Lost in a labyrinth of public records requests? It’s less of a David Bowie fantasy and more of a bureaucratic reality—one that leaves you feeling frazzled and overwhelmed.
With requests on the rise, lack of scalable public records request processes leads to problems that:
- damage your credibility
- leave you vulnerable to lawsuits
- cause friction between coworkers
And just waste your time.
In this blog post, we’ll explore common challenges in the public records request processes. You’ll get actionable tips to reduce the FOIA overwhelm, crush your backlog, and keep both requesters and internal staff happy.
(Spoiler alert: Many of these suggestions involve a records request software like JustFOIA. But if you’re not ready to take that step (or your budget committee doesn’t think you are), there’s still plenty you can do to improve your processes without investing in new technology.)
Past-Due Responses to Records Requests
If you work with public records requests, you know the shrinking feeling in your stomach when your backlog of overdue requests just keeps getting larger.
Trouble meeting deadlines could be caused by:
- Increased volume of large requests
- Lack of staff training
- Lack of standardized processes or accountability
- Outdated records keeping technology
- Manual processes
Why is this a problem? Unresolved requests can overwhelm your systems and workers. A late response could mean sending outdated information, or the urgency of the request may have passed. And of course, it damages your credibility with requesters.
To help with large volumes of records, Public Records Analyst Tammy Mueller advises, “It can help to have a designated liaison in each department who knows where records are located and also has some training on the requirements of processing records requests.”
Standardized procedures also help to create accountability. Ensure that your records request process is thoroughly documented and that each person knows exactly what they need to do and when they need to do it.
Even better, automate as much of the process as possible with an easy-to-use records request system like JustFOIA to reduce manual processes and provide transparent tracking. (San Marcos, California, cut their public records processing time by 70% with JustFOIA!)
No Response to a Public Records Request
Sometimes, a public records request never receives a response from the agency at all. In fact, one journalist reported that of 136 police departments he submitted a request to, 51 of them hadn’t responded within about five months.
Why does this happen?
- Errors in manual tracking. The request could accidentally get marked complete on a spreadsheet or other tracking system before the records have been delivered.
- Misplaced paperwork. Papercuts aren’t the only hazard involved with paper-based processes. If your organization uses any form of paper, whether for request intake, internal memos, etc., it can easily get lost in the shuffle.
- Lack of standardized procedures. Suppose you pass off a request to the department that holds the records, and you never hear back. You may assume the department handled the request from there, when they may have accidentally deleted the email.
- Backlog. While you intend to get to every request eventually, your backlog may have gotten so bad that you appear to be ignoring requests.
Failing to respond to a public records request erodes the public’s trust in government institutions—thinking that the organization is incompetent or withholding information on purpose, even when everyone is trying their best to be transparent.
As with getting responses sent on time, standardized procedures and expectations in your records request process go a long way here. Tracking request statuses via a spreadsheet helps to establish a single “source of truth” that everyone can refer to.
But a robust, automated public records tracking system like JustFOIA is the best way to ensure that every single request gets answered. Automation drastically reduces manual errors, and audit trails help you keep track of every action taken in the system for accuracy and accountability.
Learn how Bakersfield, California, cut their FOIA request backlog from 1,200 to 300 in just four months with JustFOIA.
Poor Communication in the Records Request Process
The public records request process requires transparent, timely communication both internally and externally.
Internally, you need to collaborate effectively with other staff members to ensure that everyone knows:
- what part of a request they’re responsible for
- the status of a request
- the request’s due date
- the next step in the process
Externally, you may need to communicate with the requester about:
- information that’s missing from their request
- any fees that will be applied
But often, this communication is scattered between multiple email threads in multiple inboxes.
Some organizations try to resolve communication gaps with standing meetings to provide updates on requests… but who wants to go to another meeting if you don’t have to?
No, the best way to ensure everyone is on the same page is to have a single, centralized place for communication.
One option is to use a project management tool with comment threads on each request. That goes a long way towards solving internal communication problems, but someone still needs to send emails or make phone calls to requesters.
On the other hand, with JustFOIA, internal and external Correspondence about a request is housed within that request. You can use standardized templates to send emails to requesters easily, and everyone involved with the request can see the response.
Plus, JustFOIA’s transparent tracking system and workflow automation allow everyone to see the status of the request and know when it’s their turn at bat—cutting back on the need for as many manual communications.
No matter your jurisdiction, the legislation around exactly what must be redacted or withheld from public records requests is complex, ever-changing, and sometimes vague. It’s no wonder that our clients tell us that redaction is one of the most stressful parts of the public records request process.
A common redaction mistake is to redact based on your gut feeling of what should be redacted, rather than strictly following the most up-to-date regulations.
But accurate redaction ensures that innocent parties stay safe, personally identifiable information isn’t accidentally released, and that your organization is protected from lawsuits.
Everyone involved with redaction needs to have updated training whenever new legislation is passed.
It’s a good idea to require a second user, such as a supervisor or even legal counsel, to review redactions before documents are released. (You can add a redaction approval step to your Workflows within JustFOIA.)
Another best practice is to require each redaction to have a specific reason attached to it—preferably the exact statute from your jurisdiction—that explains why the information is withheld. Not only does this help keep internal personnel in line with regulations, but it also explains to the requester why it was removed. Within JustFOIA, redaction reasons can be added either automatically (for instance, the correct statute for removing all social security numbers) or manually.
Read more about fighting redaction mistakes.
Not Proactively Disclosing Public Records
Sometimes it’s in both your agency’s and the public’s best interest to release high-interest records even before they’re requested.
Doing so can save you the time of filling the same request multiple times.
It also shows your willingness to follow the spirit of public records laws—which is, of course, to show transparency and allow the public access to important information about their government.
Fortunately, this one is straightforward: Keep track of what types of records are most requested and post them on your website in a downloadable format. Just be sure that you have a means for doing that before controversy strikes.
The types of records that you should release depend on your agency’s specific function, but examples could include:
- Voter rolls
- Meeting minutes
- Body-cam footage
- Salary reports
- Use of force reports
JustFOIA’s Reporting and Analytics can help you identify patterns in the types of records you should release. From there, it’s easy to publish these high-interest records in the JustFOIA Public Portal.