Current Issues Affecting Public Records Request Management 

November 17, 2020

As a public records management software company we get to talk to folks from all types of agencies who are managing public records every single day. From PDs and sheriff departments to small rural town clerks and large state departments, we hear all types of use-cases. We also hear all types of public records difficulties as well. 

From the ever-growing overall number of requests to the increasing complexity of request fulfillment, we wanted to break down some of the most common public records issues and offer up ways in which to remedy them.

Issue #1: Records Requests are on the Rise

It’s simple logic--as the U.S. population grows, so has the number of requests for information will grow. The below chart shows the number of federal FOIA requests received in America each year from 2010 to 2018.   

Source  - Summary of Annual FOIA Reports for Fiscal Year 2018, Office of Information Policy, U.S. Department of Justice

 The increase in requests is steady, so maybe that’s not a big deal right? However, compare that data to the below chart that shows the number of federal FOIA requests that were actually processed in each of those years and suddenly the deal is pretty big. It comes out to an almost 40% increase in requests over 8 years.

Source  - Summary of Annual FOIA Reports for Fiscal Year 2018, Office of Information Policy, U.S. Department of Justice

The above data is just for federal requests. While increases in public records have been recorded in cities like Tacoma, Washington and counties like Fairfax County, Virginia, the sum of all public records request numbers from every local and state municipality in the country are not tracked What can be drawn from the federal numbers is that there’s likely a similar increase in requests in state and local agencies throughout the country as well. 

Issues #2: Legal Threats & Repeat Requesters 

Public records lawsuits have been around as long as public records themselves, and following the previously established logic of more people + more public agencies = more public records requests, if there are more records requests, there are also going to be more lawsuits. 

In 2018, over 800 public records lawsuits were filed at the federal level. That equated to a 67% increase from 2017.  From a local and municipal standpoint, our own Customer Onboarding Specialist, Leah Jaggars, has noticed an increase in threats of legal action some of the clerks she works with have been receiving when requests aren’t filled or simply aren’t returned as quickly as desired. 

Another way some requesters respond to unanswered requests or to requests that don’t receive the attention they want right away is via a harassment tactic employed by resubmitting identical requests over and over. We’ve actually covered this here before in our “What is a Vexatious Requester?” blog post. In short, vexatious requesters often end up accomplishing the opposite of their intended goal by clogging up request management systems and then both requester and requestee are left with a headache.

One example comes from the story of computer programmer Tim Clemans facing off with the Seattle Police Department by filing requests for all of the department’s dispatch calls, police reports and videos. While he eventually dropped the extreme number of requests, agencies still were forced to spend time and energy responding to them. 

Issues #3: Increasing Job Complexity

The sheer number of types of data that are considered public record has mushroomed in the last two decades. Folks managing records requests in 1995 never dealt with social media or emails. And with the email communications of public agency employees relevant to their work often considered public record, clerks now need to collect, redact, and sometimes string together tens to hundreds to even thousands of individual emails to a requester.  

We’ve come so far with technology, but with it we’ve made the entire act of managing records requests so much more difficult.  

You’ve no doubt seen the now frequent news stories covering the implementation of body cameras in police departments across the U.S, but in the public records realm, issues with body cameras have ranged from discussion about what footage is considered public record to the complications behind video redaction and storage. 

It’s actually the latter issue here causing public records problems. Unlike a document or email, the increasing popularity of police-worn body cameras combined with their *generally* agreed upon status as public record ends with a lot more redaction effort being required of those that have to fulfill the requests, as marking out words turns into blurring and censoring minutes (or even hours) of video and audio.  

The Takeaway

A majority of the problems affecting people who work with public records are symptoms of outdated request management systems. Besides maybe the body camera example, backlogged requests and the legal threats and vexatious requesters that spawn from them are issues that can be alleviated with a modern software solution like NextRequest.

Our software has the tools like request tracking and due date notifications to prevent respondents from missing deadlines that might provoke repeat requests, and other features like redaction, reporting, document workflow, and request diversion offer more efficient request management to prevent request backlogging in the first place. 

Visit www.nextrequest.com to see why we’re the best available solution for public records request management.  

 

LINKS

https://www.justice.gov/oip/page/file/1170146/download
https://www.thenewstribune.com/news/politics-government/article65673537.html

https://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/news2/foia-office-responds-to-thousands-of-requests-for-public-records/

http://foiaproject.org/2018/11/12/annual-report-foia-lawsuits-reach-record-highs-in-fy-2018/

https://www.heraldnet.com/news/ag-rejects-seattle-mans-request-for-600-million-emails/