Building a Lifeline: How Governments Can Avoid Drowning in Records Requests
Public records requests, also known as FOIA requests, are on the rise around the country, and those requests are increasing in complexity. Between 2018 and 2020, the total number of documents provided to requesters from government entities increased by 31%. Changes in Either as the result of more companies or solicitors taking advantage of changes in FOIA guidelines or the Sunshine Laws that many states have enacted to increase resident transparency, agencies are facing more and more requests with which they have to deal.
But more than a shift in laws and policies, the increase in public records requests reflect a change in the way that residents are interacting with their government. The COVID-19 pandemic marked a critical turning point in digital government services. When residents were not permitted to come into government offices, digital solutions not only provided the solution to meeting immediate needs, it blazed the trail for an entirely new way of serving groups.
With online tools at their disposal, many citizens no longer want (or need) to take the time to go to offices to file their public records requests. And with many agencies adjusting procedures during the pandemic, ones that offered increased information online so that users could do their own searching, a new era of self-service in government is here to stay.
But while these changes centered around increased access might suggest a reduction in the number of public records requests, that hasn’t been the case. Many entities are seeing broad-reaching public records requests that can impact up to six different divisions in one request. These types of requests bring with them the need for more coordination and can require complex processes.
Getting An Agency’s Head Above Water
As a result of this uptick in requests, agencies may find themselves drowning in public records requests despite the digital technology increasingly at their disposal. Fortunately, taking a focused approach, and leveraging public-record-specific technology, agencies can not only get the upper hand on the increase in requests, but create a streamlined process that saves time and money for both agencies and residents.
Here are some tips on how to make sure that public records requests don’t get out of hand for agencies:
Make a plan and stick to it.
As with any good strategy, having a gameplan ahead of time is a significant step toward success. Each week, agencies should prioritize the requests that are outstanding based on timelines, adjusting their list at the start of each week. Residents may send numerous requests, often multiple requests for the same information. Refocusing each week on the priority requests helps refocus and organize these duplicate requests. The most important factor in success for a prioritization plan, though, is sticking to the list. If all requests are filled earlier in the week, dive back into new requests. Adding new requests throughout the week will only raise the water level back over the agency’s head. By sticking consistently to a focused weekly approach, agencies can manage requests much more easily.
Consider changes to aid in workload and demand.
If organized planning is still not making an impact on the flood of public records requests, look to see if there are changes that can be made within the organization either to workflows or policies that can have an impact on the alleviating some of the request load. Often agencies get caught up in the daily struggle of managing requests that they may not consider whether there are logical (or legal) ways to work with the City Attorney or Administrator to, for example, adjust due dates for requests to give a few extra days for processing. Request extension provisions may also provide a way to manage demanding request loads, as well.
Centralize Request Management and Automate Processes with Public Record Software
Internal improvements can also help get a handle on a heavy request workload. Public record management software, such as GovQA, helps manage requests thanks to a cloud-based SaaS (software as a service) technology which utilizes an easy-to-use public portal/online web-based tool for the records request intake and response delivery — paired with a powerful admin portal/online web-based tool for records managers to vet, track, collaborate, and respond to public records requests. With built-in, automated records due date calculation and tracking, notifications, dashboards, full audit trail, and reporting tools, this type of FOIA solution can centralize, standardize and simplify records management. Public Records Management software is designed to reduce request volume and workload, speed up work processing to reduce turn-around times, and provide a level of control, accountability, and risk mitigation that will deliver peace of mind to everyone involved.
Public records management software also provides the ability to automate steps in the request process, reducing repetitive work, limiting opportunity for error, and encouraging users to collaborate. In-Tool Redaction™, a feature of GovQA, also allows the redaction process to happen within the same system, instead of requiring a separate program). By keeping data inside one digital public records management tool, agencies increase security and reduce the steps needed to create to successful redactions. Common tasks that can lead to timely delays, such as performing allowed exemptions with text search, pattern matching, “redact similar,” exemption tracking, and responsive records packeting, can be automated and safeguarded for accuracy in one software solution.
Maintain consistent policies and procedures for managing and coordinating records requests.
While having a solid gameplan and a centralized tool for processes can set the course for swimming through a flood of public records requests, these will only succeed if staff is dedicated and focused on these policies and procedures. At the minimum, agencies must have a clear process defined for staff. In some cases, including or adding records duties within various job descriptions may help clarify to employees the importance of these procedures in their daily job responsibilities.
Requests have become so numerous that employers really do have to allow and supply staff time and opportunities to address and complete this on time. Some factors to consider when creating request management and coordination procedures include:
Tiered request processing
Staff teams can save time and problems by organizing requests and making assignments during the first review. Factors to consider include whether the request is in the proper authority or jurisdiction, whether multiple departments will need to be included, or what type of review (legal, administrative, or other) the request will need. Assigning a responder to write responses, gets final approvals and oversee any appeals is also a part of this step.
Fortunately, public records management helps automate and track this kind of processing. The Exchange Requests feature in GovQA even helps make it easy to delegate work and collaborate with infrequent (one-off) users, inexperienced users, untrained users, users in other government agencies external to the request origination point, or those in non-government entities, such as attorneys.
Reduce the risk of multiple employees working on the same request.
For some agencies, inconsistent or unclear workflows and polices can lead to frequent requesters sending the exact same request to multiple employees. By making sure that employees know the central point for making requests, either by email to a records coordinator or through a centralized internal digital hub in a public records management system such as GovQA, coordination becomes centralized and easier to manage.
Establish proper deflection.
As many those handling public records request know, a great deal of time can be wasted responding to records requests that are sent to the wrong jurisdiction or agency. And while these requests are easy to respond to, the amount of time it takes to do so can add up during a given week.
The In-Line Deflection tool in GovQA helps requesters avoid these mistakes before requests even reach staff. Requesters see potential answers to their questions in real time, as they are typing. The system detects keywords being entered, scans existing released data, and shows the previously released data right next to the input field on the form (not just a link to the information). That way, if someone is requesting a birth certificate, the system can recognize the phrase and provide an instant response notifying the requester of the need to make this request to a different jurisdiction.
Planning and Tools: The Lifelines for Agencies Drowning in Records Requests
The increase in the number and complexity of public records requests is not a trend that will pass any time soon. Those organizations that hope to avoid drowning in those requests must identify pain points and render creative solutions, such as the ones suggested above, to keep the public informed.
For those agencies looking to justify the need for improvements or software solution implementation, the importance of timely response, transparency, and accuracy are critical aspects of maintaining a positive relationship with the public. Leaders should understand that the shifts in public records request management that tools such as GovQA bring will help agencies be able to fulfill records requests in a way that leads to happy clients, zero litigation, and being known as a transparent entity.
Find out how public records management software can help your agency deal with the flood of public records requests.