March 09, 2011

Uncovering systemic faults

Cross-posted from Fullerswatch: Last week I have sent the following to the Waiheke Bus Co management for an explanation:

Dear Waiheke Bus Company,

A friend of mine boarded a bus from Matiatia to Surfdale on Wednesday and paid the $3 standard fare. But the bus driver issued her a Super Gold Card ticket (even though she is way younger than 65 and doesn’t have a Super Gold Card anyway).

Can you please explain which of the following scenarios caused this event:
  1. The bus driver pocketed the fare himself and bus management wasn’t any the wiser because a zero fare ticket was issued and his cash box balanced at the end of his shift – and why would management bother about this as the fare is paid by the Government anyway.
  2. You instruct your drivers to issue Super Gold Card tickets to fare paying passengers because it fattens your profit margins: the fare paid, the Government gold card subsidy and of course the Auckland Transport subsidy. All in one push of a button.
  3. The bus driver made a mistake in button pushing – thank god it was in your favour – but we cannot guarantee it won’t happen again because no appropriate audit is in place.
Either of those ways reveals a deep flaw in the Super Gold Card system of subsidy because there is no valid audit trail in place to keep an eye on how transport providers issue Super Gold Card fare tickets. There is no accounting match between tickets issued and Super Gold Cards shown – for all fraudulent intents and purposes a massive amount of Super Gold Card travelers could be on your bus in spirit only but you still pocket the subsidy.
Of course I don’t want to single you out, because Fullers Ferries, NZ Bus and all other companies in the scheme could be playing the same game for all we know.

So I am looking forward to your explanation, especially since I have forwarded this also to relevant subsidy-providing authorities. After all, in these times of great need for fiscal rectitude we must ensure the tax and rate dollar is wisely spent but not on self-help corporate welfare.

Yours sincerely,

UPDATE 9 March: No response from the bus company but politicians have been in touch wanting to know more about this. Auckland  Councillor Mike Lee, Nikki Kaye MP and Jacinda Ardern MP are curious.

UPDATE 10 MARCH: A letter from Fullers manager Michael Fitchett:
Thank you for the feedback about your friend’s experience on board one of our bus services. Please ask your friend to contact me to supply us with the relevant details so that we can carry out an investigation. Our normal practice in these events is to conduct a proper examination of the situation and act on the results of it.
We can only assume at this point that the matter was an innocent mistake on the part of our driver, which was one of the possibilities you raised. Mistakes do happen and in the normal course of events the passenger directly involved would take the matter up with the driver at the time. You also made the point that a possible explanation for the event might be fraudulent behaviour. Fraud is a serious matter and we have a zero tolerance policy toward it which is why I wish to investigate the allegation.
Throughout our business we have instituted procedures to counter fraudulent use of the SuperGold card use. We instance the fact that passengers who want to travel by ferry must show their Super Gold cards when buying a ticket and again when boarding the ferry. People might find having to show their cards twice an inconvenience but it does demonstrate that we are serious about following the rules to the letter. It is in the interests of everybody that we protect the Super Gold card scheme as it currently stands because it provides great benefits to New Zealanders  over 65 years. 
We have already bought your communication to the notice of the authorities and if you could get your friend to contact us I will be providing Auckland Transport with a report on the incident – which again is standard procedure in these events.
Thank you for passing this information on to us you can assist us by asking your friend to contact me.
I have mailed him the ticket details and he was happy with that for his investigation. The bigger question of the systemic weakness in protecting the taxpayer will need to be addressed by politicians.

UPDATE 15 APRIL: After prodding the Waiheke Bus Company management about their investigation into the SGC ticket issue to a fare paying passenger Michael Fitchett got back to me:
Yes there has been an investigation into this matter, it has been concluded and the outcome has been reported to AT [Auckland Transport], in fact it was earlier this week that I reported in full to AT. I had also some weeks ago given them a progress update.
Not only did we report the conclusion but we also reported in full how we carried out the investigation. I am however reluctant to allow the findings and knowledge of our investigation methodologies to become public knowledge for a couple of important reasons.

· We wish to protect the identities of innocent people affected.
· Our investigation methods are understandably confidential to us.
· Auckland Transport were the affected party and we don’t think it is our position to speak for them.

But having said that we are happy for you to contact Auckland Transport and ask them for the result of the investigation – they are the Authority and we will be happy with their call on this matter.
So now I have to write to Auckland Transport asking which of the scenarios was true:
- the bus driver pocketed the fare (but the bus company doesn't mind much because it still collects the SGC subsidy from AT)
- the company has a policy of issuing SGC tickets to fare paying passengers (by which defrauding AT)
- the bus driver made a mistake (but the company doesn't really mind because it's not a loss for them, only AT)

And if any of the above scenarios are the case, what is AT's future policy regarding the auditing of SGC ticket issuance?

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