How did priorities change over the last year?

The unprecedented events of 2020 have likely impacted the landscape of public records request processing for years to come. In order to determine just how much has changed, GovQA adjusted its annual Peers in Public Records survey (PiPRSurvey) to gather qualitative data on how the crisis affected state and local agencies and their 2021 priorities. 

In this second annual PiPRSurvey, conducted in late 2020, the responses shed light on the priorities which are top of mind for agencies for 2021 across the country at each level of government. [See results from the previous survey conducted in late 2019 about priorities for 2020 here; here; and here]. We received over 700 submissions and 300+ completed surveys on priorities for 2021 from public records custodians working in 200 unique agencies all across the country.

Historical Survey Data

With two years of data from the PiPRSurvey to review, it can be helpful to examine the information to see how priorities are shifting from year to year. Here are a few highlights to consider:

Holding Steady

— Meeting Time Deadlines continued to take precedence for government agencies and ranked as the #1 priority in both 2020 and 2021.
— Priorities that stayed about the same between 2020 and 2021 include Reporting/Oversight and Cost Recovery.

Moving Up

— Government agencies are seeing Request Volume Increases across jurisdictions, which is reflected in this year’s jump from #7 to #3 on the priority list.
— High Profile Events moved up the list from #12 to #5, likely a reflection of civil unrest and the ongoing pandemic.
— Vexatious Requests also increased in priority from 4th from the bottom to 7th from the top.

Moving Down

— In a surprising shift, Avoiding Lawsuits moved down to #8 in priority rank from #2 in 2020.
— Data Security, ranked #3 in 2020, dropped to #6 in 2021.
— Adapting to Legislation saw a drop, from #4 to #9.

New Concerns Make Their Debut

Several additional new challenges appeared on the 2021 list, marking their PiPRSurvey debut. These include:

  • Request Complexity (#2)
  • Remote Work (#4)
  • Staff Shortages and Skills Gaps (#11)
  • Updating Handbooks, Policies, and Procedures (#12)
  • Video and Audio Redactions (#14 and #15, respectively)
  • Open Data Initiatives (#16)

Here are the overall results for 2021 priorities:

MEETING TIME DEADLINES

71.7 % ranked Meeting Time Deadlines a high or highest priority for 2021

The steady flow of FOIA requests shows no sign of slowing down, and fulfilling open records requests within a state’s deadline is a high priority for government agencies of every size and type. A majority (nearly 72%) of this year’s survey respondents see meeting timelines as a priority or high priority. Promptly fulfilling requests can eliminate the chance for litigation or hefty fines, but can be challenging without the proper workflow and processes.

Learn more about meeting deadlines here.

COMPLEXITY

64% ranked Increases in Complexity a high or highest priority for 2021

Anecdotal evidence and actual data support the idea that public records are becoming more complex. To learn more about the complexity of open records, GovQA’s PiPRSurvey (conducted in late 2019 about 2020 agency priorities) asked about: quantity of responsive documents, large file sizes, clarification emails, video/audio files, collaboration, inaccessible records due to remote work, and digitization of records. The results of this set of questions support the quantitative data collected from GovQA’s anonymized data from 250+ state and local governments for the companion Peers in Public Records Index (PiPRIndex), released in 2021.

Learn more about Complexity here and here

Complexity is Growing

Managing Requests for Public Records is Getting Harder.
Now There’s PROOF.

Data from the 2021 PiPRSurvey on the causes of increased complexity in public records shown above.

The PiPRSurvey provides valuable qualitative data on the state of the public records industry.

On the topic of public records complexity, the PiPRIndex now adds quantitative data too!

The Peers in Public Records Index (PiPRIndex) tracks complexity over time.

Learn more about the companion Index to the Survey here.

REQUEST VOLUME INCREASES

56.2% ranked Request Volume Increases a high or highest priority for 2021

The number of public record requests an organization receives each day/month/year is an important measure of your workload. The push for greater government transparency, coupled with civil unrest and a public health crisis, has created a significant rise in open record request volumes across the U.S. in recent years. Most respondents estimate that request volume has increased anywhere from 25-50% in the last three years.

Learn more about Request Volume Increases here and here.

Join the Conversation. What are your peers prioritizing as they look to 2022?

Take the 2022 Peers In Public Records Survey.

REMOTE WORK

52.9% ranked Remote Work a high or highest priority for 2021

The unprecedented impact of COVID-19 resulted in the need for remote work, a concept that was not terribly common in the world of public records prior to the pandemic. Many government agencies faced this challenge (and opportunity) and adapted to the “new normal” to fulfill FOIA requests.

Learn more about the impacts of remote work on public records here.

HIGH PROFILE EVENTS

50.2% ranked High Profile Event Communication a high or highest priority for 2021

Critical incidents (like severe weather, pandemics, and officer-involved shootings) add another layer of urgency to fulfilling public records requests, while also sometimes overseeing or managing the events; but agencies must strike a balance between compliance and protection of sensitive information. Jurisdictions may take extra steps to ensure the process is capable of handling surges while protecting PII.

Learn more about managing public records for high profile events here.

DATA SECURITY

51% ranked Data Security/Cybersecurity a high or highest priority for 2021

Given the enormous amount of data government agencies collect every day and the potential damaging effects of confidential information falling into the wrong hands, data security is a growing concern. From data breaches to CJIS/HIPAA violations, survey respondents have major concerns around data security. With cybersecurity attacks becoming more frequent and widespread, jurisdictions are taking responsibility for protecting sensitive data from growing security threats.

Learn more about public records data security here and here.

ACCIDENTAL RELEASE OF PII

51.3% ranked worry about lawsuits related to improper exemptions or redactions (such as accidental release of PII) for 2021

Protecting legitimately private and highly sensitive information has become a growing priority for agencies storing and handling massive amounts of data. State and local governments must take great care to safeguard personally identifiable information (PII) and confidential data contained in records when processing FOIA requests.

Learn more about PII in public records here.

VEXATIOUS REQUESTS

47.4% ranked Vexatious/Redundant Requests a high or highest priority for 2021

Burdensome or vague open record requests can quickly bog down any government agency. The time and money it takes to fulfill these vexatious requests does not justify the return on investment for jurisdictions. Lean-staff government agencies cannot spare resources to take on vexatious requests and are taking steps to stop them.

Learn more about vexatious public record request solutions here.

Join the Conversation. What are your peers prioritizing as they look to 2022?

Take the 2022 Peers In Public Records Survey.

AVOIDING LAWSUITS

44.2% ranked Litigation Increases a high or highest priority for 2021

Government agencies take great care to avoid long, drawn-out legal battles which drain a jurisdiction’s resources and generate negative press attention. The most common types of public records lawsuits respondents are concerned about include:

  • failure to produce requested records within the time allowed by law
  • improper exemptions or redactions, and
  • fees or charges for open records.

Consistency and timeliness are key, but there is much more for local and state governments to consider when trying to mitigate litigation.

Learn more about avoiding lawsuits here.

ADAPTING TO LEGISLATION

37.3% ranked Legislation Changes a high or highest priority for 2021

The impact of changing laws, mandates, and legal precedents on open records can not be overstated. The dynamic nature of each creates a unique challenge for government agencies whether legislation involves evolving public records types, public expectations, or something else. Survey respondents expect that state (or local) reporting requirements, police reform, and IT modernization initiatives among other legislation topics will affect their departments.

Learn more about public records legislation here.

REPORTING AND OVERSIGHT

43.1% ranked Reporting & Oversight a high or highest priority for 2021

As public records requests continue to rise, it is more important than ever for agencies to have a sense of how much it costs (in time, materials, and other resources) to fulfill these requests. Proper allocation of resources helps jurisdictions maintain transparency and remain accountable to all stakeholders.

Learn more about public records request reporting here.

STAFF SHORTAGES OR SKILLS

41.1% ranked Staff Shortage or Skills Gaps a high or highest priority for 2021

Government agencies have long operated under the “do more with less” methodology, creating staff shortages in many areas. Plus, employees in all jurisdictions have had to adapt to new types of public records in recent years, and this includes learning how to manage and process them. Proper training, updated policies, and technology solutions can bridge existing skills gaps for staff and create more seamless processes.

Learn more about the effect of staff shortages and skills gaps on public records here.

Join the Conversation. What are your peers prioritizing as they look to 2022?

Take the 2022 Peers In Public Records Survey.

UPDATING POLICIES

38.9% ranked Updating Policies, Handbooks, and Procedures a high or highest priority for 2021

FOIA records change and evolve with current events and government agencies adjust policies to reflect these changes. Updating new policies, along with implementing configured software solutions, can help government agencies continue to operate smoothly and fulfill requests more seamlessly.

Learn more about updating public records policies here.

CROSS-DEPT COORDINATION

39.9% ranked Number of Interactions/Collaborators as a cause of public records complexity for 2021

Teamwork makes the dream work; but coordinating and achieving consistency in responses across departments can be a challenging undertaking. Keeping all necessary parties in the loop through consistent processes takes time but can be instrumental in helping state and local governments avoid slowdowns, backlogs, and damaging litigation.

Learn more about cross-department coordination of public records here.

VIDEO/AUDIO REDACTIONS

38.7% ranked Video Redactions as a high or highest priority for 2021

53.4% of respondents manage or process video/audio records

The introduction of body-worn cameras has resulted in the creation of video and audio footage at an astonishing rate. Government agencies are challenged with reviewing and redacting these files in a reasonable timeframe and keeping rising costs under control. Though respondents to this year’s survey are not ranking video and audio redaction as high priorities, jurisdictions will need to find effective solutions for managing the growth of video and audio records. 

Learn more about video/audio records here.

COST RECOVERY/BUDGET

39.9% ranked Cost Recovery/Budget Issues a high or highest priority for 2021

The rising public records request volume, coupled with more complex records (BWC, audio, etc.), require more resources for government agencies. Keeping costs and budgets in check is key; and in many cases, jurisdictions must evaluate how to maximize or recoup staff time and materials costs.

Learn more about cost recovery and budget solutions for FOIA records here.

OPEN DATA INITIATIVES

27.8% ranked Open Data or Transparency Initiatives a high or highest priority for 2021

Creating an open data environment where residents, businesses, the media, and others can self-serve commonly requested records and information can have many benefits for a government agency, but implementing the initiative requires careful planning and management.

Learn more about the connection between open data and public records here.

Join the Conversation. What are your peers prioritizing as they look to 2022?

Take the 2022 Peers In Public Records Survey.