GENERAL INTRODUCTION TO EDISENT A STEP TOWARDS LOWER-ING THE ADMINISTRATIVE BURDEN
Public administrations in Europe nowadays are requiring more and more information from enter-prises, for example National Statistical Institutes (NSIs) for their statistical surveys. This results in heavy workloads on enterprises for their administrative procedures and form filling. Enterprises are dissatisfied with the current situation and also in public administrations it is recognised that some-thing should be done about this problem.
At the present time, the NSIs primarily use paper questionnaires for the collection of data at the enterprises. For some statistical surveys electronic questionnaires are being used already, but even in this case filling in the questionnaire through data entry at e.g. a PC is left to the enterprise. Both the enterprises and institutions acting as data providers and the NSIs as data collectors consider the current practice (from computer to paper and from paper into a computer again) as cumbersome, slow and inefficient.
Modern information and communication technologies (ICT) should help to put this situation to an end. The NSIs consider Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) as an important issue in their policy for the near future. The advantages of EDI should be turned into a much lower administrative burden for the data provider and also improve the service towards users of statistical information in general. The NSIs participating in TELER aim at demonstrating the feasibility of a common model and related standards for the exchange of statistical data between enterprises and data collectors. Demonstration of their ideas is based on a prototype module (EDISENT), for which both a theoretical underpinning and extensive specifications have been developed during the first two years of the TELER project.
This chapter focuses on the demonstrator to be used by the NSIs in what is called TELER "variant-1", for which the EDISENT module has been developed.
1 DATA COLLECTION AND EDI
Up to now, in many cases the NSIs send a separate questionnaire to enterprises or institutes for every statistical survey conducted. In order to fill in these questionnaires, the data providers must draw information from several distinct information systems, and then combine and/or recalculate this information in order to bring it into the format requested by the data collector. These actions must be repeated every time the questionnaire is received: yearly, quarterly or even monthly.
Sometimes, the same or similar questions are included in several questionnaires, causing unnecessary overlap. Implementation of modern information technology can help to change this. In stead of starting from the NSIs point of view, from now on the computerised information systems at the enterprises should be considered as the starting point for data collection. In stead of a questionnaire for each statistical survey, a questionnaire for each computerised information system will be developed. This will be an electronic questionnaire, combining questions for several distinct statistical surveys into one so-called combi-questionnaire.
A precondition for this approach is that concepts and definitions that are used by the NSI as data collector should be attuned to the set of concepts and definitions that the data provider uses. Some-times the information required at the NSI can be drawn from the information systems at the enterprise or institute directly, by introducing provisions in the software that the data provider uses, enabling the data provider to supply the requested information just by pushing another key at the keyboard. In many cases, however, enterprises and institutes will use concepts and definitions that differ among them. In order to be able to provide the requested data in an automated fashion in these cases as well, a very flexible tool is needed. That's where EDISENT turns up. This module, for which a prototype was developed for TELER, allows for the automated provision of the majority of the data to be collected, in a format that can be used by the NSI as data collector, thereby reducing the effort to be made by the data provider.
It should be stressed, that it will always be for the data provider to decide whether, and if so, when and under which conditions, the data from his information systems will be made available in this way. This proverbial knife cuts both ways, because for the data collector this so-called "EDI-fication" will lead to a faster way of collecting the data. Thanks to EDI, part of the processing (like e.g. validation and editing) of the data can be reduced considerably. It is anticipated that (partly for that reason) the quality of the collected data may be improved, in comparison with data supplied via the manual actions that are required for filling in the current questionnaires.
2 THE PRINCIPLE OF THE EDISENT MODULE
As far as the NSIs are concerned, a broad definition of EDI (Electronic Data Interchange) will be used. The main issue here is not so much the actual sending of the data, but rather the automated collection of the data. The main goal when introducing EDI for the collection of data is to make a substantial contribution to lowering the administrative burden at the enterprise. Using the EDISENT module requires a one-time investment in making the connection between the questionnaire in the module itself and the data used in the computerised (parts of) information systems at the enterprise or institute. But once this effort of installation and adjustment of the software module has been made, delivery of the data to be collected may be done so to speak by pushing one simple button. In cases where concepts and definitions have been standardised, maybe it will be possible in the future to buy a standard software module from a software supplier. In that case the adjustment that is required when using the EDISENT module should be integrate in the standardised software. The adjustment of EDISENT will be described in more detail later.
The new approach that NSIs (and possibly other data collectors) have in mind requires quite a lot of flexibility, because the EDISENT module must be linked to the computerised information systems of as many data providers as possible. Since these computerised information systems will differ between one data provider and another, a thorough approach is needed, both in a technical way, a conceptual way and in content.
Technical flexibility is needed to cope with differences in the various software packages used at the data providers. A conceptual approach is needed in order to reconcile the various sets of concepts and definitions used at the enterprise. And for the content it is necessary to translate the codes and classifications used at the enterprise into the codes and classifications of the NSIs as data collectors. The EDISENT module takes care of all this. It has been developed initially for one software platform, viz. Windows 3.x, which at the time the TELER project started turned out to be the most commonly used at enterprises all over Europe, also taking into account that the main focus in TELER is on SME's (Small and Medium sized Enter-prises). The EDISENT demonstrator was built in such a way, that it can be used under Windows95 as well, without problems.
3 THE TECHNICAL LINK
Many different software packages are used today for the automation of business accounts. In some cases standard software packages are used; in other cases tailor-made software is applied and sometimes a combination of the two. Each software variant has its own way of processing and storing data, but all variants have at least one thing in common: the possibility to produce reports, tables, aggregates etc. in ASCII (text) files of some sort. If it is possible to produce this ASCII file on a Windows PC or transfer it from another computer system producing it to the PC, then the EDISENT module can be used to extract and translate data from it. A description has to be made for each report or print file, specifying which data items are reproduced in which columns. The EDISENT module then can interpret these columns. The only additional requirement is that each "line" in the report should contain some indication or other through which it can be recognised. E.g. in financial reports this can be the account number for relevant lines.
4 THE CONCEPTUAL LINK
All business accounts should be built around a consistent set of concepts and definitions. For financial accounts this may be the general ledger, an enumeration of all entries for booking, with applicable codes and including (sub-)totals. Because in most countries every enterprise or institute may use its self-defined definitions and codes, it is impossible to use a generally applicable classification. Conse-quently, in such cases the set of concepts and definitions have to be "translated" into the concepts of the data collector, as defined in its electronic questionnaire. The EDISENT module will offer the possibility to define for each question in a questionnaire a set of simple calculation rules to define which data item from which print file is to be used and to combine data items from the print file into the data to be collected. The EDISENT module uses the column descriptions supplied in the technical link and the formulas for calculating the answers.
5 THE LINK WITH RESPECT TO CONTENT
In addition to the set of concepts and definitions and the accounting schemes (like e.g. the general ledger), also the various coding lists are involved, like article codes, client identifications, supplier identifications and the like. For a data collector it may be relevant to split some of the data according to one or more codes, e.g. a division of sales values according to product codes. Many enterprises and institutes use self-defined codes, even in those countries where a national law defines the accounting scheme as such. Because of this, an option will be built into the EDISENT module for the translation and/or (re)coding by using tables. The NSI codes can be searched in hierarchically organised lists, that are tailored to the branch of the enterprise (classified via standardised NACE codes). The tables for re-coding also allow for establishing less obvious links. E.g. client and supplier identifications can be translated into country codes for supplying data on import or export.
6 ELECTRONIC QUESTIONNAIRES
As mentioned earlier, the information requested by the NSIs will be fed into a specific file called the combi-questionnaire. The electronic combi-questionnaire is included in the EDISENT module. One EDISENT module as provided to the enterprise, may contain several electronic combi-questionnaires, e.g. one for the data required yearly, one for data required quarterly and another one for data required monthly. Also, the combi-questionnaires can be adapted towards the various distinct information systems at the enterprise, the so-called sub-systems. If several information systems within the same enterprise are separated physically or organisationally, an EDISENT module will be used for each of them. The same remark holds if the same information systems is used by different divisions within the same enterprise. In the latter case, the electronic questionnaire will be identical. Likewise, administrative offices hired for keeping the accounts, may need to use different EDISENT modules for the respective branches of activity involved.
7 WORKING METHOD
The main functionality of the EDISENT-module can be divided into two parts:
*) The initial configuration set-up by which the data types of the information systems at the enter-prise are related to the variables (represented by questions asked for in the combi-questionnaire)
*) The (periodical) transformation of the data of the enterprise’s information systems into the requested messages (answers on the questions)
The EDISENT module is suitable for linking to almost any kind of computerised information sub-system. When using the module for supplying data to the NSIs (or other data collectors), only a few steps have to be taken:
1. Apply the software used for the business account(s) to produce reports for the relevant period in ASCII file format, containing the requested data for filling in the questionnaires.
2. Start the EDISENT module and fill the electronic combi-questionnaire with these data, doing a once-only adjustment.
3. Check the questionnaire after it has been filled in automatically. It can be changed or extended by way of manual data entry (using EDISENT as well).
4. After approving, send the data on a diskette or via data communications to the data collector.