22 July 2009

RIM Underpins Society

Last Thursday at Paddington Station, I had tea with Andrew Griffin, UK Director of the International Records Management Trust (www.irmt.org). Andrew had recently returned from Sierra Leone, the West African democracy only two years removed from a devastating civil war. Sierra Leone ranks dead last in the United Nations 2008 Human Development Index.

In Sierra Leone, Andrew is a ghostbuster. He advises the emerging government’s anti-corruption task force to rid the national payroll of phantom workers: deceased, retired, or fictional people drawing real salaries. Good records management discourages this kind of fraud.

The new government, led by President Ernest Bai Koroma, is in a race against time. It needs to build effective, functional bureaus that win the confidence of the citizens before drug cartels and factional forces exploit any state failures.

The state of records management in Sierra Leone is abysmal. You may be amazed to see the graphic evidence on a video at the Trust’s Website http://irmt.org/video_ghostBusting.html (You may be disturbed by the images of record mismanagement, but I predict that you will enjoy the reggae-inspired soundtrack.)

When I see the situation in Sierra Leone, I realize how absolutely foundational RIM is to society. Americans, for example, take for granted that their birth certificates, college transcripts, Social Security benefits, credit histories, and stock portfolios are safe, accurate, and accessible. But what if they weren’t?
  • What if I couldn’t prove that I was born in the USA and, hence, had a right to citizenship?
  • What if I couldn’t produce my academic credentials on demand
  • What if I retired from work but the Social Security Administration had no record of my earnings?
  • What if I sought a loan but my credit history had vanished?
  • What if my stock certificates – all held by my broker – disappeared?

These things do happen, but it is the aberration, not the norm, and there is often redress in court available in developed nations. Fraud and negligence are punishable offenses. And victims of bad records management often have backup systems or fallback positions to cushion losses.

In contrast, Sierra Leone’s annual per capita income is $530 US according to the World Bank and as low as $150 US by other estimates. Most families live on the edge of economic ruin, Griffin told me, and any interruption of income can be disastrous. Good records management stabilizes payrolls, starting with government workers. By reducing fraud, it ensures money is available for legitimate civil servants. The widespread poverty creates a strong incentive for fraud, so efforts to combat deceit must be similarly aggressive.

The IRMT, working with the government’s ghostbusting task force, already has saved over a half billion Leones (about $154,000 US) each month since February. The project identified over 600 ghost workers and retired employees still drawing salaries. Now the government can afford to pay 600 real people working for the common good.

Griffin reports that, although these are great achievements, the key has been “getting the records straight” and ensuring that there are up-to-date personnel records to maintain a clean payroll in future. “With reliable records and record keeping systems, and reliable data against which to audit the payroll, irregularities and fraud should be a thing of the past,” he notes.

Sierra Leone is just one example of the Trust’s vital work. Trust consultants have contributed their insights to 33 developing democracies in Africa, Asia, Central America, and the Caribbean islands. Several projects are reported, with accompanying videos, at the Trust’s Website. This is important work, contributing to freedom, peace, well-being and democracy around the world.

The IRMT addresses RIM needs in developing democracies in several ways. The trust’s work in education is, potentially, even more significant than its project work. But that is a subject for a subsequent posting. Stay tuned.

I invite you to share your comments and experiences.

-- Gordy Hoke

05 July 2009

Daily Value

For those of us trying to whip a Records & Information Management program into shape every day, we may view records as objects, challenges, obstacles, risks, clutter, detriti or worse. It’s hard to stay objective about records’ real importance and value.

But sooner or later, reality or exigency enters our lives, and we re-connect with the real value of the “stuff” we manage daily. (I wonder if jewelers lose their appreciation for the beauty and clarity of their stones? Do art dealers start thinking of a masterpiece as “that canvas in the antique frame”?)

I travel outside the USA irregularly enough that, when an international trip approaches, I always have to pause to muse, “Where’s my passport? Is it up to date?” This isn’t usually a critical issue. However, when my college-age daughter was bussing around Scotland on her own, with no determined touch-points, I wanted to be able fly there immediately on Fatherly Airlines should trouble beset her. She returned, hale and hearty, but if she had needed me, I didn’t want to have to search for my passport.

Birth certificates, property deeds, proofs of insurance, receipts, certificates of deposit: these are all records with real personal impact for most of us. Professionally, the records we manage may be as insignificant as the number of ants in an anthill, but frequently the records are vital to somebody – some faceless anybody who depends on the effectiveness of our programs for health or fairness or justice.

In recent months I have had conversations with fine records people at Medtronic, St. Jude Medical, and Boston Scientific, three firms that make implantable medical devices. People’s lives depend on the consistent effectiveness of those companies’ products. Imagine the calamity when, say, a cardiac pacemaker is recalled because a weakness has come to light. Are the records of the recipients of the particular model in question 100 percent accurate? Are they 100 percent retrievable in a readable format? They better be because lives are at stake.

Clearly RIM controls, with regular audits, help us bring our programs’ error rates down close to zero. But there is a human factor here too. As leaders, we can not afford to get jaded about the value of what we do. We can impress upon our staffers that our work is vital, whether a record series is or is not.

But there is always that complacency issue, the boredom, the routine, that is our enemy. That risk is always with us. Our challenge is to continually strive, to battle to find ways to stay fresh, to recognize that each record is important to someone.

And when I figure that one out, I’ll turn my attention to the quest to make love last over decades.

-- Gordy Hoke