We had the privilege of interviewing Eric Mitchell, Director of MIS & Instructional Technology as well as the records custodian of the Okaloosa County School District. Eric discusses why they needed a better and more efficient way to process the increasing influx of public record requests (PRRs).
About the Okaloosa County School District
The school district is comprised of 2,000 employees and 30,000 students. Eric has been with the district since 2000. When he first started, they only received a few records requests a year. However, in 2017 all that changed. A public scandal prompted public record requests to spike to 300 over a three-month period. The district knew it was time to improve their process.
Ultimately, why did you choose to go with JustFOIA?
By law, we must provide all information requested. If records are withheld, we can be held liable.
Once we received a request from someone who started off their request by naming them with ‘001’ at the end with the intent to notify us that there would be many more to come. Unfortunately, this happens with a fair share of requestors, who ask for records simply to state that we didn’t meet the requirements and then they sue.
Once our requests started to increase drastically, we knew it was time to start searching for a tool as well as begin looking for another employee.
What issues and pain points did you want to solve with processing requests?
People in the community feel like they need to be part of making sure things are fixed, especially when it comes to elected officials. Records requests can come in any form of communication – by phone or even a note written on a napkin, literally!
It became very difficult to track each request and was too easy for one to fall through the cracks. The timeframe it took to process a request was at times up to 80 days. At one point, a copy machine had an error and 60 pages were shorted in a request.
Our way of keeping up was a system that involved a white board plus Microsoft Outlook, but we just didn’t have the right tool to help manage these requests efficiently.
Which departments currently use JustFOIA?
All departments use it, but there are primarily about 11 people using the system. The State of Florida requires that PRRs are taken any way they’re given.
All our PRRs come into a single point, then it’s decided who should be responsible for what via JustFOIA (JF). Often people aren’t aware how to go about requesting records. Now, all school secretaries are trained on how to share with the requesters how to submit a request or our staff will plug it into JF to track through the system.
How is each department processing public record requests within JustFOIA?
As the information officer, everything lands on my dashboard. I can add in subpoenas (which are the biggest part), investigative subpoenas, discovery requests, and more.
I can route the PRR to a department and tell them what to pull. They retrieve the records and provide back to my team. Some department contacts are secretaries or C-level positions. JF allows us to assign roles to each user so that communications and tasks are defined easily.
There are a few offices that don’t have access to JF because we rolled it out based on assessed needs. However, our Finance and Security Surveillance Departments receive a few requests on occasion. Videos are protected under the state or Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) laws as well. So, it’s easier for my team to simply email to specific departments that don’t have many requests and track it within JF.
What is the most positive change you have seen since implementation? And what is a positive change you did not anticipate?
The most positive thing I’ve seen is the organization that it has created for requests. Before JF, it was difficult to gain perspective on what was happening with each request. Let alone, a reminder that tasks are due. Outlook, excel sheets and whiteboards make it too difficult to track.
I didn’t expect JF to be well perceived by the people who request records consistently. I’ve had both the local news agency check out our website and they all gave positive reviews.
We do a lot of work with Department of Children and Families (DCF). They now put their requests into the JF system, and it’s made everyone’s job easier. In a meeting I made investigators aware of the ability for them to request information via JF – now, most of them do it regularly!
What lessons have you learned and best practices can you share that will help others in the future when adopting JustFOIA as their PRR solution?
Love your lawyer. We have such a good relationship with the district’s lawyer. You need to be able to pick up the phone and ask about information that calls for redaction and get legal clarification for subpoenas. You must include them in the same public records system, even though they aren’t public records. We chose not to make our response documents available on the JF Public Portal. In our case, the risk was too high.
Know when you’re in over your head. Ask for help. Maybe, sometimes, someone else needs to remind you that you’re not superhuman.
When putting out the job description, we ensured that the language in the employee contract was clear about the expectations that the information they would be working with is confidential.
Best practice: training employees to enter into the JF system, centralized control for delivery of PRRs. The state says we must take a request in any format, but they do not say how we must track it.
You can’t get hung up on time. It doesn’t mean that you stop everything to process one request. Communicate to create expectations to keep everyone on the same page. Using Outlook doesn’t remind you that there’s a lack of activity, JF helps me make sure that I’m staying in contact with the people that need to know.
Requesters will double-check your responses – people will do another PRR just to check the original response.
What are the greatest benefits you received as a result of implementing JustFOIA?
I feel much greater peace of mind. Between us training everyone on putting things into JustFOIA and the people who are using the system and who are directly responsible for managing JustFOIA, I don’t have to check every single request to make sure things are happening like they’re supposed to. Requests are getting processed, and tasks are getting done, and that’s awesome.
How will you handle your back-file scanning and ADA compliance laws for public records documents moving forward?
We don’t work with a lot of ADA requirements. However, one of the documents that we deal with a lot is called an Individualized Education Program or IEP.
It is created for students with special needs. It is a federally supported document. If it’s an IEP, it gets done. It’s protected information – it is no one’s business what conditions a child has, except for the child and their parents.
So many of the IEPs are paper based. The system is now electronic, but the forms must be printed for signatures. IEPs can’t be sent electronically because the file size is usually very large. Typically, a parent picks up the documentation if there’s a child that is mobile.
Which departments are coming on board in the future and how will they leverage JustFOIA?
I had more involvement with the Insurance Department than I have in previous years, so they may be up next. One of the things we are doing is allowing our PR staff to have view only access to JF, which allows them to communicate information to the press.
What is the five-year plan for improvements JustFOIA will make for your organization and citizens?
The changes have already been so significant. The communication piece is so much better now, just from the automation alone! It’s hard to say where we go from here.
JustFOIA goes a long way to help establish trust. The simple fact that more and more people are using the portal because they realize that they can track the progress of their requests is allowing folks to be a part of the request as much as possible.
Think about this, over the last two years, we’ve done over 1,000 PRRs. If we had done all of them in Outlook, how would we be able to pull records from all of that without a system like JustFOIA? I can run a report in JF and do it in just a few seconds!
Our long term goal? Getting everyone to use the portal. After that, who knows? I wouldn’t be surprised if the requests to continue to grow.