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Simplifying the Records Request Process: Custom Fields

Think about this scenario when you are imagining a records request process. When a member of the public sends in a records request, oftentimes there are additional follow-up questions necessary to determine exactly what needs to be released. A staff member then has to reach back out to the requester to specify what records are being requested. This can lead to a delay in responding if the requester fails to answer. Or if the staff member was unable to get in touch with the requester, they may process the records based on what they believe was being requested. If this was misinterpreted, it will likely lead to more records requests in an attempt to narrow in on specific documents. 

Both sides are left confused, frustrated, and the records request may be left unfulfilled entirely if there is not enough information to go off of or the request is too broad. Given that most states have mandatory FOIA response times, this could spell trouble for the agency in question. Requesters have been known to file lawsuits in response to a failure to fulfill the records request properly. 

We have heard this scenario all too many times. And to think, this all could be avoided if there were additional information on request forms that could clarify exactly the information the requester was seeking. We listened to our customers’ requests and responded with our new Custom Fields feature!

Simplify Records Requests

While members of the public are trying to learn more about government functions when filing a records request, they likely don’t know everything that goes into fulfilling requests. They don’t always know exactly what to specify when requesting a document. This then leads to a staff member needing to reach out to the requester to clarify and it can be frustrating for both sides. 

We want to make the records request process simple and functional for agencies as well as the public. By adding the Custom Fields feature, requesters are able to give more detail and thought to their request before sending it off. This feature is customizable because we know that what works for the City of New Orleans will be different than for the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center. Public records come in many forms and so do the agencies and requesters who work with them every day.

The Custom Fields feature now allows users to identify specific record request types and requester types as they come into the portal. 

Complying with the Public and FOIA 

Most states have a mandatory records request response time, whether that be a period of three business days or within a thirty-day period. There are only 13 states that do not have a mandatory response time. Out of the 37 states with response time limits, only 10 allow agencies request extensions. When employees are forced to take time from fulfilling the request to get into contact with the requester and get more information, it leaves them at risk of a late response time. 

Late response times or even delayed response times from agencies have led to lawsuits from requesters to gain access to public records. The City of Jackson was ordered to pay more than $170,000 in legal fees after failing to comply with Mississippi’s Public Records Act timeline, which requires a response to a records request within seven business days. Public bodies can easily be ordered to pay a fine for failing to respond in a timely manner. The new Custom Fields option will now allow responses to be filed faster than ever.

Officials can make it mandatory to fill out these fields prior to completing a records request. This would make it so a request cannot be sent to officials unless all of the information needed has been filled out by the requester. When these custom fields are in use, it can cut down on requests that don't have the proper information.

Ease of Use

Our goal at NextRequest is to help make public records accessible and transparent for the public and for agencies. Which is why we developed Custom Fields to make the records request process easier for both sides. An online records request form with Custom Fields in use simplifies and clarifies the information for requesters. The NextRequest portal is designed to be user friendly and we have created this new feature to be simple to use.

Custom Fields

In the Portal Settings options, a user can select the Custom Fields option and enter text into the text box. These Custom Fields can be used for department names, case numbers, type of request, and more. For further detail and explanation, a user can add a Field Description to clear up any confusion for requesters or other employees.

Simplify the Records Request Process

The records request process can be confusing and sometimes tedious for both parties, the public and government officials. With incomplete request forms and missing information it can be difficult to fulfill a request. Delayed responses are frustrating for everyone and can lead to legal battles, an unnecessary headache for agencies that could be resolved with more clarity. The Custom Fields feature has been designed with this in mind, to simplify the process for the public and government. Find out more at nextrequest.com/features.

Research:

https://news.ballotpedia.org/2021/05/24/state-foia-request-response-times/

https://www.wlbt.com/2021/08/06/city-jackson-slapped-with-largest-fine-state-history-following-wlbt-ethics-complaint/