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Why we need machines for open government requests

Brenda Dodd
Mar 28, 2019 2:59:00 PM

In 2009, President Obama issued a Memorandum in which he reaffirmed his commitment to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and urged agencies to adopt “new technologies” to administer it. While the President did not go as far as to say that without technology open government is no longer an option, this is increasingly the case, especially for smaller agencies. 

The prohibitive cost of public records requests

The following request is but one example. In 2014, Jason Parsley, executive editor of the South Florida Gay News, submitted a public records request (PRR) with the Broward County Sheriff's Office for every email for a one-year period that contained derogatory terms for lesbians and gay men. 

The sheriff's office replied that the request would cost $399,000 and take four years to fulfill. The email system was not capable of searching all accounts simultaneously by typing in keywords, Parsley was told, and each employee's account would have to be searched individually. A full-time member of staff would have to be hired to do it.   

As anyone who has dealt with discovery in a litigation could tell you, the search capabilities of any good eDiscovery solution would have got some very specific answers in a matter of hours, and for a fraction of the estimated cost of $399,000. The challenge, especially for smaller agencies such as the Broward County Sheriff's Office, is the unpredictability of PRRs, both the nature and number of requests. 

 0074 - Eagle - General Use

People aren’t scalable, machines are 

Whether you get 1 request a month or 100, they all need to be processed according to a strict and legally enforceable timetable, and with the same high standards of accuracy every time. Throwing more man hours at the problem doesn’t make it go away, even if this were affordable or practicable. People aren’t scalable. Ten times as many people, even highly trained and motivated people, does not mean 10 times faster, 10 times smarter, far from it.  

But the rising number of requests, and their increasing complexity, means agency workers do have to work smarter and faster. Without technology, we are in effect expecting people to be scalable, and never have an off-day. 

This is unfair, and won’t work for long. 


A platform for change  

The first and indispensable step towards taking some of the unpredictability out of the process is the platform: an organized, central location where all your data is standardized and all your PRR processes begin and end. A platform gives you control over who accesses your data, how the documents are being reviewed and redacted, and documents the status at every stage of fulfillment. Documenting all actions, and making them traceable, will help you resolve (potential) litigation. 

Law suits should be much less likely with the right technology in place. We know from eDiscovery that litigation specialist software greatly reduces the risk of legal error. And because you are handling requests in a consistent way, your success becomes repeatable and defensible. 

The laws around PRRs are difficult to navigate because the legislation around what should not be disclosed is so open to interpretation. Technology itself has nothing to say about this legal no man’s land but it can prevent errors that are beyond interpretation, such as data breaches and inadvertent disclosure of sensitive information. Broward County Sheriff's Office is by no means the only agency that has to migrate sensitive information from System A to System B; in fact, all agencies that operate a patchwork PRR process expose themselves to unnecessary risk. The more systems, content repositories and connectors you throw at a task, the riskier it becomes. 


Never send a human...

Agent Smith from The Matrix put it memorably: “Never send a human to do a machine’s job.” 

But the humans in IT department do have a is in reassuring other FOIA stakeholders that the right technology is accessible and they don't even need the intervention of IT to use it. If you can do Microsoft Outlook, you can use technology to cut the cost of handling PRRs.  

To find out why technology is so indispensable in handling public records requests, download our white paper, Get it out – Get it Right: why machines are better at handling public record requests 


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