Average user interactions (defined as the number of people involved in a specific records request) relate closely to the average time spent on a request as a measure of records request complexity. Although it seems like minimizing the amount of time spent and the number of people involved in requests is the most strategic approach, it’s not that straightforward – especially when the requests and the environment they arise from are becoming more complex by the day. You also have to consider the capabilities and values of your specific agency and, if it exists within a larger jurisdiction – its overall transparency and responsiveness goals.
A request gone wrong
Some requests really are uncomplicated – easy to understand, easy to fulfill, and easy for one person to handle. With automated tools like GovQA that let agencies flag records for proactive sharing, you can even have zero people involved when requesters can “serve themselves” with records they can find and download themselves.
But even apparently simple requests handled by one person can go wrong, as a 2019 Washington State lawsuit showed. A request was made to the Kittitas County, WA Sheriff’s Office for police reports, photos, and videos related to an individual. The records officer made two critical errors:
- she failed to identify 95 responsive photos and two responsive videos;
- she called the requester for clarification and during the call stated, erroneously, that state law (related to right to privacy) provided that as he was not a party to the subject incident he was not entitled to receive most of the records.
After the records officer retired, her successor reviewed the request, concluded it may have been mishandled, and again contacted the requester. The end result was that the WA Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling finding that the county had acted negligently and awarding the requester $15,498. So that means not only did Kittitas County have to pay a penalty of over $15,000, it had to pay for a defense in three court trials, which likely dwarfed the amount of the penalty.
More complexity calls for greater expertise
While this kind of mishap is probably rare and many requests are successfully handled by one person, it does represent the worst-case scenario governments focus intensely on preventing. GovQA’s 2021 Peers in Public Records survey (PiPRSurvey) results show that meeting request deadlines and avoiding lawsuits are jurisdictions’ two top public records priorities (and meeting deadlines is one way to avoid lawsuits).
In addition to the number of staff interactions as a measure of complexity, a different perspective on the people factor is the portfolio of skills that’s required to handle requests appropriately and meet other goals like promoting transparency and community trust. When you look at jurisdictions’ other top priority areas for public records requests – including data security, adapting to legislation, large file sizes, cross-department coordination, tracking and logging exemptions, and reporting and oversight – you begin to get a picture of the range of expertise that’s needed to make sure everything runs smoothly and efficiently, especially with technology galloping ahead.
A complex request, end-to-end
Let’s look at all the hands and minds that can get involved in a complex public records request.
The initial request, made to the intake staff at a medium-size city, was being made by a citizens’ rights organization for a range of records related to law enforcement activity at a protest. Since the request was complex and potentially controversial, the intake staff referred it up to the records administrator himself. The administrator who worked with other staff to identify that several categories of records, including written reports, logs, operational plans, e-mails and and officer-worn bodycam video were likely responsive.
The videos were housed in an online digital evidence management system that the records administrator didn’t have access to, so the city’s IT Manager had to spend much of one day searching the online system for potentially responsive videos based on multiple criteria, and came up with almost 150 videos totaling around 100 hours. After an initial review of the footage, the records administrator concluded the videos contained non-disclosable information and had to research redaction methods. When this process revealed the request would be unduly burdensome under state law, the records administrator involved the city attorney and department management to vet a proposal to ask the requester to voluntarily reduce the request, since state law did not allow staff costs to be recovered from requesters. The attorney then communicated with the requester about narrowing the request, which they agreed to.
To redact the reduced quantity of videos, the records administrator had to identify the exempt visual and audio segments then separate the audio and video tracks as separate MP3 and MP4 files. She then uploaded these files to stock video creation software, edited them, then reunited them as MP4 files. 35.3 hours. The records administrator then coordinated with the intake staff to create the invoice for the minimal costs the city was allowed to recover and coordinate with the requester to provide the video files.
More than just receive and respond
Nearly every public records request includes the process steps outlined below – and once complex requests get going, some steps can keep cycling before the request can move on to the next one.
- Intake – successfully connect with the requester to successfully set the clock running on the request.
- Vet/Assess the request to determine what’s needed next. Is the request straightforward, or does it require further input through clarification, coordination or consultation?
- Plan/Delegate – once the assessment is complete, plan to the extent possible the “life” of the request – can it be filled in one installment? When is a first installment due? If one installment isn’t possible, when could the rest be provided? What kind of review will be needed? What further communication with the requester will be needed and when? How does the plan need to change given ongoing progress while still achieving needed results?
- Gather and review – begin the process of reaching out to staff for needed documents, input, and direction from legal, management, and other agencies, while tracking “who’s on first.”
- Review/Redact – review rounds, as needed for sensitive/exempt data that cannot be released. This is where some of GovQA’s best efficiency maximizing and time-saving features come into play: Attachment Search with OCR, which makes image documents machine-readable and searchable for responsive keywords and non-disclosable data; and Veritone, which can be integrated with GovQA and uses AI to redact exempt data from video, reducing staff time required by 90%.
- Respond/Release – work with the requester to provide records and document request closure.
- Report on request metrics, as needed.
A diverse mix of sophisticated skills
As the example above illustrates, across the records request steps, this mix of skills is needed:
- Ability to track systematically – make sure no requests are lost and are appropriately followed through the process. This is a core automated function of GovQA.
- People skills and diplomacy – Ability to work with all kinds of people, keep processes smooth and cooperative, and sometimes be a lightning rod for frustration or even hostility.
- Analytical/Strategizing – identify and implement best methods for maximizing efficiency across all steps and parties involved. Can you make the request “go away” through a conversation with the requester to provide information? Will half an hour of costly attorney time still allow you to save five hours of other staff time? If a requester will end up getting documents from several agencies, is it better to create one point of contact for the requester or separate points of contact at each agency? What can you learn from past requests to improve request handling and systems in the future?
- Good judgment – ability to recognize when there is sufficient information to make the right decision about handling request steps and when other eyes/opinions are needed. Do you understand a statute well enough to accurately assess what exemptions may apply, or do you need guidance from more experienced staff or the legal department?
- Persistence and thoroughness – even though public records requests come with built-in deadlines, persistence is still needed to see requests through from intake to close-out every single time – any request that is lost or mishandled could end up in a lawsuit.
Tech/IT skills and knowledge – increasingly, those involved in public records requests must be savvy about rapidly emerging technological developments in gathering, analyzing and managing records. In a world where big data rules, while it’s not necessary to keep up with IT staff blow for blow, not having some common understanding will decrease efficiency and risk staff responsible for providing data being cut off from it.
Upping the game to keep pace with public records challenges
The fact that our world is getting more complex and moving faster every day directly impacts the complexity of public records requests. With governments trying to keep up, regulations and policies become more and more complex. Tools and technology (like email, social media, drone videos) often solve one problem only to be replaced by another, and often that problem is vast increases in the amount of records, which can up the risk that searches for records are inadequate – a common reason for public records-related lawsuits.
All this results in the need for higher and more specialized skill levels and experience to try to meet the letter and spirit of public records laws, public expectations, and government goals for transparency and efficiency – making it ever more challenging to minimize staff involved. And, of course, involving more staff adds even more complexity.
The Peers in Public Records Newsletter (formerly FOIA News) is a bi-monthly e-newsletter brought to you by GovQA. It is a collection of the latest trends in public record requests and government transparency initiatives, shared stories, live roundtables, informative case studies, and actionable knowledge that will help you calm the chaos and keep your organization compliant. Send your comments to email@example.com.
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