Lewes District Council: The Mystery of the Disappearing Email

On July 13 I wrote to the New Homes team at Lewes District Council (LDC) to express concern about their plans to replace the Buckle Car park with a new housing block.  I also asked them some questions about this proposed development.  5 weeks later I had still not received a reply.

The Reply That Never Arrived

On August 18 I contacted them again to ask for a response to my previous email.  This time they replied promptly claiming they had responded on July 27 and that the consultation meeting I had asked about was on July 28 – so this information was not much use by then!

I was surprised not only by their claim they had sent an email but also by their suggestion that “perhaps it was undelivered”.  As an IT professional I am aware that it’s a fairly rare thing for an email to go astray en route and if a message cannot be delivered the sender normally receives at least 1 message to warn them … at which point you might think they would try to send it again.

Two Possibilities

Part of my training is not to take anything at face value but to consider various alternative possibilities.  Here two possibilities occurred to me:

  1. Either: The email was sent exactly as LDC claimed and – through some highly unusual circumstances – had failed to reach me or to bounce back to the sender.
  2. Or: The email was never sent and someone was covering up for their failure to send a reply.

Checking For Evidence

The obvious thing to do was ask LDC for a copy of the original email.  11 days later and after I had chased them a couple of times, they did finally send me a copy of the email that looked like it had been sent on July 28.  The reason why it never reached me was obvious: although it superficially looked like it was sent to my email address, on closer investigation it had actually been sent to a corrupt email address beginning with the text IMCEAINVALID.

This could indicate a genuine problem (there is a known Microsoft bug).  But if that were the case you would expect LDC to have received a warning that the message could not be delivered.   I tested this by sending an email with exactly the same email address corruption and received no less than 7 separate warnings during several days advising that the email could not be delivered.

Yet, LDC claimed no warning was received.

Searching Their Mailboxes

Each email from a given Exchange server has a unique ID.  In the case of the email attachment they had sent me this was: b08ca891f33e4d93abab5c8faf9b04ba@[server name redacted].

Still looking for an explanation of why no email had reached me or bounced back to them, I then asked LDC to search their mailboxes for the date the email was allegedly sent … July 28.

Instead they searched for my email address on July 27 … so they searched for the wrong thing on the wrong day.

There was a vague reference in correspondence they included from their IT expert that he had tried searching for the message ID on a range of dates.  But it was not clear which dates were searched, nor had LDC shared the results of those searches.

By this point things started to feel a bit suspicious.  One or two mistakes might be the result of human error but the increasing number of errors made me wonder whether something was being covered up.  With my background in IT, I know how easy it is to fake an email and make it look like it was sent on a different date.

Further Checks

So, I asked LDC to check their logs for the message ID on July 28.  In order to rule out the email having been faked after I insisted on receiving a copy, I also asked LDC to search from the date I first asked for a copy through to the date the attachment was sent.

They refused to do so.

Given that a simple search of their mailboxes would have settled the matter either way – and would not have taken a competent IT professional more than a few minutes to carry out – this was both surprising and concerning … and it added weight to my suspicion that something was being covered up.

Freedom of Information Request

Next I submitted a Freedom of Information request for this search to be carried out.  Responses are supposed to come back within 20 working days.  27 working days later and after I had chased them for a response, they did reply with 14 pages of documentation – but this document failed to include the results of the search for the message ID.

So, I have asked LDC to carry out an internal review on why they were late and why they failed to include the information requested.  This could take up to 40 days – or longer if they are late again!

Conclusion

So, did LDC send the email on July 28 or not?  The simple answer is that I do not know.

It is entirely possible that they did send it and that the idea that someone might have faked an email is all in my head.  But if that is true then the following is very surprising:

  • The email address got corrupted.  Yet every other email response discussing this issue since then reached me with no problem, so it seems odd that the one on the day of the consultation went missing.
  • They had no warnings that the email was not delivered to prompt them to try again.  This seems very unlikely.
  • Their IT expert searched for the wrong thing on the wrong day.
  • They refused to search for the message ID on the correct day.
  • They also refused to search the later time period requested.  If there was nothing to hide, why refuse?
  • They failed to include the information asked for in a Freedom of Information request.

Given that on each of the above points they could easily have resolved this matter by either double-checking their work or simply doing what was asked, it makes you wonder why they seemed either unable or unwilling to do so.

The greater the number of failures and coincidences in the chain of events, the less credible it seems that this was all an unlucky series of accidents.

So, the only logical conclusions that I can come up with are that either LDC is home to some rather incompetent staff who have experienced an extraordinarily large number of unlucky technical errors and miscommunications, or that someone in the organisation failed to send a reply and then tried to cover up what they had done.

Whatever the case may be, I have not been given the impression of a Council committed to openness and transparency, and working in the interests of local residents, voters and taxpayers.