How Has Remote Work Impacted Public Records?

The onset of the pandemic in early 2020 thrust much of the worldwide workforce into operating remotely. Employees across industries found new ways to complete their job duties when reporting to the office was no longer an option. However, in the world of public records, remote working was not commonplace, presented a host of new challenges, and sometimes meant that fulfilling FOIA requests had to be suspended.

Many government entities were already backlogged with public records requests before the pandemic hit because request volume has been climbing at a record-breaking rate for years. COVID-19 only exacerbated wait times for citizens, publications, businesses, and others who filed FOIA requests. Add to this the growing complexity of requests and the need for remote work, and public records requests have experienced a new level of gridlock.

General Remote Work Challenges in Public Records

Even before the times of social distancing, working remotely required employees to learn a new way to communicate with team members. If a team is accustomed to having all relevant members in one location (where they can walk down the hall to discuss a request or have several daily in-person meetings), it can be difficult to adjust to virtually communicating with people in different locations.

Government agencies rarely have every file in digital format and have some paper files kept in offices or offsite storage. Tracking down paper documents can normally cause some delays in records processing; but remote working makes it nearly impossible to access those files. Though digitizing or scanning paper files can be helpful when tracking down physical documents is not feasible, this is not something that all agencies necessarily do proactively (and obviously it wasn’t possible to implement a digital system once the pandemic stay at home orders were already in place).

A Breakdown of COVID’s Impact on Public Records

According to GovQA research, there are five ways the COVID-19 pandemic impacted public records. These include:

  • Temporarily suspending public records requests
  • Delaying request responses
  • Closing physical offices to the public, staff, or both
  • Shifting to working remotely
  • Identifying parts of the request process that work well remotely and parts that don’t work

In jurisdictions where teleworking was not already in place, employees were forced to quickly make the shift to remote work; and the transition, when possible, was not always a smooth one. Working outside of the office required new tech (like laptops, additional software licenses, and network adjustments). It also created concerns over processes and communication as employees were required to find new ways to fulfill requests. 

Requesters were also forced to adapt to a new way of doing things once government offices were forced to close. Some states had to suspend the “right to inspect,” meaning citizens would not be allowed to review documents in person due to public health concerns. Once stay-at-home restrictions are lifted in all jurisdictions, the “right to inspect” will likely be reinstated.

Overcoming Remote Work Barriers

Working remotely has its benefits, particularly during a public health crisis. There may be some public records tasks that cannot be accomplished remotely depending on how an office is structured, but employees can still find ways to be productive

Technology that enables remote working, coupled with custom-configured SaaS software solutions, can help government agencies continue to fulfill FOIA requests. From the proper equipment to internet connections and network access, agencies which haven’t already, should consider how to best set up employees for success when working from home in the event of another shutdown. A government workflow management program helps simplify and organize processes for jurisdictions of any size.

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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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