14 Catalysts for Maturing Public Records Request Processes
Government entities typically field hundreds (if not thousands) of public records requests each year. Fulfilling those requests can cost public agencies hundreds of thousands of dollars, in addition to substantial time and frustration.
Approaching public records requests with technology can help streamline the process and ease this burden. Anyone who deals with public records requests can use information on best practices to help reduce public records response times and stay compliant.
In most states, public records are presumed to be open to inspection and copying. Exceptions to this rule — defined as specific exemptions — also exist in most states; and records retention periods define when records are past their usefulness and should be destroyed. Note that some states exempt certain branches of the government; others include all branches: legislative (laws and regulation), judicial (courts), and executive (governor’s office). Public records law does not require agencies to provide records if no responsive records exist — plus there are specific exemptions for each agency. New records do not need to be created in order to fulfill requests; and requests can be refused if your agency doesn’t currently compile data in the format being requested.
WHAT IS A PUBLIC RECORD?
Any material on which written, drawn, printed, spoken, visual, or electromagnetic information or electronically generated or stored data is recorded or preserved, regardless of physical form or characteristics, which has been created or is being kept by an authority. Must be created or kept in connection with the official purpose or function of the agency. Content determines whether a document is a “record,” not a medium, format, or location. Includes:
- Handwritten, typed, printed documents
- Maps, blueprints, and charts
- Photographs, videos, and audio recordings
- Tapes, optical disks, and any other medium on which stored data is recorded or preserved
- Electronic records and communications including emails, word processing documents, database files, web-based information, PowerPoint presentations, webinars, and social media content
- Government contractors’ records
- Exclusions are usually very specific and can include drafts, notes, or preliminary documents for originator’s personal use
Building a Fulfillment Process Baseline for Growth
One area where organizations can catalyze their public records request processes starts with getting a better hold of their processes. By taking a more active and organized approach to building a baseline for fulfillment to follow, the entire process will benefit.
Tip #1: Know which records are held, where they are held, and in what format they are stored.
To help with responses, departments or organizations have a records expert or a staff member knowledgeable about the records that area creates, keeps, and distributes. Requests can cause searching through millions of records in a tight timeframe and in many cases, the data lives in various platforms and formats, across multiple departments. Making a “data map” allows staff to quickly know what records exist, where they’re locatied, and in which format. If a staff member doesn’t personally have access to the systems or office areas, they will at least know which area to search or which staff member to contact and can quickly pursue gaining access to those records to fulfill records requests on time.
Tip #2: File and inventory public records to allow for easy access over time.
Understanding the lifecycle of a public record within an entity helps make it easier to respond to requests. The structure of an organization’s records files should capture their form, content and relationship to other records, and new records should be captured and stored in digital form for the best accountability and security. By understanding the concept of records classification and how it applies to the organization can also make it easier to determine if records are public or require legal review prior to response on any related requests. Thanks to software, such as GovQA, enterprise search can be completed quickly and accurately.
Tip #3: Implement and adhere to agency retention and disposition schedules.
By ensuring that an organization’s retention schedule is well supported and kept up to date, information will be less likely to be held longer than its useful or legally required. Undertake periodic file-share and email cleanups to reduce the amount of redundant, outdated, or trivial (ROT) information being stored on servers. Cutting back on this type of information makes it that much easier for organizations to find the records they need when responding to requests.
Tip #4: Develop a Records Management Disaster Recovery Plan
Organizations should have plans and backups of records needed to resume critical operations in case of a disaster. This starts with setting up security procedures and assigning responsibilities for when any disaster may occur. Then, it’s important to implement standards for storage of electronic records. Digital content is fragile, susceptible to damage or loss, and can easily be corrupted, misplaced, or tampered with. Even worse, records could be stored in formats that cannot be read or used down the road. Make sure your organization takes all these factors into account.
Taking Public Records Request Fulfillment to the Next Level
With a streamlined and organized process in place, organizations can take fulfillment to the next level by integrating some of these catalysts that will drive consistency, accuracy, and timely responses.
Tip #5: Establish a known and understood centralized area for submittal and response to records requests.
Whether or not a fully-formed employee procedure is created, it’s important for organizations to have, at the very least, a process in place to submit records requests and internal knowledge as to what to do after a request is made. Software allows this to be easily handled through automated workflows that can receive and route records requests based on the type of request. Without automated workflows, organizations can use specific email addresses set up for receipt or sending of all records requests. When using this approach, make sure that several members of the records team are notified of submissions to this address. This helps with timely notification response as well as providing backup.
From there, having a clear pathway of responsibility is important. There should be a designated records manager in the agency who has overall responsibility for managing and keeping records.
Tip #6: Use a tiered approach to fulfill records requests.
Multiple employees can each play a key role in fulfilling the requests. While one individual might perform the initial review and route requests accordingly, another team member can be responsible for research and compilation of response. Team members can also be assigned specific responsibilities around legal issues, redactions, and public release.
Tip # 7: Communicate and be clear about responsibility and “reasonable request specificity.”
By requiring “reasonable specificity” from requesters about the subject matter of the request and length of time involved in the process, organization staff save time and resources that might otherwise be spent deciphering and responding to a request. Communication makes all the difference in these cases. Speaking with a requester by phone to discuss their needs can help address issues and narrow the focus of what the requester is actually seeking.
Tip #8: Adhere to legal timelines.
It is critical that organizations know and adhere to the mandatory timing requirements applicable to the requests they may be asked to provide. All staff should familiarize themselves with mandatory timing requirements and comply or deny requests within these limits. Software, such as GovQA, can help track response times on multiple simultaneous requests being processed. Failure to respond on time or with adequate information can result in appeals or even costly litigation.
Tip #9: Leverage Redaction Capabilities in Software
While working closely with the legal team in an organization can help identify which elements of public records must be redacted before release, digital tools, such as those in GovQA, can quickly and easily identify and redact portions of public records that are exempt from disclosure. This reduces the chance for human error, with automatic creation of exemption logs providing defensible audit trails.
Tip #10: Utilize fees to recoup costs.
If the state or jurisdiction allows an organization to charge fees for inspecting and copying records, do so. This allows the agency to recoup some costs associated with fulfilling public records requests. Generally, most agencies do not charge for in-person inspection. Small fees can cover the material costs of photocopying (often $0.10 per black/ white page and $0.25 for color) or burning records to media such as DVDs or thumb drives. Provide an estimate for these fees before performing the work. Upon acceptance of the estimate by the requester, make sure to collect partial or full payment of fees prior to incurring the expenses. Require advance (or at least partial) payment for large requests or from requesters that were known not to pick up and pay for their records in the past.
Developing Stronger Training and Technology
Technology can be the ultimate catalyst for any organization. For public records requests, especially, the tools at an organization’s disposal can make processes easier while saving staff time, resources, and budget. Empowering staff with training and technology is a key component for future success. Here are some ways to leverage staff and technology in the most effective ways:
Tip #11: Supply agency training on organization policies and procedures.
As mentioned earlier, having a process or standardized procedure can make for effective public record request processing. Training staff on all parts of the process (receipt, intake, vetting, gathering documents, reviewing/redacting, releasing, and reporting) will help prevent unforeseen errors from staff who might not otherwise be responsible for a specific step in the process.
Tip #12: Work with state government archives.
In some states, every records officer of a governmental entity or political subdivision must successfully complete annual online training and obtain certification from the state archives. By requiring all departmental records liaisons to take a state training course, along with other agency records training courses offered, staff will be more aware of the resources at their disposal for researching records.
Tip #13: FOIA software aids in the overall records request process.
Digital tools are becoming integral to the public records request process. Organizations should investigate and vet software products available to aid them in the records response process. Without an internal tool to receive, track, workflow, review, redact, and respond, local government agencies will find themselves overworked and missing critical deadlines. It’s a cost where the return on investment more than pays for the implementation.
Tip #14: Combine policies and records management practices with solid information governance.
There is no “one size fits all” process that offers a turnkey solution to effective, timely, and legal public records requests. The reality is that any of these tips can (and should) be tailored to an organization’s needs and individual processes and procedures. Here again, digital tools provide the flexibility to adjust specifically to the unique aspects of an organization.
Public record requests will continue to increase in number as more and more of the public look to engage with government organizations and find information. These tips can help an organization lay the groundwork for managing the wave of requests that they are currently (or might soon be) facing.
Find out how digital tools can help put these tips and internal plans into action for organizations.