Though public records fulfillment is legally required by the Freedom of Information Act, government agencies benefit from gathering insights into how they are handled. Having a sense of what it costs and how much time it takes to fulfill public records requests helps agencies plan for future needs and assess litigation vulnerabilities. Managing the complex process of fulfilling public records requests can be simplified with reporting.
Reports which analyze the public records fulfillment process may not be required by law, but are helpful for agencies to stay organized and understand and improve business intelligence. In-depth reporting functions can check the status of requests, send reports on key metrics to users and external stakeholders on any schedule, and provide a complete audit trail of every action associated with a request.
Federal departments and agencies are required by law to report details of FOIA requests, including the number of requests received and processed, and the time it takes to process them, to the U.S. Attorney General. Given that federal agencies received more than 790,000 FOIA requests in FY 2020, gathering data on the actual and opportunity costs to fulfill these requests has become critical.
Demand for FOIA requests at all levels of government (federal, state and local) continues to rise and jurisdictions are meeting this demand to the best of their ability. Referencing hard data to determine where fulfillment might be falling short can help agencies support their case for adding additional resources, introducing technology to streamline processes, or implementing policies, such as charging fees for processing requests.
Required Reporting - The Federal Example
Federal agencies are required to submit annual reports to the U.S. Attorney General’s office which include data on:
- Number of requests received and processed, as well as those on backlog
- Disposition of requests processed
- Number of appeals received and processed
- Ten oldest pending requests and appeals
- Average processing time for simple and complex requests
- Number of requests for expedited review
- Total amount collected in fees
- Number of full-time and full-time equivalent FOIA employees
- Processing costs
Federal government agencies track this information on an ongoing basis. But most states and local governments do not have laws requiring regular reporting. Washington State, however, does require annual reporting; and each Washington agency provides its metrics to the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee (JLARC). JLARC receives, analyzes, and reports on the state’s metrics for agencies spending more than $100,000 per year responding to public records requests. GovQA has aligned data collection inside our tool with standard reports available to all Washington agencies to ensure compliance with the state law. But even if your jurisdiction doesn’t have data reporting mandates, you could still benefit from analysis of your own key data points.
Policies to Counter Rising Costs
Given the increase in requests, government agencies are incurring rising costs to process and fulfill more complicated FOIA requests. Typically, agencies have begun to charge fees when a request goes beyond two hours of search time. To combat these costs, some agencies are turning to charging the costs back to the requesters.
Cost structures differ from agency to agency but many have adopted some sort of fee scale which is based on the salary level of the employee conducting the search. Federal agencies, like the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS), charge for the cost of searching for records and the cost of copies and range from $23 to $83 per hour. Similarly, the U.S. Department of State search costs range from $21 to $76 per hour.
Automation to Make Reporting Easier
If an agency is using manual processes to fulfill FOIA requests, reporting can be especially challenging. Using only spreadsheets and email can make it nearly impossible to compile a report on the status of requests and costs, resulting in more pressure from stakeholders to provide oversight. Investing in public records software can help save on staffing, litigation, and materials through automation and customized solutions. Public records solutions can help agencies:
- Realize more FTE savings
- Save more time through reduced paper handling
- Increase access for staff, allowing for remote operations when needed
- Centralize and standardize communications
- Free up staff for less manual, more important tasks.
Through key data metrics like those collected for Washington state and much more, GovQA solutions can help jurisdictions automate data collection for more streamlined reporting.
GovQA’s public records management solutions streamline the request process while keeping agencies compliant with the FOIA law and all necessary reporting and oversight requirements. From monitoring and oversight of request statuses to tracking costs to properly allocating resources, GovQA’s custom solutions can help agencies of any size with their reporting needs.
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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