Balancing Costs and Budgets with Public Records Fulfillment

Just as interpretation of the public records law varies by state, so too does the process by which each recovers out-of-pocket costs for public records requests. Government resources are limited and balancing other agency priorities while remaining compliant with FOIA requirements can be challenging. As jurisdictions are seeing an increase in public record request volume, many have taken steps to recover costs to fulfill them. 

Required reporting and oversight requirements help agencies get a handle on how much time and money are actually spent on fulfilling FOIA requests. The costs incurred to process complicated requests are rising and it is becoming necessary for agencies to manage and recoup these costs. Cost recovery and budget monitoring are critical for jurisdictions, help mitigate the risk of costly lawsuits, and are helpful in managing existing resources.

Recovering Costs for Requests

Fees for processing FOIA requests are at the discretion of each jurisdiction or government agency. For example, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) does not charge an initial fee to make a FOIA request, and in some cases no fees are charged. HHS does reserve the right to recover some charges, depending on the time needed to fulfill the request, and the amount of pages which are duplicated.

On the other hand, the U.S. Department of State calculates search and review costs based upon the pay scale of the person conducting the search or review and requesters agree to pay fees up to $25 simply by making a request. Though some argue the cost recovery policies are in place to deter the public from accessing records, government agencies implement fee schedules in order to keep budgets and resources in check.

Mitigating Risk of Costly Lawsuits

Managing the expectations of the public when it comes to public records can save an agency time and costly lawsuits. When a citizen understands there are costs associated with processing their FOIA request, they might be more inclined to clarify or narrow the scope of their request. They could also have a better sense of the timeline to receive their records as a part of the communication process with the agency. 

The fees recouped from processing public records requests may also help in paying down lawsuits. Recently, the Washington Employment Security Department agreed to pay $100,000 and triple its public records staff in response to a lawsuit. This particular suit was brought about because of massive delays in processing the request but in some cases, agencies may implement exorbitant costs in the hopes that requests will be dropped.

Balancing Existing Resources with Costs

Government agencies may look for any number of ways to curb costs and keep budgets on track while remaining compliant with FOIA requests. One of the most common ways to do this is to manage a jurisdiction’s existing resources. Though Washington’s Employment Security Department ended up tripling its public records staff in response to a lawsuit, most agencies will do what they can to make do with the staff they have in-house. Instead of adding employees, priorities can often be shifted and responsibilities reassigned.

When government agencies have exhausted their own resources, they may be forced to seek additional employees. The Beachwood, Ohio City Council will hire two additional employees at a cost of more than $220,000 in order to meet the demand of rising requests and manage the increase in public record types, such as body camera and dash camera footage.

How Can Government Agencies Remain Cost-Effective?

Keeping costs in line while managing rising FOIA requests is a delicate balancing act most jurisdictions are facing. Investing now in public records software can help government agencies save on litigation and staffing issues at a later time. By working within one dedicated software program, agencies can automate workflows and processes, improve redaction control, and create trackable audit logs. If your agency is considering moving toward a more automated records request management solution, learn more about calculating your agency’s ROI here.

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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 peers@govqa.com.

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