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.