Are Email & Spreadsheets Leaving Agency Records Requests Exposed?


Government agencies face a constant battle against the clock when it comes to receiving public records requests and getting responses out in a timely manner. For many state and local governments, that battle is being waged by teams as small as five staff members, or even a single staff member dedicated to Freedom of Information (FOIA) requests.

With requests coming from the public, media, attorneys, and even other agencies, these teams find themselves doing the best they can to manage the FOIA process, often with the only tools they have at their disposal: email and spreadsheets.

But in a world where technology is allowing government at all levels to automate processes and improve efficiency, relying on outdated tools to handle important public records requests not only places additional burden on staff, it creates greater chances of errors, poor tracking, and the increased chance of violations. 

Dedicated Software Provides a Safer Solution

Using spreadsheets to track requests might seem acceptable in smaller teams, but it can become burdensome for staff. And with the legal implications of nearly all public records requests, email is a dangerous option and should never be used to store or track records.

Dedicated FOIA management software assists an entity in overall tracking and fulfillment of records requests, monitors deadlines and time commitments, and reduces liability or errors. In addition, this software can issue invoices and receive payments, as well as provide overall dashboard data and ROI analytics surrounding the FOIA process.

Here are five reasons why moving to FOIA management software, such as GovQA, is a vital evolution from email and spreadsheet stop-gap solutions:

  •  Speed and Efficiency

Receiving, tracking, and updating the status of public records requests, when done manually, can seem like an avalanche of information. One staff member may find most of their day spent wasted on sorting, filtering, and foldering requests and collaborative documents in their email. It might take just as long tracking down important information. And without policies to standardize consistent organization of requests, one staff member’s approach may be different than the next.

The numerous clicks, file shares, calls, and meetings to stay updated on the status of each request alone can eat significantly into any team’s workday. Having a tool that automates these time-consuming steps not only helps give back staff hours, it makes for a consistent organization system that the entire team can rely on when searching for information.

Government entities need software to track requests by multiple filters, including request date, requester, information requested, and date provided. On top of that, many states have strict timelines for fulfilling records requests.

In Utah, for example, a public records request has to be completed within 10 days, with a provision in the state law reducing that to five days for media requests, if possible. Staff must provide a written request to extend that date, notify of the number of days the request will take, or deny the request within those first 10 days.

That means that each of those steps must be tracked with dates and times to prove notification. Email and spreadsheet approaches require staff to accurately track and maintain record of these contacts. However, FOIA software, such as GovQA, automatically tracks every action associated with a request, insuring against liability issues.

Automating the process better routes workflows and can also automatically send reminders to appropriate records staff. If, for whatever reason, staff ignores or misses these reminders, software can track when and to whom reminders were sent to again protect against any liability issues.

FOIA software reduces the stress of tracking requests and gives back vital time to records supervisors while ensuring that important procedures are still being followed. These same processes can also save staff time spent on responding to phone calls or in-person status checks from the public. FOIA software can automatically provide public notice and access to information without involving staff, something that both saves time and increases public transparency.

  • Workload Volume Reduction

Tracking public records requests by spreadsheet requires staff to enter each single request and track all steps manually. For entities that receive thousands of requests, this approach is not only unmanageable, it can lead to crucial errors.

Automated workflows in FOIA software takes the burden of managing each record off staff and eases the entire request process across all departments.

Some common automations that FOIA software workflow commands offer users without requiring any intervention from staff include:

  • Sending invoices
  • Accepting payments and release documentation
  • Updating and/or closing requests

Software can also easily allow for staff members to reassign requests without the fear of information being lost in the transition. This can help Community Development departments, for example, where request for landscape site plan information may end up with the person in charge of building plan requests. Being able to automatically reassign the request to the correct individual without any records supervisor involvement reduces workload significantly.

With a spreadsheet, even internal users might be unsure which coworker would oversee a particular records request. Software takes the guess work out of the equation and reduces room for error. 

  • Real-Time Insights and Collaboration

While shared spreadsheets and group emails may offer collaboration on requests, both of these approaches create increased chances for errors to be introduced or information to accidentally be deleted. FOIA software allows for that same level of collaboration in a way that balances access and data protection.

Beyond that, a FOIA system can instantly provide insights that would otherwise take valuable staff time to compile from a variety of spreadsheets. With FOIA software, internal staff can instantly research the types of requests made and view responses. This can help agencies maintain consistent responses to similar requests in a way that saves staff time, reduces agency liability, and improves public transparency.

A FOIA software system also provides instant insights into such metrics as:

  • Number and type of requests being requested
  • Amount of employee time spent on fulfilling requests
  • Internal costs and other analytics

In a time of increased governmental scrutiny, being able to provide a dashboard of important measurements related to public records requests is an important tool for any agency. FOIA software can instantly create data reports to build dashboards for public information. 

  • Securing Data and Loss Prevention

For government agencies at any level, data security is critical. Whether it be the Department of Defense or local police and fire departments, any request-management solution must maintain a secure presence while making certain that protected, private, and confidential information is redacted from public view.

Email and spreadsheet solutions create a variety of problems in this area that FOIA software alleviates:

Email: Out of the box, email solutions are not encrypted. Add-on services that provide protection are costly. But even with those in place, many email solutions are not HIPAA or CJIS compliant when it comes to personal information.

FOIA Software: Provides a much stronger security option. GovQA, for example, employs AES 256-bit encryption using a FIPS 140-2 compliant algorithm.  And, as part of Granicus, GovQA includes 24/7 threat monitoring and comprehensive third-party auditing that protects client/agency data from leaks, breaches, and loss.

Spreadsheet Solutions: Require manual interaction and can easily be overwritten, have information deleted, or change the structure in a way that breaks associations and formulas. And while many agencies address these concerns by versioning or locking data, these steps create their own problems for workflows.

FOIA Software: Data is continuously and securely backed up to the cloud with a full audit trail. Disaster recovery and data loss prevention plans are fully documented, validated, and annually (or more frequently) tested. Alerts, backups, training, support, and issue escalation procedures are in place to prevent prolonged downtime and data loss.

  • Improved Accountability

Now more than ever, providing greater public transparency and accountability is important for government agencies at all levels. Public records requests, by their nature, are one of the ways that the public looks to government to be both transparent and accountable.

Providing information related to requests addresses this need. But for those tracking their request processes through email and spreadsheet solutions, the level of detail, timeliness, or even providing any information on requests, can be totally dependent on a staff member’s ability to find the time to update information.

Here, again, automated workflows in FOIA software such as GovQA gives back staff time and, in this case, helps with providing public accountability. Agencies can create public directories of requests and related information, such as when requests were filed and by whom, automatically through FOIA software.

As with other automated services in digital government, giving residents the ability to search information on their own and take action based on that information not only saves time-consuming calls to staff – or, in this case, processing requests that are similar to other requests already being processed – it empowers the public and helps change their perception of government from adversarial to cooperative.

Even including information such as FAQs, linked to various relevant systems, or automated EDiscovery solutions to connect directly with response documentation can save the public and staff significant amounts of time and headaches.

Removing The Pitfalls of Email and Spreadsheet Solutions

From conveniences to improved security and protection to reduced liability, it’s clear that spreadsheet and email solutions are no longer acceptable ways for agencies to effectively and safely manage FOIA requests.

Spreadsheets can only work for agencies with low request numbers. And, even then, the manual steps required to send reminders of important dates and deadlines or produce audit logs (just to name two) generate opportunities for errors that create liability issues.

Meanwhile, despite its conversational nature, more and more people are using email as a fallback record storage and tracking solution. It’s a platform that was never meant to stand up to the security, data protection, and archiving needs that public records requests demand. Depending on retention for a particular entity, email records can be deleted periodically or accidentally. And if an individual leaves unexpectedly, depending on IT termination procedures, their entire email inbox — and the records stored within — could be deleted. Email should never be utilized for records storage or tracking purposes.

Dedicated FOIA software provides efficiency, protection, and increased transparency for both internal and public audiences. A platform that automates processes, maintains strong recordkeeping, and puts security front and center should be the choice of any agency that works with public information requests.

Find out how FOIA software, such as GovQA, can impact your agency’s request process.

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