The Federal News Network (FNN) recently wrote that federal agency workforces haven’t been able to keep up with the increasing numbers of Freedom of Information Act requests because not enough employees work in FOIA offices. Alina Semo, the director of the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) is quoted as saying, “This is particularly challenging the federal government, especially lately where there has been a perception that the FOIA is where employees are assigned as a form of punishment.”
FNN wrote that government employees view assignment to FOIA offices as a form of exile. Officials told news outlets that getting sent to work in the FOIA office was like getting sent “to Siberia.” That statement references a separate Reuters article that quote a U.S. official saying, “The FOIA office was always the punch line of a joke around here, as in: ‘They’ll send me to the FOIA office.’”
It’s hardly likely that public records officers in state and local agencies feel much differently.
The public’s right to access information about the inner workings of its government is fundamental to maintaining an informed citizenry. Without it, people remain in the dark, effectively powerless to hold their public officials accountable. Working to secure the underpinnings of a democratic society is a noble cause. Why don’t public employees see it that way?
How did working in a FOIA office and providing timely, thorough public records disclosures earn such a bad reputation?
Perhaps it has less to do with the importance of the role and more with how it is accomplished. Often, the strategies and tools employees use to manage records requests are holdovers from the vanishing age of pen and paper communications and maintaining hard copies of records.
For years agencies still printed emails to preserve paper trails. Then, the use of social media, text, IMs, and other online and digital communications took over. And public officials find it nearly impossible to keep up with the explosion of new types of digital records.
Without a centralized recordkeeping system, electronic records are saved in myriad locations throughout an agency, on hard drives, in file shares, embedded in emails, and so on. Employees conduct repeated manual searches in various locales to try to find records relevant to requests.
Even when they use technology to search for records, it’s usually inadequate. In most agencies, no single tool can access and search the contents of all emails, images, active and archived Microsoft Word and Excel documents, PDFs, Google docs, social media posts, text messages, videos, audio recordings, website articles, and so on.
Instead, employees are stuck trying to deal with each of these record types as best they can — which results in difficult, inefficient manual collection processes.
After an arduous collection process, when they at long last have a set of potentially relevant documents, it contains many duplicate and irrelevant records that must be removed. During the next phase, employees review each and every page, one by one, looking for exempted and private information and redacting it by hand.
Audio and video files are more prevalent than before. More security cameras monitor public spaces. Body cams record police activities. Agency meetings are often recorded. Yet, they’re still no easier to handle. Their contents typically must be reviewed by watching and listening to recordings minute for minute. Then, their format makes them particularly troublesome to redact.
It’s easy to see how all this makes working in the public records disclosure office feel like a prison sentence. Thankfully, government officials recognize that these inefficient, unreliable practices cannot continue. More are integrating technology platforms with their existing IT infrastructure and using them to eliminate repetitive tasks, improve search capabilities, and streamline overall public records disclosure processes.
Technology platforms allow a single employee to do the work of many. That employee may even wind up earning the envy of the entire agency because they’ve escaped the tedious, dull drudgery of past disclosure processes and use the latest tech advancements to easily produce relevant, thorough, and accurate records disclosures.
For a more detailed look at how technology platforms can improve your agency’s performance while saving money, time and effort, read the white paper Building the Business Case for Investing in FOIA Technology. When your agency invests in the right technologies to improve and ease records disclosures, employees are more likely to invest their efforts into the process more willingly.