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Rogue spreadsheet digit equals disaster for Fife Council

An erroneous digit added to a spreadsheet figure by a junior member of staff at Fife Council triggered nearly £300,000 worth of overpayments to a resident.

15th Jan 2020
Staff Writer AccountingWEB
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It seems a giant issue with fees proved a foe for Fife last year. 

A young Fife resident received weekly health and social payments of £59,395 instead of £59.95 after an extra digit was accidentally added to a Fife Council spreadsheet.

Three days after the fifth payment was made to the newly rich resident, the spreadsheet blunder was spotted. The council calculated that it had overpaid £296,675.25 to the recipient during July and August of last year. 

Police not called

Fife police were not involved in the matter, but the council undertook an investigation to double-check how the error occurred. 

When the mistyped figure was brought to light in October 2019, £12,000 remained to be recovered from the overpaid recipient, still 40 times the sum of the intended payments. Les Robertson, head of service at Fife Council explained: “This overpayment was unfortunately a result of a keying error and, as it was set up as an automatically recurring payment, multiple payments were made.

“The incorrect recurring payment should have been picked up as part of our normal check. We retrieved the majority of the funds and have agreed a repayment plan for the outstanding amount.”

'Heads will roll'

At a recent finance committee meeting, Robertson reportedly told councillors, “I can’t guarantee it wouldn’t happen again but I can guarantee if it did, heads will roll.”

The culprit was “a very new junior member of staff” who made a single misstep whilst inputting data into the relevant spreadsheet.

The council’s internal controls should have caught the payment at the approval stage, he added. “When inputting data, a confirmation box would have popped up to ask if the £59,000 was correct and they would have clicked confirm.”

The finance chief later apologised for his “choice of words” at the committee meeting. “Additional checks have been implemented to prevent any re-occurrence. These checks are reliant on officers following the agreed process for this type of payment,” he said. 

“We have a professional and dedicated staff and errors of this type are extremely rare.  We have minimised the risk of future errors to the best of our ability.”

No escape from spreadsheet errors

The Fife incident recalls regular spreadsheet calamities going back to the c£30,000 school budget hole disclosed by AccountingWEB member and school governor Peter Wolstenholme in 2001.

Whether large or small, public sector or private sector AccountingWEB’s recap of last year’s best accounting spreadsheet scandals confirms that where there is a lack of ‘eternal vigilance and effective training’, spreadsheets remain a poor environment for data storage and financial control – yet organisations continue to rely on them.

Replies (21)

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By memyself-eye
16th Jan 2020 11:17

They were lucky the mistake only cost them £12,000!

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By tedbuck
16th Jan 2020 11:30

Well errors will happen but they aren't confined to spreadsheets -we have found that the cloud based programs are in places so clever that the simple client isn't aware enough of bookkeeping procedures to get things right so we have found the following:-
VAT claimed on insurance, private items, other non- VATable items due to the automatic click choice.
Disbursements seem to be a problem especially with cash accounting and some programs cannot cope with this.
Duplication of invoices / payments and allocation problems where payments on account are made.
Yes they can be found and corrected but often these clients coped well with manual, spreadsheet and older computer programs.
Perhaps this is the price of progress!

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Replying to tedbuck:
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By 0705736
16th Jan 2020 12:34

The price of progress? The price of HMRC poking their noses into small businesses and telling them what kind of book-keeping system they need, more like, without having any idea how small businesses function. A case of the blind leading the blind.

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By bobsto12
16th Jan 2020 11:31

It's a symptom of the modern world where lots of people don't do their jobs properly. In this case those paid to check payments clearly didn't but you can bet your life someone ticked a box saying that they did.
I note no heads did actually roll. Theres no actual consequence of incompetence except being told off?

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By rememberscarborough
16th Jan 2020 11:39

Bit of click bait trying to blame it on a young kid or spreadsheets. Clearly this was an internal control issue and whoever set up and approved those controls failed miserably. Add that to the senior manager who approved the payments failing badly to notice such a large overpayment and we have an organisation that I wouldn't trust to organise a party in a brewery....

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Replying to rememberscarborough:
By k743snx
16th Jan 2020 13:01

"Clearly this was an internal control issue".

I don't think anyone's pretending otherwise. People seem to be not reading the article properly, and then letting their emotions get the better of them.

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By unclejoe
16th Jan 2020 11:47

Years ago I was a budget controller for a very small part of large American multinational. Purchase requests would be prepared by a very junior member of staff and approved by a manager - a small amount only required one manager; for large amounts every manager in the chain had to approve depending on the amount. The last approval was me to confirm it was allowed for in the budget. A software licence costing £2k was renewed every year, but one year a request for £2million landed on my desk. A £2m purchase required approval from 8 levels of management right up to Chairman! All had signed it without looking! Of course, I checked and flagged it. The junior clerk had got carried away writing zeros. She received a severe reprimand. The 8 managers who signed it off - you can guess. That's life!

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By ColA
16th Jan 2020 12:02

No spreadsheet or system is foolproof. Well recall years ago internal surveyors signing off £000 of work without ever inspecting it. As Chief Internal Auditor I installed a check system, inspections, sacked one area contractor and the public sector organisation saved £1m in the following year!
Fatal error to assume common sense is applied and that initial error innocent - fraud easily results as the losses/mistakes are compounded.

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By Sheepy306
16th Jan 2020 12:46

Would love to know what a repayment plan looks like to recover £12k from someone on £59 per week benefits.
Presumably no criminal theft charges brought about because it would simply highlight the councils, or rather the managers, incompetence. Quite pathetic and cowardly to blame it on the ‘very new junior member of staff’.

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Replying to Sheepy306:
By k743snx
16th Jan 2020 12:58

" Quite pathetic and cowardly to blame it on the ‘very new junior member of staff’."

Except they haven't.
There's a subtle difference between identifying the person responsible and making them carry the can.

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Replying to k743snx:
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By Sheepy306
16th Jan 2020 13:10

The article quite clearly quotes the council as saying that the culprit was a very new junior member of staff, it then goes on to say that internal controls should have identified it. No mention of any managerial oversight or failure, just internal controls, why single out the junior member of staff when the manager is paid far more to identify such errors. Infact a very new junior member of staff should have had even closer supervision don’t you think?

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Replying to Sheepy306:
By k743snx
16th Jan 2020 13:42

We have to draw conclusions from the information available.

"Why single out the junior member of staff".
We weren't there - maybe other people were "singled out" but we can't discern that from the article. We can't be sure there was no management criticism, just because it doesn't say so above.

In any case, if the junior was victimised without anyone responsible for them being spoken to at least, I would have thought their union would have something to say about it.

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Replying to k743snx:
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By Sheepy306
16th Jan 2020 14:03

Well I agree with you, we do have to draw conclusions from the information available, which is precisely what I did, and we do have to assume a certain level of professionalism and accuracy of reporting, which of course can't be guaranteed.

None of us were there, as with virtually all articles in national newspapers, I don't think we should refrain from voicing our opinions based upon the information given to us.

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Replying to Sheepy306:
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By moneymanager
17th Jan 2020 07:14

"why single out", organisations always do. Many eons ago I and a couple of financial service tied agent colleagues used company approved marketing material for a Royal Mail blind mail shot, it just so happened that one landed on the mat of Phillip Chappell who was at the time the head of the Investment Trust Association, the material related to the compnay unit trust offerings with performance shown on a bid-to-bid basis, the company jsut dumped on us for a great height in the Daily Telegraph!

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By JD
16th Jan 2020 12:56

Excellent way to start the year, with a bit of Spreadsheet bashing. This is a user issue not a tech issue. Aweb Editors, you do need to understand that using cloud accounting or any other form of technology will not suddenly bless any individual with the gift of accuracy.

Client's and users will find allsorts of imaginative ways of making significant errors irrespective of the tech they are using and IT companies (Xero, QBO, RB & Sage in particular) are being very good at misleading users over what is realistically possible.

At least with excel, an experienced and trained user can very quickly obtain a good overview of the data they are looking at and it is reasonably easy to complete the obvious (but it seems was missed this time) idiot checks of considering if the data actually matches what it is supposed to represent, in real life. You really do need to update your editorial line on spreadsheets.

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By Mike Nicholas
16th Jan 2020 14:03

"... giant issue with fees proved a foe for Fife last year."
Lol

Great story by the way.
Data entry errors are commonplace. The failure is essentially that the software producing the actual payment did not flag the size of the payment. The blame rests with the 'management.
What did the internal auditors have to say?

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Nefertiti
By Nefertiti
16th Jan 2020 14:28

L_M_A_O.

Quote: "Robertson reportedly told councillors, “I can’t guarantee it wouldn’t happen again", that is because they are all thick as s***.

No supervision of output from a junior staff member, no internal checks to capture this mistake, overpayments went through without anyone picking it up. Welcome to the new Britain, totally useless the lot of them. I think ALL of their heads should roll on this one.

It is no secret that most councils in the country are totally useless and that they have stopped serving the members of the public, they are all just waiting for the big hand to reach the six so they can all go home. I am still laughing at this level of stupidity as I have NEVER ever come across a £300k overpayment in my entire working life.

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Replying to Nefertiti:
By ireallyshouldknowthisbut
16th Jan 2020 16:00

6?
More like 5pm.

When i was in audit in the late 90's i found myself in a local council office. The person I was speaking to at 4.30pm was getting very itchy feet. by 4.45pm we were the only people seated. Everyone else was standing up, on coats waiting at the door. At precisely 5pm, they filed out of the door. The whole building emptied in this manner on the dot. You could only get hold of people between around 10am and 11.30am (although it was often down tools for a 20 minutes mid morning break) , or 2pm to 4pm.

I have a few clients who work for councils (usually landlords) and they never have any problem taking a call in work time or sending me additional info in work time.

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Replying to ireallyshouldknowthisbut:
Nefertiti
By Nefertiti
16th Jan 2020 16:12

Sorry my friend, I meant 4:30pm when I said "the big hand reaches the six". That is how quickly the sulky, useless, incompetent, untrained, council officers leave their offices in my borough.
Voting in a new council leader, whether it is Labour or Conservative is no use as the core staff all remain the same, only the figurehead changes. They only repair half of the pot holes on a road to save money, they have low level morons attending their phones and insist all complaints are submitted on their website, surprise the complaint got lost.

Our area was once a clean and beautiful place, now it is a dirty crap hole, litter everywhere, rats galore near fast food places, unemployed immigrants hiding behind every tree and bus stop, shopping center where you are guaranteed to lose your purse or cards if you are not careful. To say I live in a den of thieves would be an understatement.

On that happy note, let me get my rolling pin out and keep it near my bed tonight in case anyone breaks in. I have to protect myself you know, because the local police are even more corrupt and useless than our council. :-(((

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By Lauren.Hawkes
16th Jan 2020 16:19

Unfortunately these days I have noticed that people are lazy to learn because people are lazy to teach. Very few take pride in their work like they used to and many just shrug their shoulders at making this kind of mistake. I check payrolls on a weekly basis and far too many entries are incorrect and require changing before confirming the payment! I've done a recent reconciliation of the last two years(prior to my arrival at the company) and the amount the business has lost due to thorough checks not being carried out of the time is ridiculous.

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By frankfx
16th Jan 2020 17:07

I am shocked that the receiving bank did not take action.

We are frequently assured that robust systems are in place to capture unusual or irregular transactions.

That is what computers are good at.

Agree?

What if the amount had been £500 overpaid every month.

When would that have been scrutinized?

If this is happening at Fife it's replicated throughout public sector... that is the nature of these things.

How often do the finance department s stress test the vulnerability of their systems.

Hard pressed tax payers ultimately pay the price.

The issue here is deeper than a novice worker making a typo. Error.

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