The role of IT in fulfilling Public Records Requests (PRRs) is as difficult as it is unenviable. IT is not in charge of the process, but arguably carries out the brunt of the work. We all know that this workload is increasing, and getting trickier to do effectively – that is to say, according to strict deadlines and without breaching public records acts that are or seem to be inconsistently applied.
IT and Legal have different mindsets, different cultures. It is not enough to be well-meaning – only process and the technology that creates and harnesses such a process will bind IT and Legal together.
This collaborative gap has always existed but is in danger of widening. Big Data not only means an explosion of data, but also a rapid, almost bewildering, creation of new data types and sources. This is a huge headache for agencies (and law enforcement in general). Social media, audio, video, cloud-based data and data on personal devices have created a fragmented information landscape in a context where a lot of agencies still rely on Gmail and Microsoft searches to respond to PRRs.
IT should not have to put up with this; outdated technology exposes agencies to legal risk. The good news is that legal requirements often have technological solutions. For instance, agencies are required to document information that is not disclosed, and on what statutory grounds it was exempted, and how disclosure would not be in the public interest. This demand was onerous enough when most of the data consisted of emails and other simple electronic documents – but new digital formats are posing very serious legal challenges that can only be resolved through technology.
Legal needs IT, and IT needs to leverage this to get the tools it needs to contain the risk of litigation.
Another source of error is data dispersion. The Data Revolution stole upon us unawares and most organizations – public bodies in particular – have their records stored in disparate legacy systems that are laborious to access. Some state or local agencies may still have a lot of paper data, or data in formats that are no longer supported, requiring experts to retrieve and search. This fragmentation of the data landscape is a huge hidden cost, and the Achilles heel of the PRR process because the collection and distribution of data from System A and System B to System C exposes agencies to the risk of sensitive data breaches – the very thing that federal and state governments have legislated to avoid!
But many agencies stagger on with outdated technology; at the local level, there is sometimes no technology in place at all, not only for the collection and review of responsive records, but also to control and manage the intake of PRRs and the workflow of handling them.
Such ad hoc management is time-consuming and unnerving for staff who routinely fall behind on handling their requests because they waste a lot of time and effort on simple, repeatable tasks. Even the most dedicated members of staff will get demoralized by this.
It doesn’t have to be this way! If you want to know how IT can make a key contribution to cutting the cost of handling RPPs, download our white paper, The Hidden Cost of Public Records Requests.