RIM-brain at the Movies, Part II

Ah, working from home! A great time to enjoy the creature comforts of our dwellings. But when your workplace is also your leisure space, wires can be crossed and you may develop what I’m calling “RIM-Brain.” A leisure activity like watching movies takes on larger implications as the RIM-Brain takes over. In short, some of the analysts at TSLAC can’t enjoy a movie without seriously mulling the RIM (records and information management) implications of the film. Below are a few recent examples:

Bad Education (2020)

At TSLAC, we often talk about the three pillars of open government in Texas. We consider the Public Information Act, which provides a mechanism for citizens to access government records. We have the Open Meetings Act, which ensures that government bodies conduct business in a transparent way. And finally—this is where TSLAC comes in—we’ve got records management laws that ensure that the records required to be kept by governmental entities are kept for a reasonable amount of time. When it comes to governmental transparency, these three pillars make Texas the envy of the United States. We do it well.

During RIM Month 2020, a film released on HBO demonstrated how when these pillars are cracked or non-existent, malfeasance is the result. The film Bad Education is the dramatized story of a school district—not on Galveston Island, but Long Island in New York State—that embarked in the biggest public school embezzlement scheme in American history. This was accomplished through a whole host of murky tactics: from quorums that refuse to stop “walking”, to governing body agendas that exist in the imaginations of the school board only, to a feckless internal auditor who was prevented from doing his job. My open government brain was fully activated as I gawked at the many transgressions. But there is a hero here, and it’s the third pillar of open government: records management.

So this embezzlement scheme took place in the 2000s. Invoices and other financial paperwork for the district were still held on paper in a centralized file room. RIM-brain activated! In a plot point that I had to double check because it felt too good to be true, an enterprising high school journalist used the accounts payable records to discover that the powers-that-be were regularly billing the district for their personal aggrandizement.

I don’t want to spoil too much because it’s an enjoyable tale of the crimes big and small, but I wanted to meditate for a moment on the power of paper. The incriminating records all existed in paper form. They had not been scanned, indexed and made available on an electronic platform. To access these paper records, all one needed was a physical key provided by an over-confident assistant principal—who likely didn’t think that the student journalist had the investigative grit to comb through several dozen cubic feet of boxes to find the problematic paperwork. Heck, there’s no way the student could have used metadata tags and targeted search terms to divine which of the invoices were legit, and which were self-dealing.

So the RIM-brain goes. Would the assistant principal have been less likely to share a temporary login with the student if the records were all electronic? Probably. When implementing a new system, policies should be updated accordingly. Defining who has access to what and in what capacity—read-only, edit, save, print, etc.—should be part of the policy crafting process. Innovation in RIM over the past several decades has been what economist Joseph Schumpeter called “Creative Destruction.” Old processes (e.g. large central filing rooms with 100s of cubic feet of paper storage) are slowly replaced by new ones (e.g. storage as a service, enterprise document management applications, etc.) As we innovate, it’s often instructive to ruminate on what we have gained and what we’ve lost while keeping a keen eye toward the future. Would the biggest embezzlement scheme in U.S. public school history have been discovered by a student journalist if it had been stored in “the cloud”?

If you feel your open government brain tingling, check out the great website managed by the Office of Attorney General’s Open Government Division. But if your RIM-brain is kicking, feel free to contact your TSLAC analyst—or just leave a comment!

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