5 Steps to Reducing Public Records Requests Response Time

clock illustrating tasks

Picture this: You’re sitting in a meeting (with the city council in the room, no less) and your manager throws this question at you: “Why is it so difficult for us to complete FOIA requests on time?” They want to talk about what steps are needed to improve their response times. Sound familiar? Let’s dive in and find the answer.

5 Steps to Speed Up Your Response to Public Records Requests

Step 1 : Get sufficient information from the requester.
If a requester fills out a printed form, sends an email, or calls in the request, they may not give enough detail about the information they are looking for. Now, you call or email the requester for clarification. All the while, this request is waiting before you can even get started!

One solution for this is to use online forms with required fields – blanks that must be filled in before the requester can submit the form. You may still have someone occasionally type “IDK” in the response field. But this step does let requesters know what information they should provide in order to get the swiftest response, saving you time chasing it down.
Step 2 : Train your staff correctly.
An internal training program for new hires as well as refresher training for your team keeps processes and communication fresh (and ultimately keeps your agency in compliance). It also creates a regular dialogue about identifying areas for improvement in your processes so you can get requests done faster.
Step 3 : Create a standard, step-by-step process.
Lack of a clear process leads to ambiguity. Ambiguity leads to inaction. If you don’t know what step to take next, requests can fall through the cracks (sometimes literally between two desks – we've seen it all!). It's important to set up a process and make sure everyone is informed. That way, you know where to go next when certain steps of your process are completed.
Step 4 : Have a backup plan for PTO.
Records requests don’t go on vacation, but people do. When someone is out of the office, do you have a plan to ensure requests don’t sit around waiting for them to get back? Proper communication and cross-training ensure that someone else can pick up the ball and keep requests on track.
Step 5 : Set timelines and expectations.
Suppose there are five people involved in completing a request, and the third person in line doesn’t start their task until the request’s due date. The last two people won’t be able to complete their tasks on time – leading to missing the deadline.

It’s important to establish timelines and set service-level agreements (SLAs) with all staff involved in providing responsive records. When an employee is assigned a task and they don't know a deadline, it quickly becomes a second priority to other responsibilities. Ensure tasks are done on time by setting clear expectations for the timeline on each step of the process. And make sure that the third person understands that there are steps following their own!
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