What are the Issues When Communication Breaks Down?

Cross-department coordination is a best practice for government agencies and promotes transparency, consistency, and responsiveness. However, most government agencies use a combination of automated and manual processes to fulfill FOIA requests which can be challenging to manage. Cumbersome manual layers of reviews and oversight processes not only slow down requests but can leave an agency vulnerable to litigation. Avoiding a cross-department communication breakdown can help avoid delays and mitigate confusion within agencies and for the requester – but how can it be done?

We’ll examine the importance of cross-department coordination, lessons learned from lawsuits related to poor communication, and how technology can help improve cross-department collaboration. 

Why Is Cross-Department Coordination So Important in Processing FOIA Requests?

Whether a jurisdiction is centralized or decentralized, smooth inter- and intra-departmental coordination and comprehensive communication plans are not only helpful best practices in fulfilling public records requests, but they are also critical for ensuring timely and efficient responses. Each department which “owns” or oversees records has an important role in the FOIA request process, some requiring more time and resources than others; but all equally vital. From identifying the appropriate records to redacting legitimately private information from files, every part of the request workflow helps ensure data security and compliance.

Legislation changes also impact how agency departments work together. Government agencies try to keep up with and track legislation updates in the name of strengthening transparency because any relevant changes need to be communicated to every party working on public records requests. Uncoordinated efforts between departments and agencies can lead to a situation where “the left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing.” When that happens, each party can be working against one another and making the goal harder to achieve. 

Whether as a response to civil unrest, a public health crisis, or other trigger, requests continue to rise in volume and complexity throughout the country. Though not every state has a mandated open records request response time, agencies are expected to fulfill requests within a “reasonable” timeframe not only to meet the needs of external requesters but to avoid backlogs and prevent burdens on their internal systems. Failure to comply with delivering on requests can result in fines and litigation for the agency holding the records.

Mitigate Litigation with Collaboration

Avoiding litigation is a growing government agency priority. Lengthy and costly lawsuits can be the result of inconsistent processes and communication; cross-department coordination can prevent them. 

Once communication breaks down internally, sometimes the next step is litigation. In the case of the Staunton, Virginia City Council a council member filed suit against the mayor and vice mayor, accusing them of violating the Freedom of Information Act as it related to documents needed to consider for voting on an issue. Cohesive communication and increased transparency are critical for fulfilling all public records requests, including those filed internally.

Create More Consistency With Technology

Technology and automation can help repair inconsistent processes and fill gaps in cross-department collaboration. FOIA management software helps keep all necessary parties in the communication loop with notifications, automated workflows configured with the GovQA Way, @mentions, and external exchange requests. Centralized FOIA request solutions help jurisdictions better manage cross-department coordination and create consistent workflows.

As FOIA requests continue to increase, cross-department coordination is more important than ever before. Agencies that streamline communication and processes will find greater efficiencies than those which struggle with inconsistencies and delayed responses. Automated software solutions improve the public records request experience, for both internal and external parties, and can prevent perilous communication breakdowns.

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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 peers@govqa.com.

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