SDHB record-keeping a concern

Serious concerns about aspects of the Southern District Health Board's record-keeping practices have been raised by the country's chief archivist, Marilyn Little.

This follows her investigation of concerns about the board's ability to keep track of documents in its historic multimillion-dollar dispute with South Link Health.

Last September, Ms Little took the unusual move of using her powers under the Public Records Act to ask both the DHB and the Ministry of Health to report on aspects of their record keeping in conjunction with the board's long-running dispute with South Link Health.

Ms Little accepted both organisations' explanations for some specific issues raised over the dispute documents and will be taking no further action on the complaint raised by former Otago Daily Times health reporter Elspeth McLean (who had been pursuing official information on the dispute).

However, Ms Little said she had serious concerns about the DHB's continued absence of a policy covering corporate records, the effectiveness of oversight of records held by third parties and the board's ``apparent failure to identify and remedy these issues without prompting from me''.

She will be monitoring the board's progress in addressing her concerns.

A year ago, the DHB walked away from the dispute over $5.27 million (which could have been as much as $15 million with interest) relating to savings SLH made on contracts it held with the regional authority, and later South Island DHBs, between the mid 1990s and 2008.

The board contended money had been spent without authorisation, but SLH denied this.

In 2015, the board, on the advice of forensic investigators, referred the dispute to the Serious Fraud Office. After considering the matter, the SFO decided not to conduct a substantive investigation into the dispute, or refer it elsewhere.

The board's overtures to SLH to go back into negotiations after that were rebuffed, leading to the board's decision to call it quits last year. By then, both organisations had spent several hundred thousand dollars on the dispute, much of it on legal expenses.

Ms Little's ``please explain'' letters to the ministry and board were made after Mrs McLean, on the suggestion of then ombudsman Prof Ron Paterson, raised concerns with her office about apparent confusion over what records were held and where and the ability to readily locate some dispute-related documents.

This included records retrieved by the ministry's audit and compliance unit from the earthquake-damaged Charles Luney House in Christchurch.

Ms Little found no records relating to the dispute were affected by the earthquakes. In relation to the board's difficulty in locating attachments to its statement of claim document, she accepted that the board could not have been expected to create and maintain metadata linking the electronic document and the physical attachments.

In her letter to the board last month, Ms Little was critical of the board's inability to generate or obtain lists of physical records in boxes compiled by its external lawyer and supplied to forensic accountants, and subsequently the Serious Fraud Office, until the boxes were returned. This implied the board did not maintain oversight of what had been supplied.

In her correspondence with the Ministry of Health, Ms Little took issue with recommendations from ministry chief legal adviser Phil Knipe about ``how I should approach recordkeeping concerns''.

In his letter, he had recommended that where archives staff had concerns with record keeping, they first contact the ministry's corporate knowledge services team to discuss the concerns, suggesting this could minimise any need for escalation.

Ms Little said while some issues could be addressed informally, ``I consider it entirely appropriate to have raised my concerns with you through a direction to report''.

This approach had been effective in prompting clarification of the disposition of the ministry's earthquake-affected records.

The ministry did not respond when asked why it thought it was appropriate to give Ms Little advice on how to do her job.


 

Comments

Mrs McLean, meta critique of the Ministry is mc of the Government, which is abridged too far.