You’ve been hearing from your peers at other organizations about the benefits of FOIA request management software like JustFOIA, including:
- saving time filling FOIA requests
- centralizing communications
- closing compliance loopholes
But how exactly does this software work?
In this article, we will delve into what FOIA request management software does and how you use it to process requests, step by step.
Definition of FOIA Request Management Software
FOIA request management software helps government organizations manage and track Public Records Requests (PRRs) more efficiently. It is designed to manage requests made under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) or similar open records laws.
FOIA request management software is typically a software-as-a-service (SaaS) platform. That means it’s hosted in the cloud, and you access it online and pay a monthly or yearly subscription fee.
These solutions simplify the request process by providing a central platform for handling requests from start to finish. They automate tasks like generating notifications, redacting documents, and keeping track of deadlines. This helps you stay in compliance with FOIA regulations. By integrating workflows, collaboration tools, and reporting functionalities, this software reduces administrative work and improves efficiency in handling FOIA requests.
Step-by-Step Example of FOIA Request Processing with JustFOIA Cloud Software
Let’s look at how JustFOIA processes a FOIA request, from intake to delivery.
User Request Submission
First, the requester submits a FOIA request through JustFOIA’s user-friendly Public Portal and uploads any necessary supporting documents or files.
The requester has the option to create a JustFOIA account. If they do so, they can see all requests they’ve submitted, along with the status of the requests, in one dashboard. They can also opt to receive email notifications. If the requester doesn’t create an account, they can check the request status using the request number and a security key they receive at the time of the request.
You can create as many custom forms as you need for different requests. This ensures you get all the information you need from the requester the first time around and minimizes back-and-forth emails and phone calls.
Dynamic form fields can even deflect requests going to the wrong department. Suppose a user types the word “fire” into the form, but fire department records should go through a different process. You can set up a message explaining how to get records from the fire department.
Once a request is submitted, the system triggers automatic email notifications. Sometimes, the email goes to an admin (such as a city clerk), who then assigns the request to the department with the relevant records. In other cases, all users get an email; anyone can jump in to work on the request.
Administrators can track the progress of the request from their JustFOIA dashboard as it moves through its next steps.
Finding all the necessary documents to fill a records request often requires communication between multiple departments. It may also require clarification from the requester. With JustFOIA, all Correspondence is housed with the request. That means fewer emails, phone calls, and meetings.
When all responsive documents have been located, the user uploads them into JustFOIA’s Document Management module.
If you use Laserfiche for records management, the process is even simpler. The JustFOIA Laserfiche integration allows you to pull documents from your repository without leaving the JustFOIA app.
Email records (common with “any and all”-type requests) are usually exported from Outlook as a PST file. Within the Document Management module, you can:
- break apart a PST file into individual emails and attachments
- automatically detect and remove duplicate emails
- remove any non-responsive emails
- combine multiple documents into a single PDF so it’s easier for the requester to download and read.
Reminders and Escalations
Suppose the deadline for the request begins to approach, but the assigned individuals haven’t finished their part of the response. The system can be configured to automatically send reminder emails or even a notification to the person’s supervisor, who can then follow up. This cuts back on missed deadlines.
But before sending the documents to the requester, it’s essential to do everyone’s (least) favorite step… Redacting sensitive information. Proper redaction ensures that individuals’ personally identifiable information (PII) stays secure, innocent parties stay safe, and your organization is protected from lawsuits.
While you have several options for redaction software, most JustFOIA users prefer our in-app redaction capabilities.
You can redact either manually or automatically within JustFOIA. Automatic redaction functions include:
- bulk removal of specified words and phrases
- pattern matching
- proximity search
- commonly used formats for sensitive data, such as social security numbers or email addresses.
Or, you can manually remove information like images or whole pages.
Jurisdictions have differing requirements about what must be redacted. (For instance, Florida’s Sunshine Law requires the release of email addresses of private individuals in public records, but many other states don’t.) That’s why we configure your system’s auto-redaction to your exact specifications.
You also have the option to assign reasons for each redaction manually or automatically. Not only does this help the requester understand why the information was redacted, but it also helps you ensure that your redactions are in line with your state’s laws.
Because redaction is such a high-stakes part of the process, JustFOIA includes the option to require a second user, such as a supervisor or legal team, to review redactions before documents are released.
Once the files are redacted and reviewed, they’re moved into a folder called “Release on Complete.”
Invoice and Collect Payments Online
If your jurisdiction allows you to charge fees for public records, you can easily invoice and collect payment through the Payment Portal. The system tracks time and materials as the request is processed and generates an invoice. Or you can create the invoice manually at any time. The requester enters their credit card information through the secure portal.
Once all records are ready to be released and any payments have been made, you can mark the request complete. The requester receives a link that allows them to download the documents.
If the request is likely of high interest to the public, you can also release the record on your Public Portal. That way, anyone else who wants the record can access it without needing to submit a request.
Overcoming Obstacles with FOIA Management Software
A FOIA management solution helps you overcome many common obstacles that you may be facing in your records request process.
Manual Handling Challenges
FOIA request management software eliminates many manual tasks, which speeds up response times and reduces errors.
It’s hard to keep everyone in the loop when communication about requests is spread out among multiple email threads, phone calls, or memos. FOIA request management software supports all communication in one place and reduces inbox fatigue.
Timeliness and Missed Deadlines
Automated alerts, notifications, and reduced manual tasks help everyone stay on top of deadlines.
Resource Optimization Challenges
A standardized, repeatable process is easier to review and optimize. The data collected by FOIA request management software helps you make a case for allocating resources. And the time that you free up leads to better team morale and more bandwidth for priority tasks.