Why is specialized FOIA software better than email, spreadsheets, and whiteboards?

Getting public records requests in…and responses out…on time is a constant battle for every government agency in the country. Most state and local government agencies have a small team of 1 to 5 people responsible for processing all the Freedom of Information Act requests that come in from the public, media, attorneys, and other agencies. These records officers do what they can with the tools they are given – commonly email and Microsoft Excel. 

We’re here to tell you there’s a much better way.

Sure, you could share an “inbox”, or cc everyone on everything. You could write each request on a big whiteboard where everyone can see it or you could access an uber spreadsheet on a shared drive.

THE COVID ARGUMENT: You could do all these things BEFORE COVID made remote work the norm. We hope that most of us will be back together soon (even though reports say that many agencies will retain remote work options even after social distancing mandates have lifted). But now that you know how challenging it is to process public records requests during a pandemic (especially for agencies relying on on-prem software) – let’s solve this problem for future crises NOW.

Let’s compare the tools on 5 KEY PARAMETERS:

1. Speed & Efficiency

How much time do you waste sorting, filtering, and foldering your requests and collaborative documents inside your email inbox? How much time digging through your email to find something? 

How many clicks, file shares, calls, and meetings does it take to keep your team updated on the status of each request?  Every manual step eats minutes from your workday.

Email & Spreadsheet (Manual)

Specialized FOIA Software (Automated)

We reduced our average open records request completion time by 66% while experiencing a 673% increase in request volume during the same time period without a single violation of open records laws.

Moraima MontenegroPublic Information Officer and GovQA customer, City of San Antonio, Texas

How Efficient Are You?

  • 121 email messages per day are the average for an office worker.
  • 3.2 HOURS is the average time spent checking work email per day.
  • 86% of all email traffic is spam
Calculate Your ROI

2. Workload Volume Reduction

Not only can specialized FOIA software help save you time on each request, but it can also reduce the number of requests you get in the first place. It’s true! And it’s important because, according to the Sunlight Foundation (and GovQA customer experiences), request volumes are consistently going up by 16-20% every year!

The point isn’t to stop requesters from accessing records – not at all! The point is to ensure that you and your staff have time to respond to earnest requests and not get bogged down following up on vexatious, duplicates, or requests for records you don’t own.

Email & Spreadsheet (Manual)

Specialized FOIA Software (Automated)

One GovQA customer (a large city PD) is able to collect nearly $30,000 a year that they weren’t charging for before they implemented GovQA!

What is a workflow?

3. Real-Time Insights & Collaboration

Is every critical detail of your public records requests easily accessible to everyone who needs it?  With so many moving parts in each request, the answer using manual tools like email, spreadsheets, and whiteboards is likely: no.  

When you use specialized FOIA software,  all the key details get centralized and documented under each request – so at any time (even years later), you don’t have to ask the question, “Whose email is it in?”  Instead, you just pop open the request and it’s all there in one place. 

Not only are requests centralized…they are real-time too! When not using specialized FOIA software, requests come into your email, get logged on your spreadsheet and calendar. Then what? Do you have daily or weekly meetings to discuss status? What happens when the Executive Director or Chief asks you for an update or a report? Do you cringe?  Panic a little? Spreadsheets and whiteboards are outdated the moment you click “save” or return your dry erase marker to its tray.

With specialized FOIA software, everything is real-time. Request statuses can be programmed to update automatically according to your unique workflows behind the scenes. You can eliminate the need for manual gathering of statuses and those time-consuming status meetings. Everyone from the requester to the Executive Director or Chief can see the status whenever they want – either via the public portal for requesters, or the admin portal for agency staff.

Email & Spreadsheet (Manual)

Specialized FOIA Software (Automated)

How automated is your current workflow?

4. Securing Data and Loss Prevention

Email is the #1 most used business tool.  Everyone uses email.  And that is part of the problem. In its ubiquity lies vulnerability. Email is a lucrative target for hackers and bad actors because it’s so prevalent.  

Did you know that 1 in every 99 emails is a phishing attack? So, the more you rely on email to do your work, the more vulnerable you are.

Another type of security – data integrity and accuracy, is also important for public records departments. The risk of manual error, combined with poor spreadsheet design, overly complex spreadsheets, and lack of training make spreadsheets the “most dangerous piece of software on the planet”, according to Economist Tim Worstall in this Forbes article and additional insights found here.  If your requester data is compromised, so is your audit trail and your footing in a court of law.

Email & Spreadsheet (Manual)

Specialized FOIA Software (Automated)


of malware is delivered by email. Ransomware attacks are growing more than 350% annually – organizations fall victim every 14 seconds


is the average cost to organizations and the average time spent on a malware attack is 50 days


of IT and IT security decision-makers said they anticipate their company’s volume of spoofing will increase over the coming year*


of malicious email attachments are Microsoft Office files

*With COVID-19 as the impetus, bad actors took advantage of the human desire for information during a time of uncertainty by mimicking authoritative sources of global health information, such as the CDC and WHO

5. Improved Requester Relations/Accountability

Internally, a specialized FOIA software solution helps you better allocate resources.  Externally, it helps you stay on top of every detail so nothing falls through the cracks.  That means that, without any extra effort, you can improve accountability and customer relations when you use a specialized FOIA software solution.

Email & Spreadsheet (Manual)

Specialized FOIA Software (Automated)

FOIA Software Bonus: More Time for Other Things

With specialized FOIA software you don’t have to stay hyper-focused on deadlines or followup – you can go away to do other tasks…put response management off for a few days…and then jump back into the request queue to see all the relevant info right at your fingertips when you need it.

Who gets what? Automate your workflow!

If it’s a constant struggle to route requests and reviews internally and externally because you have part-time or untrained staff; or because your agency just hasn’t formally documented your delegation, escalation, and notification process, specialized FOIA software will help you.  If you choose GovQA, automated workflows, fully configured to bend to you (not the other way around) are programmed in detail by our engineers and will automatically route or delegate your requests and communications to the correct staff.

During the implementation of GovQA FOIA solutions, we work closely with your team to map out your agency’s existing processes (whether they’re manual or partially automated), then we apply our decades of government experience to help you optimize those workflows before turning them into labor-saving routines in the GovQA system.  

After you “Go-Live” with your new FOIA software, your team’s power users can optimize/tweak these settings whenever they want – or ask us to do it for you any time your procedures change due to personnel shifts, legislation mandates, etc.

No matter what size your agency, or how many requests you get in a year, purchasing specialized software to process public records requests will make your agency run smoother; reduce your risk of errors, missed deadlines, and cyberattacks; prepare you for any spikes in request volume; allow you to complete your work remotely when necessary, and improve your relations with the public.

Ready to see a demo?

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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