Lost emails prompt Norfolk e-consultation changes

Written by Colin Marrs on 11 June 2014 in News

Norfolk County Council is to overhaul its electronic consultation processes after losing emailed objections from environmental groups to a major new road scheme it is promoting.

Norfolk County Council is to overhaul its electronic consultation processes after losing emailed objections from environmental groups to a major new road scheme it is promoting.

The changes were recommended by the council’s head of procurement Al Collier in a report into events surrounding a consultation on a new bypass north of Norwich.

Three responses – from the Green Party, the Campaign to Protect Rural England and a local anti-development group – were not included in a file submitted by the council to the Planning Inspectorate, which is considering the council’s application to build the road.

Collier’s report, which followed an investigation into the matter, said: “I conclude on the balance of probabilities that the three emailed submissions were received by the council’s email server.

“I find the alternative – that receipts were ‘spoofed’ by the complainants or that the complainants submitted emails which they then managed to recall without the council’s knowledge – far-fetched.”

Collier’s investigation was assisted by council ICT information and security architecture staff, but failed to discover how the emailed submissions had disappeared.

Technical evidence was scant, because email server logs had been overwritten after 99 days in accordance with its policies.

But Collier found that print logs showed that the responses were never printed by officers.

His report said there was no evidence that officers had deleted the emails to improve the prospects of the road being approved or damage its prospects by harming the council’s reputation.

It also said that the use of a shared e-mail inbox for consultation was risky, because there was no cross-checking of system logs showing email received and manually-compiled logs used for analysis.

It said: “Hence the system was reliant on the diligence of the loggers, and even if they were entirely diligent there was a risk that others with access to the mailbox might accidentally or deliberately move or delete emails.”

The report recommended that the council should introduce instructions and training on the conduct of statutory consultation processes.

It also said the council should move to a web-based system for receiving consultation responses and eliminate the use of mailboxes.

In addition, it recommended that the ICT department should review its log retention policies to “ensure that the correct balance is being struck between the legal requirement for proportionality and the need to be able to investigate incidents”.

Tom McCabe, interim director of environment, transport and development at the council said that the council accepted the recommendations.

He added that the Planning Inspectorate had concluded that none of the three organisations had been disadvantaged, because their grounds for objecting had been raised within others’ submissions.

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