When it comes to fulfilling public records requests, government agencies understand that time is of the essence. According to the Freedom of Information Act, the public has the right to be informed about government operations and has the right to receive the information in a timely manner. Because our society values government transparency, we have created laws and penalties for non-compliance. Public records managers are on the front lines of compliance, providing access to and delivering documents about the conduct of governments.
From birth and death records to police reports and surveillance footage – and so much more – the number of public records requests continues to increase. Government agencies are challenged with meeting this demand promptly all while balancing issues of privacy and security, allocating available resources, and streamlining the process.
Avoiding costly and time-consuming litigation is a major factor in meeting time deadlines. Jurisdictions have established processes to remain compliant and fulfill requests in a timely manner to avoid:
- Excessive staff time spent addressing lawsuits, resulting in less time spent on processing new requests and creating a loop of new missed deadlines
- The cost of lawyers to manage the litigation process
- The cost of damages if a case is lost
- Damage to the agency’s reputation and loss of trust by the media and public.
Processing complex requests in a matter of days can be very challenging. With the volume of public records requests increasing every day, why is meeting time deadlines so important? Let’s examine a few important reasons to process public records requests in a timely manner.
Reduce the Risk of Litigation
Federal FOIA and state public records laws clearly outline the premise that citizens want transparency in government conduct and operations and that public records requests should be processed within a reasonable time frame. Requesters can generally expect to receive their documents from government agencies within 5 to 30 days, after which government agencies may be subject to litigation and fines.
Though jurisdictions strive to remain transparent and fulfill all requests in a timely manner, some cases still end up in court. In August 2020, the ACLU of Louisiana filed a public records lawsuit against the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections, alleging the agency failed to turn over information regarding a panel that reviewed prisoners for possible release to mitigate the risk of coronavirus spreading throughout the prisons. It is also common for the media to bring litigation against government agencies in order to obtain public records in a timely manner. The Las Vegas Review-Journal sued Clark County (Nevada) in order to secure unredacted autopsy records as part of the publication’s investigation into the county’s child protection division.
Avoid Excessive Fees and Fines
Lawsuits abound in the world of public records, and the fines and settlements which result from missing deadlines can vary widely. The Albuquerque Journal reports that in 2019, local and state government agencies paid more than $1.2 million in penalties and legal fees for violating New Mexico’s Inspection of Public Records Act.
In many cases, private citizens will sue government agencies directly for violating public records deadlines and requirements. In October 2020, a resident of Detroit brought a lawsuit against the city of Dearborn Heights, Michigan, and its Council Chairwoman, for FOIA violations. The lawsuit seeks a financial reward of $1,000 in punitive damages, as well as a civil fine to be paid to the plaintiff between $2,500 and $7,500.
Optimize Your Resources
Lawsuits and fines create an unwanted strain on government agency resources. Though there is a call for greater transparency, some agencies may find they are underfunded or understaffed (or both) to meet the demand. Meeting records request deadlines will ultimately help government agencies avoid losing precious time and taxpayer money.
Sometimes outside and unexpected forces can create a great strain on existing resources. The COVID-19 pandemic has made it more difficult for government agencies to meet the demand for public records requests and, in many cases, has delayed response time. For example, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press itemized more than 130 instances in which state and local officials across 39 states and the District of Columbia cited the pandemic as a reason to limit access to public records.
While many delays were unavoidable in the short term (especially for agencies relying on paper-based manual request processing), it could be argued that longer delays were costly not only in terms of potential litigation exposure and negative public perception — but also lost opportunities to act on the very public data caught up in the backlog.
Meet Deadlines to Improve Transparency and Compliance
Meeting time deadlines and improving government transparency seemingly go hand in hand. When a government agency can promptly fulfill requests for public information, the risk of facing lawsuits and large fines is practically eliminated. Streamlining the process for responding to public records requests is key for government agencies to deliver information, stay compliant, and improve transparency.
Each jurisdiction has different FOIA request management needs; and configurable solutions can help government entities avoid costly litigation and optimize existing resources. Implementing automated processes and scalable solutions has helped government agencies meet deadlines and reduce workload. For more information on public records and workflow solutions for government agencies, request a demo.
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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 email@example.com.
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