A surge in FOIA requests brings new business to open records specialists

Solutions providers in the open records space have seen an uptick in demand among government agencies dealing with a surge of document requests from the public.

Information access laws have been on the books for a while. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which covers access to federal agency records, was signed into law in 1966. The Privacy Act of 1974 lets individuals access and request amendments to federal agency records that pertain to them. In addition, every state government and the District of Columbia have enacted freedom of information laws, which are sometimes called “sunshine” or open records laws.

More recently, legislation and initiatives around open government and open data have emerged at the federal, state and local government levels. Those efforts have boosted the public’s expectations for data availability.

John Dilenschneider, CEO of WebQA Inc., a Woodridge, Ill., provider of software as a service-based open records and customer service systems, said a growing records request workload is fueling demand for FOIA solutions. He said he recently spoke with a city of more than 200,000 residents that reported a 34% year-over-year uptick in the volume of records requests. Overall, Dilenschneider estimated that 80% of the company’s state and local government customers are reporting an increase in open records activity.

There's a lot of push on the transparency side. Citizens are becoming more engaged.

John DilenschneiderCEO of GovQA

That increase in engagement means more business for FOIA and open records specialists. The rise in interest has also attracted the attention of e-discovery solution providers, who see strong parallels between open records and e-discovery tasks. Some e-discovery vendors have entered the FOIA market, while the market may also see partnering arrangements between e-discovery and open records solutions companies.

Market Drivers

WebQA’s government division, GovQA, offers its Open Records Request software to state and local governments. The company’s platform covers a population base of 80 million citizens nationwide through hundreds of customers, such Salt Lake City, Harris County in Texas, Las Vegas, Miami, San Antonio and Chicago Public Schools.

Some of that customer demand stems from open government laws that call for agencies to make data more readily available.

In a recent example, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on August 7 signed two transparency bills into law. One piece of legislation requires the Department of Citywide Administrative Services to post a searchable and downloadable online version of the City Record within 24 hours of the print version. The City Record is New York’s journal for announcing upcoming public hearings, procurement bid solicitations and other information. The second law will require the city to publish its charter, administrative code and rules online.

In another move, in July Washington, D.C. announced its first city-wide online FOIA system for submitting and processing records requests. AINS Inc., an IT solutions and services provider based in Gaithersburg, Md., provides Washington, D.C. with its FOIAXpress application, which processes FOIA and Privacy Act requests.

In a statement, Vincent Gray, mayor of Washington, said the new FOIA system aims to “improve government transparency and accountability.”

However, the city has received criticism regarding its handling of FOIA requests. Last year, the D.C. Open Government Coalition, a group that seeks to improve public access to government information, noted that more than one-third of the public’s FOIA requests were delayed beyond 15 business days — the standard required under the city’s FOIA law. Half of the delayed requests took 26 days or more, according to the coalition.

Manual methods for handling requests and a lack of automated tools contribute to the slow response time among some governments.

“These state and local governments are now drowning in these requests and don’t have the right tools to go through them,” said Andy Wilson, CEO and founder of Logikcull, a Washington, D.C.,-based company that provides a cloud-based discovery and investigation platform.

When responding to a records request, much of the information a government entity needs to round up is contained within email messages, Wilson explained. An agency will pull together a number of personal storage tables (PSTs) — files that house Microsoft Outlook messages and attachments — and put them on a USB thumb drive. The drive is then shared around the office so employees working on the request can look at the emails and identify the information responsive to FOIA, he noted. Responsive messages and attachments are converted to PDF format and circulated in the office for redaction. That job involves the removal of personally identifiable information and other confidential data.

Wilson said Logikcull provides an alternative to manual processes. Files are uploaded into the Logikcull cloud, where they are organized and made searchable. Agencies can review and redact files in the cloud as opposed to passing around a thumb drive.

Logikcull in July reported a multiyear agreement to provide its platform to the City of Baltimore. The cloud technology will centralize the city’s document discovery and Public Information Act (PIA) requests. PIA is Maryland’s freedom of information law, which also applies to local governments.

Wilson said one Baltimore user recently called to say Logikcull will shave at least 40 hours off of each PIA request.

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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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