related projects within MIM, there were a number of lessons that can be transferred to other projects. They include:
- Set up a governance board to ensure cross-organisational scanning is co-ordinated and agreed;
- Ensure you have properly researched the scanning standards in place before you start;
- Use the vendors to help you develop a best practice approach;
- Use project-management resources to work alongside the operational team. This worked well in providing structure and enabling lessons learnt to be communicated quickly with other project teams across the council;
- If you have not visited a volume-scanning organisation before, take a tour around at least one to see the different processes they carry out, the equipment they use and the sorts of controls they have in place;
- Good communication with vendors is essential. Be clear about the tendering process. Arrange an open morning from the outset;
- Allow plenty of time for analysis of tenders. Different scanning vendors price in different ways. For example, number of pages, size of pages, black or colour, indexing, collection and return of files, delivery of electronic files and emergency turn around files. These differences can make cost comparison difficult, especially as the scanning volumes will be based on estimates;
- When you sign a contract ensure there are regular checks and measures to monitor the speed and quality of progress. We found a useful tool for double checking volumes that can count the number of pages across a collection of PDFs;
- Don’t forget your forward scanning requirements and how you are going to add new documents to the back scanned files.
The way forward
The PROW team is still due to move to new offices, although exact timescales have not yet been confirmed. The scanning project will help it achieve this seamlessly while maintaining service levels, as staff will be able to access their files throughout the process. Once the appropriate standards and systems are in place it may be possible to dispense with the paper files altogether, which will lead to further savings.
Running alongside the PROW scanning project, and also as part of the MIM programme, the records-management service within the County Council is currently implementing an ECM system, initially to manage its paper records. Rather than keeping the scanned files on an unprotected shared network drive, the PROW team is keen to incorporate the files into the ECM system as soon as possible. This will therefore become the second phase of the project, due to commence later in the year.
Heidi McIntosh is electronic records manager at Worcestershire County Council. She can be contacted by e-mail, HMcIntosh@worcestershire.gov.uk.
BOX: Fast facts
Project Name: PROW scanning
Number of people in PROW team: 45
Project timetable: Nine months (not including integration with ECM system)
Selected services partner: Available on request. Please e-mail the author.
CIMU Corporate Information Management Unit;
ECM Enterprise content management;
EDRM Electronic document and records management;
MIM Making Information Manageable programme;
PROW Public rights of way.