The Hidden Costs of Public Records Requests

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In a recent survey, 81% of government agencies told us that their time and resources to complete public records requests increased. 19% said that things were staying the same, but not a single respondent said their time and costs were decreasing.

But exactly how much are you spending on public records requests? It can be hard to quantify.

In this article, we’ll uncover the hidden costs of public records requests related to personnel, technology, materials, accessibility, and reporting.

Why is it Important to Understand the Costs of Records Requests?

Understanding your total cost related to records requests can help you to:

  • Plan Your Budget: Understanding the full scope of costs associated with public records requests can help you plan your budget and allocate resources effectively.
  • Defend Charging Fees: Charging fees for public records is controversial, partially because people don’t understand the true costs of what they’re asking for. If your jurisdiction allows you to collect fees, it’s important to be able to explain and justify the charges.
  • Make a Case for a Records Request Software: Implementing a robust records request software can streamline the process, enhance efficiency, and ensure compliance with legal requirements. But you may need to explain your current costs to make a business case for investing in records request software.

Personnel Expenses

Personnel expenses make up a large portion of your costs for public records requests. Every department in your organization will, at some point, need to spend time on records requests. But the largest share of records requests personnel cost will be for staff members like:

  • The clerk’s office
  • IT personnel
  • Records managers
  • In-house legal counsel

It’s not just the time spent gathering documents that adds up. Your staff is also spending time on:

  • Communicate and follow up with requesters to clarify requests and provide updates on progress.
  • Redaction of sensitive information from documents to ensure compliance with privacy laws.
  • Documenting the process, such as updating records request spreadsheets or logging interactions with requesters.
  • Certifications and training aimed at enhancing expertise in request management. Time for that training varies from one hour in Texas to three hours in Ohio for each staff member.

Using a records request software will reduce the time your staff spends on requests. But you should remember to include time spent implementing and training on that software in your total costs.

Technology and Software

Technology and software are crucial for modernizing the public records request process. These expenses may include:

  • Forms software for request submission. These forms can be designed to capture essential information accurately, reducing the need for manual data entry and minimizing errors.
  • Workflow and automation software to automate repetitive tasks and streamline request processing workflows. This software can automatically route requests to the appropriate personnel, track progress, and send notifications to requesters, reducing processing times and improving efficiency.
  • Content management software for organizing and storing records. A robust document management system facilitates document retrieval, version control, and collaboration among staff members so you can find records faster.
  • Redaction software to ensure the protection of sensitive information. This software enables agencies to redact personally identifiable information, confidential data, or other sensitive content. (Learn more about choosing the best redaction software for your agency.)
  • Digital storage costs for securely maintaining copies of requests and responsive documents. Storing and managing digital records incurs ongoing costs for storage infrastructure, backup systems, and data management software.
  • E-discovery software to help identify, retrieve, and organize digital records to ensure compliance with disclosure requirements.
  • Cybersecurity measures to protect sensitive information from unauthorized access or data breaches. This includes implementing firewalls, encryption protocols, and access controls to safeguard digital records and infrastructure from potential threats.

On the other hand, dedicated software for public records requests eliminates the need for separate forms, workflow, and redaction systems. Some (including JustFOIA) also include unlimited storage space.

Legal Costs

Your legal expenses for public records requests can quickly add up. These may include:

  • Outside legal counsel: You may need to hire outside legal counsel to help determine whether certain records are eligible for release or require redaction. (If your legal counsel is on staff, you may have already accounted for this cost under the “personnel” heading).
  • Lawsuits: Agencies may face legal challenges or lawsuits filed by requesters who want records that have been withheld or redacted. These lawsuits can result in significant legal fees, court costs, and other expenses associated with litigation.
  • Settlements. In some cases, you may choose to settle to avoid a lengthy trial or other negative outcomes. Settlements may involve payment of damages, attorney fees, or other costs agreed upon by both you and the requester.

Costs of Physical Records

Depending on your and your requesters’ level of technology, you may have physical materials that contribute to the cost of public records requests.

Examples include:

  • Storage Space: Physical records can take up entire office rooms.
  • Large-Format Scanners: These may be needed to digitize oversized physical documents (like blueprints). For agencies with a significant volume of physical records, investing in scanning services or large-format scanners is necessary for digitizing documents and making them accessible in electronic format.
  • Physical Photocopies: Physical photocopies of requested documents mean costs for paper, toner, and wear and tear on copiers. Agencies must budget for these consumable expenses, particularly for high-volume requests or documents with many pages.
  • CDs or Thumb Drives: If requested records are provided in digital format, agencies may need to buy CDs or thumb drives to send requesters. These storage media enable requesters to access electronic records conveniently and securely, but agencies must consider the cost of purchasing and distributing these items.
  • Envelopes and Packaging Materials: Mailing requested documents to requesters requires standard envelopes, padded envelopes, or even cardboard boxes.
  • Postage: Agencies must budget for postage expenses, considering the volume and frequency of requests and the delivery method chosen by requesters.


To promote equitable access to information, foster inclusivity, and improve transparency, you should budget for:

  • Disability Accommodations: Requesters with disabilities may require records in different formats. This could include large print documents or electronic formats compatible with screen readers.
  • Translation Services: Some people will need documents translated into languages other than English. While AI can speed up the translation process, documents should, at minimum, be double-checked by a translator.

Monitoring and Reporting

It’s also important to allocate resources for monitoring and reporting. This includes:

  • Monitoring Compliance: Agencies must ensure that requests are processed promptly, accurately, and by legal requirements. This may involve conducting internal audits, reviewing request processing workflows, and training staff members on legal obligations and best practices.
  • Analyzing Performance Metrics: You may need to allocate resources for measuring and analyzing key performance metrics. You can use data analytics tools to track trends, identify bottlenecks, and implement strategies to streamline workflows and improve efficiency.
  • Preparing Reports: Agencies may need reports or documentation for oversight bodies or government agencies. These reports may include statistics on request volume, processing times, fulfillment rates, and other metrics. The State of Washington’s JLARC reporting is a notable example.

Adding up these various expenses should give you a more accurate picture of the current cost of your records request process. Fortunately, records request software can reduce many of these costs.

Ready to streamline your public records request process and optimize resources? Take the first step towards efficiency and transparency by requesting a demo of JustFOIA, the easy-to-use, cost-effective software solution for processing public records requests.