Digital Tools Government Agencies Need to Meet Public Record Demands
Public records requests are an important facet of state and local government administrative operations even if they don’t take up a large portion of an agency’s mindshare on a day-to-day basis. Vital to democracy, public records promote effective and efficient government and preserve the contributions of governments for future generations.
The enormous body of work generated by agencies and organizations can be daunting. Nearly everything an organization does is documented with a public record and creates an enormous body of work to document, file, maintain and share. Success lies in knowing what records exist and in which systems they live.
The Importance of Technology
Public records, created or filed as part of public law or business processes, traditionally come in paper form. Many government agencies have taken the first step toward modernizing public records by moving toward digital copies which can be stored and accessed via online databases. But often, these digital processes are still manual, creating new bottlenecks. Combining spreadsheets with wall calendars and manual marker redactions can create opportunities for errors, missed deadlines, and other problems.
Public records technology is changing. Modern cloud-based solutions, such as GovQA, and on-premise digital solutions (for example, custom databases residing on computers or servers in-house) offer the following benefits:
- Ability to complete your work remotely when necessary (now, and for future crises)
- Increased agility & greater visibility into your process and statuses critical during schedule changes, disruptions and furloughs (such as those caused by COVID-19)
- Better preparation for spikes in request volume to prevent future backlogs
- Cost-effectiveness due to reduced need for IT time and financial resources and cost-savings in physical materials.
- Organizations can do more with less when they choose a scalable platform that solves other challenges beyond public records; allowing consolidation of training, procurement, and more.
- Reduction in risk of errors and missed deadlines (thus avoiding potential litigation and fines)
- Increased data security and reduction in cybersecurity threats
- Enhanced customer experience
Many organizations often find themselves saddled with underfunded mandates or handcuffed by limited funding. Implementing technology, though, can save time and money, while allowing agencies to better serve the public. Here are some ways to get started with the digital evolution of your public records processing systems:
Understanding the Needs That Software Meets
The breadth of the public records process is being met by technology crafted to meet the individual needs of each process. One of the first pieces of software most agencies purchase for public records is a records management database that houses records in a digitized form – whether the record is natively digital (such as an email) or digitally scanned.
Instead of walking to physical filing cabinets or driving to off-site storage to access boxes, digital filing systems allow searches for responsive records in seconds or minutes. It’s important to note that very few agencies have every record in digital form, but it’s good practice to default to digital or scan as many records as possible (implementing plans to scan useful older records as feasible).
Some of the solutions available for agencies and organizations include:
- Creation of Records
- Word and Data Processing Tools: Microsoft Office 365
- Email: Microsoft Outlook
- Social Media: LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter
- Instant Messaging: Slack, Mattermost, Microsoft Team
- Web Pages: Granicus, Civica, CivicPlus, E-GovLink, GovOffice, Muniweb
- Webinar Tools: Granicus, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, GoToMeeting, Zoom
- Operations Software (permits, licenses, code enforcement, work orders): Granicus, Accela, Comcate, iWorq, Cartegraph, IBM, Cityworks, Lucity, Mygov, CityView, OpenGov
- Cameras and Recording Devices: Axon, Motorola
- Hold/File/Store Records
- Databases: Granicus, Microsoft SharePoint, OnBase, Laserfiche, Documentum
- Case Management: Genetec Clearance, Evidence
- E-Discovery Crawlers: Smarsh, Archive Social, Backupify, Pagefreezer
- Secure/Maintain Records
- Security and Email Encryption Tools: Mimecast, Barracuda, Proofpoint
- Single Sign-On Tools: Microsoft Active Directory, Okta
- Payment Porcessors: USA E-pay, Govolution, Kubra, Elavon, PayPal, Authorize.net, Converge
- Document Destruction Services: ProShred Security, Shred-It, Iron Mountain
- Share Records
- Public Meetings: Granicus
- Open Data Portals: Socrata, Power BI, OpenGov, LexisNexis
- Redaction Software: Adobe Acrobat, Granicus
- Automate Management
- Workflow Management: Granicus
While many organizations may rely solely on software such as Microsoft Office Suite to meet all these needs, new dedicated technologies are helping address each stage of the records request process:
- Records Creation or Receipt
- Records Distribution, Maintenance, and Use
- Records Disposition
Records Creation or Receipt
The COVID pandemic changed many of the ways that governments interact with their residents. One area that saw a dramatic change was in public records and the need to acquire specific technology to allow for business continuity in the creation and receipt of records.
- Instant Messaging Platforms
Options such as Microsoft Teams and Slack, became critical during this time and have taken a strong presence in public records offices as these programs allow users to see all the conversations about a single project in one place instead of sifting through email chains. By organizing conversations in instant messaging channels, conversations and files become a searchable archive that becomes more useful with time. They can provide answers and context, allowing better decisions without having to chase down people or information.
- Webinar Tools
Another solution that has become increasingly popular, webinar tools such as Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, and Zoom, gave employees the ability to hold virtual meetings, which could be recorded and easily archived. These tools remain popular, in part, for that reason even as organizations return to in-person work.
Record Distribution, Maintenance, and Use
The largest part of the records lifestyle, distribution, maintenance, and use needs can be met through several options. Moving beyond manual processing and release of paper copies and sharpie marker redactions to a 21st century public records request management solution is an excellent way for agencies to boost relations with the public.
Cloud-based tools make it easier to improve access and insight into the inner workings of your government. They help meet the calls for greater transparency while maintaining the necessary confidentiality of protected data. But the choice of solution can make a big difference: Organizations should consider a solution that they won’t outgrow, one that can handle not just public records but other types of requests including subpoenas, legal holds, claims, complaints, and interagency.
- Take a Systemic Approach
Software solutions that integrate applications, workflows, and notifications into one system increases ease of use for staff and customers, as well as transparency. Such systems also make it easy for staff to search and respond to records requests.
- Implement E-Signature Software
Another impact of the reduction in in-person services during the pandemic has been the rise of e-signature software. As more residents expect a digital experience from government, software such as Adobe Sign or DocuSign are becoming critical. Integrating e-signature solutions also can relieve manually intensive processes for contracts and the cost of courier services.
- Hold/File/Store Records Databases
The days of Excel spreadsheets to track records requests are gone. Today, systems, such as GovQA, provide databases designed with the needs of public records requests in mind. They provide not only the ability to hold entity records but offer powerful e-discovery search. And when integrated with systems for agendas, minutes, or public meetings, (like those offered by Granicus govMeetings) this level of searchability becomes even more potent.
- Redaction Capabilities
Responding to FOIA requests is something that all organizations dealing with public records will face at some point. Having software that can quickly, accurately, and securely apply redactions to records is incredibly important. If this can be done within the tool rather than downloading, redacting, and uploading it makes the process faster and more secure.
Just as with physical records, digital records require safe, secure, and convenient periodic cleaning according to any organization’s defined retention schedule. Keeping systems up to date with necessary documents makes responding to records requests much easier, as records will not be full of unnecessary documentation or include ROT information (Redundant, Outdated, or Trivial).
While companies such as Shred-It and Iron Mountain provide reliable physical record destruction, the increase in digital records and requests leaves many organizations creating piecemeal approaches that could create more hassle than necessary.
This is one area where automated workflows save significant staff hours and, as a result, money. Many software solutions allow rules related to cleanup to be added to their workflows. Users can also schedule periodic drive cleanups manually to make sure that they have the most control over what records are destroyed and what information is retained in case of future records requests.
Cloud Applications vs. On-Prem and Point Solutions
Cloud-based software (such as GovQA’s automated workflow management platform) requires no on-site storage on an agency server and automatically runs updates to make sure that all staff are using the most up-to-date software version.
On-prem solutions, however, must be installed either taking up desktop or server space. And, unlike cloud-based software, on-prem solutions must be manually updated, maintained, and patched when needed.
This puts more pressure on IT staff and resources to make sure that agencies maintain inflexible old systems, which can lead to increased layers of complexity and cost onto legacy technology that may be falling behind in capabilities.
The COVID pandemic exposed many outdated processes when it came to government services, including public records. From telecommuting communication challenges to request backlogs due to inaccessible records, the weaknesses of on-prem solutions could be seen in many agencies.
The Time is Now for Digital Evolution
Public records requests continue to be an important part of state and local government administrative operations. The more modern and efficient an agency’s software technology, the more time that organization can spend on their true mission.
There has never been a better time for agencies to modernize public records processes with a solution that provides flexibility, automates time-consuming processes and offers long-term scalability in managing public records, subpoenas, claims, complaints, and more.