Ah, FOIA – thinking about filling those records requests just has your heart singing, doesn’t it? And it’s a good thing you have endless time to work on them, right?
If not – well, you’ve landed in the right place. At JustFOIA, our goal is to streamline the public records request process and make it painless for both you and the requester. Read on to learn our top tips.
Not only does providing a seamless records request process for your citizens improve their trust in your organization, but it also saves your staff time in the long run.
Enable online access and payments. Convenient methods for information requests could include fillable PDFs, web-based forms, and so on.
Require requesters to contact you by physical mail, email, or carrier pigeon. Only accept checks, money orders, or gold doubloons.
Make it easy to find information about submitting requests. Examples of convenient places to put this information on your agency’s website are on an FAQ or forms page. Information should be easily accessed from either the desktop or mobile version of your site.
Bury information seven clicks deep in your website, or require requestors to contact you for information.
Provide detailed information about the process, including:
- Submission options: In some states, agencies must accept requests through a variety of methods, such as in person or by fax, email, or phone call. Make it easy for requesters to understand their options.
- Fee schedules: If your state or agency allows you to charge fees, such as for the time employees spend processing requests, be sure that requesters have this information upfront so they can make informed decisions.
- Expectations about timelines: This includes when requesters can expect to hear from you about the status of their request, as well as estimated timelines for receiving information.
Leave your requester consulting their crystal ball about how much they’ll pay or when they’ll hear from you.
Communicate with requesters. Create an easy way to update your requester about the status of the request, such as through templated emails.
Wait until requesters contact you and they’re already frustrated!
We know that handling FOIA requests isn’t your only job, so it’s important to find a way to make the experience painless for your staff.
Create transparency. All departments need a clear way to see the status of requests. Exactly how to do this will vary depending on the size of your department, the number of people involved in working on the request, or whether your staff works from the office or remotely. Shared spreadsheets, a central email address monitored by multiple staff members, or access databases can provide a streamlined experience.
Silo information in individuals’ emails, on someone’s desk calendar, scribbled on the back of a grocery receipt, etc.
Develop a system for tracking task assignment and completion. It’s possible to do this with a checklist in a shared Word file or your project management software. However, your best bet for keeping track of tasks is in a solution that is easily configurable to the steps most often used in records requests.
Rely on emails that get lost in overflowing inboxes.
Simplify communication. If you’re communicating with requesters primarily via email, make things easy for yourself by setting up pre-configured templates to provide updates as the work progresses.
Draft new, nearly-identical emails from scratch each time you need to communicate with a requester.
Have a plan for transferring large files. Work with your IT team to set up a secure file transfer solution, or plan to send a USB device or DVD.
Panic the first time someone requests a file too large to deliver over email.
A Better Way to Handle Records Requests
All of these tips for streamlining the public records request process can be implemented without a specialized platform. But we think there’s an even better way forward: JustFOIA. JustFOIA is an all-in-one public record request management platform that’s easy for both staff and the public. Key features include: