The unique events of 2020 changed the way we live and work and will likely have a long-term impact on industries across the board. GovQA Chief Evangelist Jen Snyder recently spoke with Emily Hayes, Assistant Deputy Clerk and FOIA Coordinator for Loudoun County, Virginia, about the pandemic’s impact on the public records space in that area of the country.
The situation in Loudoun County offers a glimpse into what other counties have dealt with since the onset of the pandemic. Operations shifted from in-person to online and communication changed; even the types of public requests and requesters looked different. Still, the public records space continues to roll with changes and look to the future.
Changes in Work Environment: From In-Office to Digital
Prior to the emergency shelter-in-place ordinance issued on March 16, 2020, Loudoun County was operating much like any other type of organization. Most business was carried out in the office, with a small percentage of employees working from home. The pandemic created a need for traditional in-office organizations to shift to a remote workforce and introduced challenges for those employees who were not accustomed to working from home.
The county had to consider everything from equipment and internet connections to network access for every employee. “It was definitely a learning curve for a lot of people,” states Emily Hayes, Assistant Deputy Clerk and FOIA Coordinator for Loudoun County. “Once everyone was on-board, thanks to our IT team, it was a pretty seamless transition from being in-office to working from home,” Hayes says.
Though Loudoun County is now back to operating mostly in-office, Hayes believes this was a good opportunity to evaluate existing processes and test the idea of a remote workforce should the need arise in the future. “It was a great opportunity to step back and see where we stand in terms of what we can accomplish from home,” says Hayes.
Communicating in a Remote Environment
Keeping the lines of communication open can be challenging under normal circumstances but connecting and sharing information when all employees are working remotely presents a tricky situation in and of itself. Loudoun County managed its communication process with 70 remote employees through a combination of the GovQA platform and email. Its multiple departments communicated seamlessly through the platform to reach the common goal of processing and releasing records.
This seamless communication method makes it easy for employees and departments to remain compliant and avoid litigation and fines. GovQA Chief Evangelist Jen Snyder says, “We have heard from some of our customers who say if this [the pandemic] would have happened a year ago before they deployed technology, they would have been furloughed because they could not have accomplished their job.” She adds, “There would have been legislative issues because they were out of compliance.”
Requests (and Requesters) Continue to Change and Evolve
As people began to work from home in early 2020, there was anecdotal evidence that requests for public records decreased. Employees were busy with learning to work from home and balancing family priorities so public records requests seemed to rest on the back burner, at least for a bit. Volume has bounced back to normal, if not higher, levels and governments are seeing new types of requests.
COVID-related requests have become more prevalent, with the public wanting to know what their county is doing to combat COVID, what their school board is doing to re-open schools, COVID counts in local jails, and more. COVID-related requests can require additional oversight or security review, depending on the government entity fulfilling the requests, and can take longer to process.
Additionally, those requesting public records have changed. Whereas many entities typically dealt with local requesters, there has been a recent shift to requesters having a national presence. National media outlets, research groups, and watchdog groups are becoming more interested in local and county affairs particularly when it comes to politics, elections, and civil unrest.
Navigating the Future of Public Records
As Loudoun County explored online programs like Skype, GoToMeeting, and Zoom for public meetings, it realized the need to store new documents such as chat logs and prior meetings. Hayes points out, “The bread and butter of public records are facilitating public business, whether it be virtually or in person. Business is still being conducted and the public has a right to know what’s happening. Just because it’s virtual doesn’t mean that there’s any less business being conducted.”
It has become essential for public records departments to explore new technologies and apply them to public business. Navigating a new platform includes understanding not only its capabilities but what information it will produce. Over the past year, the public records sector has seen its fair share of changes and there is little doubt that the pandemic will leave a lasting imprint on business operations. With the right technology and public records solutions, government entities can feel confident in finding their way in these changing times.
THE PEERS IN
PUBLIC RECORDS PODCAST
For in-depth discussions about the challenges facing agencies like Loudoun County, check out past episodes of the PiPR Podcast.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.