State and Local FOIA Management Software: 4 Lessons From the Federal Open Records Process

April 26, 2024 / #FOIA, #State, Local, Education (SLED)

This article originally appeared in Route Fifty. 

By Howard Langsam, CEO – OPEXUS

State and local governments can take a page from the federal government’s FOIA playbook to boost their own efficiency and transparency.

Nearly 60 years after the Freedom of Information Act passed Congress—a landmark moment for government transparency—today’s federal FOIA program is an enormous and robust operation. Approximately 120 federal agencies collectively processed nearly 900,000 information requests in 2022 alone. To get this mammoth job done, FOIA officers lean on certain best practices, strict reporting requirements and specialized technology, including built-for-government FOIA management software.

Not so at the state and local level, where the methods agencies use to process public records requests vary greatly. All 50 states maintain their own public records laws, each with unique requirements, penalties and approaches. And with the volume and complexity of public records requests on the rise, many state and local leaders recognize they must improve procedures to maintain public trust. This is especially true during an election year, when requests can skyrocket, specifically in politically heated regions.

For records managers looking to get a handle on the growing number of requests and improve their workflow, the federal FOIA framework—though continuously evolving and not without its flaws—provides a solid foundation and valuable lessons in increasing efficiency of public records operations.

Here are four key takeaways from the federal FOIA program that state and local leaders can use to refine their own transparency efforts.

1. Collect and report data to pinpoint areas of improvement

The federal government mandates strict reporting requirements for FOIA. Every agency is required to submit an annual FOIA report to the Department of Justice detailing the number of requests received, processed and denied as well as average processing times, fees collected, types of requested documents and so on.

Detailed reports aren’t common at the state and local levels, so this information is unavailable. But agencies would benefit from gathering and reporting data using specialized FOIA management software, even if it’s not mandatory for compliance. Not only can digging into the data pinpoint bottlenecks in the public records process, but the reporting of it demonstrates a commitment to transparency. Plus, documenting the increasing number and complexity of requests can be an effective tool for convincing agency leadership to allocate additional funding to the public records program.

2. Proactively publish frequently sought after information to reduce requests

Federal agencies often analyze requests to identify which records are most in demand and then publish the information in a publicly accessible “Reading Room.” Some agencies take the extra step of sharing responses to specific, common requests. For example, in July 2023, the Environmental Protection Agency made 14 years’ worth of pesticide data available on an open data portal, eliminating the public’s need to file FOIA requests for the information.

As of 2023, the city of San Francisco had released more than 1,100 active data files on its open data portal, DataSF. The most frequently accessed files were those on building inspections, restaurant health inspections, street closures and public health records. By proactively making information available, city agencies not only demonstrate a culture of openness, but also strategically reduce the volume of incoming requests and backlogs.

3. Automate manual tasks with machine learning

When people hear the words “artificial intelligence,” they may think of generative applications and be skeptical about its use in government. But there are other forms of AI, namely machine learning, that are already being applied to improve the efficiency of records management.

Many federal agencies leverage AI in the public records process to help automate and speed up time-consuming tasks that were once done manually. These include scanning and detecting duplicative requests, analyzing and pulling documents for review and redacting sensitive information. The State Department, for example, is testing technology to locate records within the agency’s database of 3 billion records and automate replies to requesters suggesting where they can find already publicly available information related to the words they input.

4. Compare notes with other agencies

In recent years, federal agencies have stepped up their efforts to collaborate and share FOIA best practices. Various forums, such as the FOIA Advisory Committee, have been established to create knowledge-sharing opportunities. The Department of Justice, tasked with promoting agency FOIA compliance, also guides agencies to evaluate existing procedures and implement new best practices. And the Government Accountability Office recently recommended they create detailed backlog reduction plans.

State and local agencies often operate in more isolated silos compared to their federal counterparts, maintaining their own public records procedures with minimal visibility into others’ operations. Due to their limited collection and reporting of data, it’s even more challenging to compare best practices. State and local government records managers who want to learn from other jurisdictions’ processes, challenges and successes, should contact organizations like the Society of American Archivists, the National Association of Government Archives and Records Administrators as well as records managers at state libraries for help finding training, meetups and support.

Now is the time to make upgrades to open records processes

When sunshine laws first swept the country more than half a century ago, nobody could have predicted the rise of the internet and the explosion of government data that would come with it. With the amount of data within the average government organization expected to grow over 400% in the next five years, the challenge of satisfying a public increasingly hungry for information and transparency from their governments.

As state and local leaders look at how they handle public records, they can learn from the methods used at the federal level to manage increasing volumes and complexities.

Get Started with OPEXUS

Legacies aren't built on legacy systems. See streamlined government process management in action.

Request demo