Auditor lambasts council IS group

Auditor highlights a catalogue of poor practice in Cornwall council's Information Services Group

Auditor highlights a catalogue of poor practice in Cornwall council's Information Services Group

Cornwall County Council is battling to restore credibility to its beleaguered Information Services Group after the sudden resignation of IT director Mo Bartz days before a damning District Auditor's report was presented to councillors.

This week, council chief executive Peter Davis said, "robust action has already been taken by managers" to address weaknesses highlighted by both internal audits and the District Auditor.

Davis has appointed a senior officer with no previous connection with the Information Services Group to lead the department.

The District Auditor's Management Letter to Members 1998/99 highlighted three major problem areas. A key concern was the tendering and accounting process for consultancy services.

Between 1996 and 1999 the council made total payments of £697,488 for IT consultancy services to one main agency, said the auditor.

"A number of individual contracts were awarded which were in excess of £5,000 and for which, under the council's standing orders on contracts, competitive tenders should have been sought," said the report.

The auditor believes this may have breached EU requirements on advertising and tendering. Questions were also raised over expenses. Sample testing by internal auditors indicated that over £70,000 was paid in consultants' expenses to the main agency used. "No receipts or vouchers have been supplied by the consultants to support this expenditure," said the auditor.

The department's recruitment policies were severely criticised. The auditor's letter to councillors stated, "A sample check on files carried out by the director of ISG revealed seven cases where no copies of the original application forms or interview notes were available." It also noted that in some cases "it appears that references had not been sought before or after appointments were made".

A major part of the auditor's letter focused on the use of council-owned cars within the department. It found, "No guidelines were established over the circumstances (if any) under which these vehicles, or the council fuel in them, were available for private use."

One member of the ISG had sole use of a council-owned car and was also paid an "essential-user car allowance", which is given to council staff who use their own car for work.

The auditor reported, "This employee has now repaid the essential-user allowance, together with the estimated cost of council fuel used for private travel."

The auditor said no records were kept of car use in the department so it was impossible to establish the extent to which they were used on private business. Neither was there a mechanism for informing the council's payroll manager about those staff who had access to pool vehicles for private use. "As a result," said the auditor, "The council had inadvertently submitted incomplete information to the Inland Revenue."

Mo Bartz was headhunted for the Cornwall job in 1996 by John Mills, then the recently appointed county council chief executive.

In February 1999 the auditor received an anonymous letter from "a reasonably senior former employee at the council", making a series of allegations about the Information Services Group.

In June 1999 Mills, who had been a member of the prime minister's policy unit between 1989 and 1992, left Cornwall to become chief executive of the States of Jersey. Bartz was shortlisted for his job.

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