6 Reasons for the Increased Complexity of Public Records Requests

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Guest Blogger: Donny Barstow

Donny Barstow is President and CEO of JustFOIA, the easiest-to-use records request solution on the market. He has over 20 years of experience in the GovTech market.

60+ years ago, when FOIA was signed into law, fulfilling a public records request was a fairly straightforward act: The requester would come to the government office, and a representative of the agency would simply bring them the records they wanted to inspect.

But advances in technology, increased citizen expectations, tangled legal requirements, and other changes have made the process steadily more complicated.

As a result, 81% of agencies we surveyed indicated that time and resources to complete records requests have increased in the past year—with not a single respondent saying they had decreased.

Read on to explore why, and to read our suggestions for how agencies can cope with the increased complexity of filling public records requests.

#1: Request Volume

Data from our platform shows that our clients have seen an average of 15-25% more records requests per year for the last several years.

Several factors can account for this growth.

Population growth. The population of the US has more than doubled over the last 70 years. Simply put, more people in each jurisdiction means more people to request records.

More types of records on each of us. The government holds more official records on each person than ever. Residents can now request copies of vital records, marriage licenses, property records, business licenses, occupational licenses, and more.

Media. According to USA Today, there are over 3,000 news outlets in the United States today, not including blogs, podcasts, and other less formal media types. These outlets represent a high percentage of the records requests that agencies receive.

Commercialization of Data. Data collected by the government can have significant business value in the modern world. As an example, a company may create a searchable database of all government agency purchasing records—all of which would have to be requested from agencies.

Agencies can manage increased volume by:

#2: Record Storage Mediums and Data Volume

Once, most government records were on paper. But in recent decades, digitization of paper files has accelerated, and the digitally native creation of data has exploded exponentially. We are now in an era where most business transactions occur with little to no paper. On top of that, the types of digital data have become numerous due to the ease of creation and accessibility. Collectively, the digital transformation era that we find ourselves in has increased the complexity of fulfilling records requests because it has led to an increase in the number of requests, and each request is often broader in scope.

Outside of what are traditionally classified as responsive records, we have:

  • Emails, texts, and other communication platforms
  • Audio
  • Videos (especially law enforcement body cam footage)
  • Reports and data from main line of business systems that do not exist in document form.

There are even requests for information about specific records requests!

As a testament to this increased complexity, our clients’ data shows that the number of responsive records per request more than doubled from 1.6 in 2020 to 3.9 in 2022.

Handling the increased data in records requests is largely a matter of good Records and Information Management (RIM). Organized digital files are key to ensuring that your agency can fulfill a complex records request with ease. Each type of record that agencies generate needs to be cataloged and stored in an organized repository, with appropriate retention schedules applied.

To deal with repeat requests or requests about requests, a records request software solution is helpful. It should include a feature that allows for retention setting and the ability to run reports on archived records requests.

Records request software may include tools that simplify management of email files by removing duplicates and handling attachments.

#3: Sensitive Data

As the volume of records, and the associated record requests rise, so does the amount of sensitive data that these records contain, including personally identifiable information (PII), criminal justice records, healthcare data, student records, and more. Records need to be reviewed, redacted, and approved before release.

When records requests were simpler, so was the process for redacting the responsive records. In the days when records were released primarily by photocopy, someone would manually sift through the photocopied pages and mark out the data with a black marker.

However, this process isn’t sustainable or scalable with records requests generating thousands of pages.

Today, government agencies often need to invest in a software solution with automated redaction capabilities.

These can isolate and remove all instances of a word or phrase. But beyond that, they can identify patterns of information that are likely to be dates of birth, social security numbers, emails, etc.

Which redaction software you should choose depends on several factors, including the file types you most often redact and your agency’s specific workflows and approval process. For instance, some may have a built-in approval function that keeps a “human in the loop” to ensure the accuracy of redactions, while others may require a custom workflow to approve redactions.

#4 Legislation

Since FOIA (the Freedom of Information Act) was enacted by the federal government in 1966, all 50 states have enacted some form of public records law, which impacts their state and local governments.

These laws are frequently amended. For instance, at the time of this writing, pluralpolicy.com shows 47 proposed bills related to public records in legislatures across the country. Regulations may be changed around issues like:

  • Records request turnaround time
  • Redactions and exemptions
  • Payment amounts, methods, providing requesters with estimated costs
  • Reporting requirements

While legislators are working to clarify public records legislation, each new rule changes the compliance requirements and complexity for government agencies who manage the records request process. Agencies should monitor legislation in their state on an ongoing basis and should audit their current systems and processes against existing legislation, with assistance from legal counsel as needed.

#5 Reporting

As tools for tracking data about public records have grown in sophistication, so have both internal and external requirements for reporting on that data.

In the State of Washington, for instance, agencies that spend over $100,000 annually fulfilling public records requests must submit detailed reports to the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee, or JLARC. Filing JLARC reports accurately means tracking a significant amount of data throughout the year about the number and type of records requests they receive, processing times, etc.

And outside of compliance reporting requirements, agencies themselves have an increasing thirst to know what is going on across their organization. This can help them understand:

  • Request volume
  • Average response times
  • Process bottlenecks
  • Cost of processing records
  • Fees assessed

The best way to approach improving an agency’s records request process, is to start with the concept of “whole agency.” The whole agency concept is about thinking holistically, rather than departmentally. For example, if agency administration is thinking about volume and compliance, they may just focus on what they receive directly, rather than thinking cumulatively across the organization. To illustrate, a city may receive 1,500 requests a year directly submitted to the administration. However, that same city receives 10,000 requests submitted to the Police Department and the Building Department. In reality, they are receiving 22,000 requests a year.

Without a unified system, management and leadership are in the dark, which increases risks including:

  • Releasing sensitive data
  • Litigation for failing to respond, respond incorrectly, or missing state mandated timelines
  • Loss of public trust

#6 Citizen Service Expectations

Finally, citizens’ expectations of how they interact with their government have changed. As we do more and more of our business electronically, most citizens would now prefer to interact with their government online as well.

Not only that, they expect the same level of customer service and excellent digital services that they receive from retailers like Amazon. Whether a citizen wants to apply for a permit, a job, or make a records request, they expect to be able to:

  • Make the request electronically
  • Receive notifications and track the status of requests
  • Download the deliverable
  • Pay online

These expectations make fulfilling records request more complex and stressful for agency staff. All professionals want their customers to be delighted with the service they provide, and the bar continues to rise for government agencies as online experiences improve in our day-to-day lives. While it’s possible to provide outstanding digital services by other means, more and more agencies are turning towards a dedicated software for public records requests that allows for virtual transactions, communication, tracking, and fulfillment of requests.

Read more about agencies like yours that have simplified their records request process with JustFOIA