All requests are not created equal in the world of public records. Some are straightforward and easily processed; while others require much more time, effort, and resources. 

The evolution of public records in recent years has created new record types (e.g. body camera footage and emails) and has meant government agencies must find ways to manage these record types and process requests for the files in a timely manner. From new record types to the time spent processing requests, to the number of people needed to review them, several factors contribute to the increased complexity of public records.

Increased Time Investment

Time is a precious commodity in government agencies. As FOIA requests become more complex, it takes more time to fulfill them. There are several reasons why requests can take longer than normal, but these are among the most common:

  • The request might be routine, but labor-intensive or time-consuming reports are required.
  • Unclear or ambiguous request parameters make it challenging to process.
  • The request is prompted by large-scale or disruptive events, such as the pandemic, major weather events, protests or circumstances related to civil unrest.
  • Special management and intensive involvement of personnel are required. In these instances, different combinations of staff, managers, legal support, and even elected leaders might be needed.

How Many Documents Does it Take to Fulfill a Request?

It might sound like a riddle, but fully executing a request can require documents of all sizes and formats. Adding to the growing complexity of public records is the fact that more documents are needed to fulfill requests completely. This increased quantity of documents is attributed, in part, to defining what a “document” is. Digital records are becoming more common; and the explosion of email and social media has introduced more “documents” into the public records fold, increasing the amount of information available.

File Sizes on the Rise

The number of response documents goes hand in hand with the increased file size of response documents. Video files are some of the largest files agencies will be required to process – and the increased use of body cams and surveillance video dumps exponentially increases the file sizes requiring review. 

In addition, many small files can be combined for processing (such as email records or text messages) and doing so can create huge files. In fact, within three years it is estimated that the average file size doubled from about 10MB to about 20MB. Large files require substantial storage space and can be cumbersome when it comes to reviewing and, in some cases, redacting their contents.

More Eyeballs on the Request Process

Increasingly complicated requests can expand into different areas of an agency, increasing the number of people who need to be a part of the review process. Nearly every FOIA request follows the following steps:

  • Intake
  • Vet/Triage
  • Gather/Track
  • Review/Redact
  • Respond
  • Report

Though these steps seem straightforward, there can certainly be hiccups along the way which slow down the process, especially when the request is a complicated one. A request can get caught in a loop and be subject to additional steps and review, requiring more eyes to oversee the process. Staff charged with fulfilling public records requests are learning to use tools and technology to meet demand while acquiring specialized skills and keeping up with changing public records laws and policies.

Can You Please Clarify?

Given the complexity of today’s public records requests, it’s more common than ever that clarification will be needed to understand or narrow parameters. But clarification emails can clog the request process and slow down the overall response time. Staff time is needed not only to send the clarification request to the requester, but also to wait for the response, and potentially seek internal clarification to confirm the record is releasable. Each of these steps puts a strain on valuable resources and slows down other projects.

New File Formats Create Need to Adapt

Video and audio files are relatively new to the public records landscape and agencies continue to adapt to dealing with these file formats. By their nature, these files create complexity when it comes to storage, redaction, privacy, and access. Jurisdictions using public records software solutions paired with AI-enabled redacting tools to manage processes can help mitigate complexity and create efficiencies.

Complex FOIA requests continue to rise; and as the public records space evolves, they are likely to only become more complicated. Managing complexity and streamlining processes will be key priorities for government agencies into the future. With automated workflows and custom-configured solutions, jurisdictions will be better equipped to handle and process complex public records requests.

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