Cross-Agency Collaboration Key to FOIA Challenges

Increasing the speed and accuracy of FOIA processing not only benefits an agency’s employees by freeing up their time, but it also builds public trust when government agencies efficiently address citizens' concerns.

A recent report from the Government Accountability Office found that while Freedom of Information Act requests have decreased in the wake of the pandemic, FOIA backlogs have disproportionately increased.

The FOIA process is one of the most complex and notorious ways citizens engage with their government, so addressing its inefficiencies is one way agencies can deliver on the promises of President Joe Biden’s “Executive Order on Transforming Federal Customer Experience and Service Delivery to Rebuild Trust in Government.” FOIA process improvements can also offer valuable insights on how best to digitize the public sector.

FOIA mandates that a request be fulfilled within 20 days, but cumbersome workflows and complicated processes mean agencies often fall short of that promise. The onset of the pandemic further complicated FOIA processing due to issues such as limited access to IT networks, classified FOIA systems that prevented telework and FOIA requests received by mail. While agencies often identified creative workarounds to address these challenges, including processing requests based on their complexity, increasing communication with requesters and issuing interim releases, they must now transition from a temporary fix to long-term, scalable solution.

To consistently execute FOIA’s commitment to support government accountability and transparency, agencies must implement sustainable, efficient solutions to FOIA workflows without reinforcing the barriers to information sharing among agencies and divisions.

One major hurdle agencies encounter when processing FOIA requests is the redaction process. Certain sensitive information cannot be shared for a variety of reasons, including matters of national security, communication protected by attorney-client privilege, information dealing with an ongoing criminal investigation and personal or medical information, among others. If exempt information appears in a document that has been requested through FOIA, it must be redacted. Modern digital asset management (DAM) software provides storage space, as well as the ability to curate, tag, discover and group digital assets, or files. Once the digital assets are found, they can be run through a prescribed process that converts the files to PDFs, and then marks and codes content that meets specific patterns or phrases. To ensure accuracy when redacting information, human approval is still necessary, but the time-consuming heavy lifting can be handled entirely by DAMs.

Once a document has been successfully redacted, agencies can enlist digital and electronic signature tools to expedite and document the approval process. Secure digital signatures allow agencies to track and audit assets to ensure compliance with an overarching data governance structure. By incorporating secure e-signatures into the FOIA request process, agencies have a clear breadcrumb trail of who certified what and when. That definitive path makes disseminating FOIA-requested documents simpler and helps foster trust in government agencies by ensuring the authenticity of the document from the source.

While the basic steps involved in fulfilling a request are the same, all agencies have unique standards and requirements for FOIA requests. For mature digital asset and electronic records management, tools and processes must be customizable to suit a given agency's distinct needs without creating silos.

To truly streamline FOIA processes, solutions and processes must prioritize interoperability. From workflow managers, to DAMs, to digital signature solutions, each division and agency could implement a remedy for every step of the FOIA process. However, FOIA requests frequently require divisions to work together to share and compile information. When one agency adopts technology and processes that fail to work well with another agency’s tools, the overall process becomes less efficient. Those silos prevent data sharing, causing redundancy and delays. While there does not need to be a single, standardized tool used by the entire federal government, it is paramount that any solutions agencies do implement are compatible with one another.

Increasing the speed and accuracy of FOIA requests not only benefits an agency’s employees by freeing up their time, but it also builds public trust that government agencies are addressing their concerns and can do so efficiently.

While certain aspects of fulfilling a FOIA request will always be taxing, it is imperative to automate what can be automated to increase the speed, efficiency, and reliability of FOIA across federal agencies.

Agencies are beginning to capitalize on the technological solutions offered by the private sector in every arena. FOIA, while a unique case, is by no means an outlier, and modernizing the FOIA process will provide insights for digitizing government at scale. Since modernizing FOIA is such a monumental undertaking, a successful, harmonious execution would largely pave the way to easily updating smaller-scale secure document review workflows across the federal government.