There’s been a concerted effort in recent years to improve the processes federal government agencies use to respond to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) records requests. Government agencies such as the National Archives & Records Administration (NARA) and the Department of Justice have researched the use of advanced technologies to alleviate the challenges involved with collecting, searching, reviewing and producing responsive information. They’ve also recommended ways agencies can improve records management processes, which ultimately increase their ability to respond more effectively to FOIA requests.
The white paper the Quest for a Transparent Government: 50 years of FOIA and Public Records Acts, was written with this same goal in mind: helping agencies consistently respond more quickly, thoroughly, and accurately to Freedom of Information requests.
In a review of FOIA’s evolution, the white paper discusses challenges introduced and compounded over the years that now require the use of technological tools to overcome. We know that agencies need more advanced technologies to help them respond to FOIA requests because the government’s own research came to the same conclusion.
The Office of Information Policy got together with the Department of Justice to conduct a digital-FOIA pilot program in 2013. The program evaluated the use of digital tools as compared to conventional methods to process FOIA requests.
The “digital approach” used automated and electronic procedures to process all aspects of a request, including search, collection, de-duplication, and initial review. “Conventional” methods meant employees conducted manual searches and sorted through records by hand.
The Department of Justice said it was most impressed with the speed and accuracy with which the digital approach collected, searched, and de-duplicated records. Results showed:
The numbers speak for themselves. These results clearly demonstrate technology’s superior ability to speed up FOIA response processes.
Their findings echo those of NARA, which was tasked with producing a comprehensive plan for the automated management of email, social media, and other types of digital records, including advanced search techniques.
NARA found that the greatest recordkeeping burden for employees is appropriately capturing and categorizing records. (Capturing refers to bringing a record under control, whether onsite or in the cloud.) NARA said:
NARA looked at the ability of automation and machine learning to categorize emails and records. This approach, NARA said, “has the potential to categorize records from unstructured business processes, including email, with a high degree of sophistication.”
This level of sophistication is difficult to achieve with other processes, NARA said. The ability to locate and categorize emails and records based on their content rather than sender name or job role is key to performing more optimized searches. NARA pointed out that effectively using automation to categorize records produces three positive effects:
The government’s own research shows that the use of digital tools significantly speeds up document review times and helps agency employees effectively and more consistently manage growing amounts of electronic files. For more information on how these fantastic advancements support agency personnel while improving FOIA processes, read the white paper.