The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) codifies government transparency and ensures citizens access to public records of interest. Despite these admirable intentions, often the volume and speed of public records request fulfillment results in frustrated citizens and overwhelmed government employees.
Activists, academics, reporters, and citizens share countless stories regarding delays and even denials of their requests for public records.
People wonder how, in an age of ever-growing data, agencies that deal with public records can still struggle to respond in a timely fashion. Unfortunately, government agencies still rely on outdated public records solutions.
Public Records in the Digital Age
The 24/7 television news cycle, the boom of social media, and a plethora of online news outlets are considerably increasing the public’s interest in government affairs. In 2018 alone, members of the press and citizens submitted 863,729 public records requests to federal agencies. The number of requests is growing every year.
Image Source: Summary of Annual FOIA Reports for Fiscal Year 2018
The increasing number of public records requests is a good sign that people have a keen interest in our democracy. That’s why FOIA exists.
But let’s see how many of these requests were answered on time by receiving agencies.
Image Source: Summary of Annual FOIA Reports for Fiscal Year 2018
As you can see from the chart above, out of 863,729 public records requests submitted, 830,060 got a response to their request. Even though the percentage of the processed requests is high, 93.8% released in full or in part, we’re still looking at 33,000 newly backlogged requests in 2018 alone.
Additionally, at the end of FY 2018 the total number of backlogged requests was 130,718, which is a 17.4% increase over FY 2017. Numbers speak for themselves: FOIA agencies struggle to keep up, and they’re losing the battle with the backlogged requests.
Increasing demands of transparency in the digital age combined with an ineffective review, search, and redaction process are constantly increasing the number of backlogged requests.
More Data = More Complexity
Every day, employees and agency officials generate massive amounts of new data. Our communications-heavy society is generating 18.1 million text messages and 188 million emails every minute.
Government officials and employees are no exception, creating internal and external crisscrossing trails of electronic communications. In addition to emails, PDF files, and Word documents, critical information is available from many different sources such as the Internet of Things (IoT), body cams, social media, audio and video recordings, smartphones, photos, and other devices.
Without an advanced technology to meet these digital age challenges, agencies are simply not able to manage and access the data necessary to complete adequate public records searches.
Agencies that use a modern public records solution can easily centralize and standardize all types of data and electronically stored information (ESI) and use advanced search features to find relevant information within. But agencies that still rely on basic search abilities, or those that develop proprietary search techniques, miss important information that the public has a right to know.
For public records requests to be completed as expected, FOIA employees should be able to search all the needed records. This means they should have centralized access to all the agency’s ESI and an effective way to search multiple file types to reliably identify all relevant information.
To see if agencies are effective in their FOIA searches, the National Security Archive and the Project on Government Oversight conducted an online survey of both FOIA employees and requesters. Here are some of the conclusions from the survey:
- Most agencies don’t have centralized public records search capabilities, meaning they cannot search large portions of the records.
- The employees often perform slow, imprecise, or incomplete searches for requested public records.
- Some agencies have access to eDiscovery tools to search for the requested records, while other agencies don’t search for records electronically at all, instead relying on a manual process.
Inefficient Review & Redaction
If full disclosure of the information is not allowed due to security concerns, federal agencies still are required to disclose some information. The sheer number of exemptions and exclusions makes reviewing protected information a very time-consuming process. Redacting hundreds of pages using outdated software is a painfully slow process prone to errors. There’s a much better solution than redacting with duct tape!
Image Source (The image was masked to hide personally identifiable information)
I think we can all agree that resolving these digital age challenges is important; especially in an era where modern public records solutions are more accessible than ever.
The delays in public records’ responses are a serious issue. In some states, requesters have a right for compensatory damages and attorney’s fees under FOIA. Also, disciplinary damages can be awarded under some public records laws if there is an unlawful refusal for disclosure or an arbitrary delay.
Unsatisfied requesters without administrative appeal options can file a lawsuit in Federal court. In FY 2018 there were 860 lawsuits filed against the government agencies. The backlogs of FOIA suits still waiting to be decided increased to 1,204 cases, an all-time high.
Adopting a modern public records solution will help agencies reduce the number of lawsuits, as well as the number of requests in the backlog.
The Importance of Adopting A Modern Public Records Solution
With a modern solution, FOIA agencies can use eDiscovery compliant, advanced search capabilities that can help them easily find specific keywords and phrases in audio and video files. Also, such a solution will help with organization and collaboration, review, redaction, and production challenges.
These modern FOIA solutions are designed to:
- Combine data from various locations and standardize different file types.
- Identify potentially related information faster by providing an early assessment.
- Automate certain activities as identification, classification and redaction of exempted, private, and excluded data.
- Allow employees easy access for date reviewing.
- Provide advanced, customizable reporting features to meet all FOIA reporting requirements.
By using a modern public records solution, federal agencies can make significant changes and implement cost-effective solutions for challenges that are responsible for incomplete responses, denials, and backlogs. Furthermore, agencies will be able to reduce the number of lawsuits and appeals while providing accurate responses.
How the ArkCase Public Records Solution Can Help FOIA Agencies
The ArkCase public records solution meets FOIA requirements with a modern, automated software solution. ArkCase has partnered with Alfresco, Snowbound, AWS (Amazon Web Services), and Ephesoft to create a highly configurable, intuitive, scalable, and compliant FOIA solution:
- As an ECM open-source platform, Alfresco provides a compliant storage solution with a DoD 5015.02 certified records management component.
- Snowbound provides an embedded viewer with annotation and redaction capabilities.
- Ephesoft provides an intelligent document capture solution for document digitization.
- AWS is a FedRAMP compliant platform.
Using these platforms, ArkCase offers a modern, workflow-driven, web-based public records solution specifically designed to help FOIA agencies automate, manage, and quickly and easily handle Public Records requests.
The key benefits that agencies gain by adopting the ArkCase public records solution include:
- Centralized processing from various request channels (web, paper, fax)
- Simplified upload of documents, photos, and videos
- Compliance with security and records retention
- Cloud-based and mobile-friendly modules
- Electronic delivery of requested information
- Automated business intelligence
- Reduced risk of information loss
- Faster information assembling
- Quick access to information
- Improved workflow capacity
- Increased user productivity
- Faster response rate.
The ArkCase public records solution digitizes everything in the FOIA request processing for easy searching. Communicating with other offices and departments and managing documents is seamless, speeding up the response time. By using ArkCase’s modern public records request solution, agencies can now easily overcome the challenges they’re facing on a daily basis and keep citizens informed.
Let’s Sum Up
In FY 2018, all the agencies dealing with FOIA requests processing received 863,729 FOIA requests, an all-time record high. That is an increase of almost 6% from the FOIA requests received in FY 2017 (818,271 requests).
The number of processed requests in FY 2018 is 0.83% higher than the number of processed requests in FY 2017. According to the Annual Report, the agencies continued to maintain a release rate of over 90% for a tenth year in a row. Still, there is work to be done to make further improvements and reduce the backlogs in FY 2019.
With a modern public records solution like ArkCase, agencies can easily overcome their challenges in meeting their FOIA goals.
The ArkCase public records solution is a modern, open-source, secure, flexible, scalable, reliable, and cost-effective solution that will enable your agency process more requests, with less effort, without compromising work integrity. And it can help you achieve all of this from one place, at an affordable price.