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FOIA: A year in review

Brenda Dodd
Dec 9, 2019 7:00:00 AM

At the beginning of 2019, I set out to gain meaningful insight into FOIA and how municipalities, agencies and universities are tackling the open records request process. I have met hundreds of people across the nation, mayors, city clerks, FOIA officers, IT folk and attorneys. I had countless discussions with clients and potential clients and conducts hours of workshops. My end goal…how can we better support our customers.

First and foremost, it is clear that Americans want to know more about their government than ever before!  2018 was the third consecutive year-over-year increase in the number of FOIA requests received by the Federal government. There is no doubt that 2019 will be the fourth. City, state and local requests are also on the rise.

"Records requests have more than tripled"

Most of our clients have reported their records requests have more than tripled. Unfortunately, along with the number of requests, we are seeing an increase in the number of lawsuits being filed as well as.  Currently, there have been over 880 FOIA related lawsuits filed at the Federal level in 2019.  Check them out at The FOIA Project. One client recently stated that it seems the more transparent they tried to be the more requests they receive. 

I’ve learned that those responsible the day-to-day administration of public records work hard, very hard. Probably much harder than their citizens know and appreciate. Probably much harder than their municipality or agency executives know and appreciate. They are expected to be thorough and efficient.

"Overwhelmed and under-appreciated"

But with a continuous influx of request, looming deadlines, and the threat of legal action right around the corner, many of them are left feeling overwhelmed and under-appreciated. These public records officers understand the importance of their role and they want to do a good job in performing their duties. Unfortunately, due to insufficient resources in staffing and technology, they are struggling to keep their head above water most of the time. 

While I always knew this to be true, throughout the year, it become overwhelming more apparent that public records officers are in dire need of automated solutions. Solutions that not only track requests, but also can collect, analyze, and automatically redact responsive data. Even those who are staying buoyant, the rapid growth in complex requests have municipalities and agencies nation-wide concerned about their ability to keep pace.

"Lacking the right tools"

The widespread use of electronic communication, from email to social media, to voice recordings and body-cams, and the demand from citizens to access them are creating new challenges. Gone are the days of going to the filing cabinet for paper documents and doing manual redactions with your black permanent markers.

A repeated concern voiced by most, if not all, was the fact that they just do not have the right tools to effectively respond to requests, especially these complex requests. Simply accessing the many varied file types is a logistics and technological nightmare. And without the right tools to make the process efficient, collecting records and conducting searches for relevant information within them is cumbersome and time consuming. 

"Concerns about reputation"

Organizations are concerned now more than ever about reputational risks their agency could face due to incomplete disclosures. They know that responsive data is out there, and they know they are obligated to provide it, but their antiquated process for custodian self-collection and manual review and redaction had them very concerned that they would miss something. 

Survey

Lastly, I’ve learned that there is still so much more to learn.  And that’s where you come in.

I am conducting a short survey to help me better understand the difficulties in responding to public disclosure requests.

We will combine the results of this survey, along with detailed interviews of public records officers into an in-depth report on how governmental agencies handle their open records requests and the role of technology in that process.

The report will provide valuable insights and best practices from your peers and will be freely available for all participants. We will publish this report during Sunshine Week 2020.

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