Here at NextRequest we spend a lot of time thinking about ways to improve public record requests and the processes around them. We also spend a lot of time talking with government staff all across the country, which helps us understand all the great things people are doing to streamline their work. Here are some of the best FOIA practices we've seen.
This may seem obvious, but you would be surprised at the number of agencies who (ahem…) are a little behind on this, or are not doing it agency wide. Ask yourself: Could I easily find out the number of requests my entire agency, including all departments, received this past year? If not, you’re putting yourself at serious legal risk. Additionally you won’t be able to asses how you can improve the process for your staff and the public.
This is related to tracking the volume of requests, but provides additional context to your data. We recommend including the request text, related department(s), and request type to begin with. Implement a FOIA tracking system to assist in keeping up with what type of, and how many, requests your agency receives.
Do you have a centralized or decentralized process? How do requests flow through each of your departments and who is (or should be!) involved. When you combine this with the volume and type of requests you get you have a powerful set of information to stay compliant and improve public experience.
Nobody likes getting sued! Make sure it never happens for easily preventable reasons. Many states require training for records requests. If you are in one of those states make sure you attend those trainings. But even if they are not required, you can often find useful training information from your state government or non-profits.
We live in a digital age. There are affordable tools that can help you manage your records requests. Did you know that governments in Washington state spend $210 per request on average? Or that it is estimated that New York City spends $400 per request? On top of that request volumes are going up across the U.S. every year and digital tools have been shown to increase efficiency by up to 60% or more. (We of course are biased to NextRequest)
This is related to workflow digitization, but we think is important enough to be on its own. Redaction can be very time consuming, and digital tools can help, especially if you’re need to redact out keywords, SSNs, phone numbers and other personal information from long documents. If possible, keep documents in digital formats. Repeat after me: DO NOT PRINT, SHARPIE, AND SCAN! Staying digital will save you time in the end. Adobe has good redaction tools (although you need to make sure you remove hidden information and metadata). NextRequest also has built-in digital redaction tools. But, whatever you decide is the best for you, make sure it is digital.
This can make coordinating complex requests and compliance training much easier. It can also help your staff share best practices, so requests are responded to in an efficient and compliant manner.
You may already have a centralized process, in which case a clerk, PIO, attorney or other staff member may already oversee records requests. If this is not the case we highly recommend you bring this issue before your executive team and help them identify someone in your organization to take on this role.
What are your most commonly requested documents? Are there ways you can speed up review and release of those documents? If you’re tracking the volumes and types of request you’re getting you’re already halfway there and should be able to easily identify common requests and responsive documents being released.
Which brings us to the #1 way to improve your records request process…
This is the best and only way to fight increases in request volume. Agencies, like the EPA, have used this strategy to make whole categories of requests unnecessary, saving millions of dollars in staff time. Now I know what you’re saying to yourself, “But most of our requests are for very specific documents that only one person would want.” And that may be true for many requests. But if 20%, or even 10%, of your requests are for records you could release proactively via public records search software, that’s a significant amount of time saved for your agency and the public. Common categories NextRequest customers publish are: budget and salary information, contracts, policy documents, and topical records related to news story, among others.
Please share with anyone who might find this useful!
Image: Isaac Bowen (CC by 2.0)