Reflecting on the Growing Volume of FOIA Requests

Backlogs. New public record types. Heightened transparency demands. State and local governments are feeling these pain points as FOIA request volumes continue to increase. Jurisdictions are overloaded with public records requests of all kinds and can find it challenging to meet the growing demand. At the federal level, the Justice Department reported a record number of FOIA requests in 2018 and that number has only continued to trend upward. According to GovQA’s Peers in Public Records (PiPR) Index, request volumes increased by 45% in 2020. 

This growing awareness of public records as a tool for insight into the inner workings of government has led to the public, media, and businesses submitting more requests. But processing such a large number of requests is taxing on government systems and creates a strain on already limited resources. For example, the Department of the Interior is dealing with a backlog of FOIA requests which have tripled over the last four years.

In Washington state, it is estimated that an average agency spends more than 2,100 hours processing requests. Depending on the size of the agency, this is enough to bog down its resources and take away from other projects and priorities. Why has request volume risen so dramatically in recent years? How are agencies equipped to handle responses? Perhaps most important, what can jurisdictions do to more effectively process FOIA requests? We’ll examine these questions and delve further into the state of public records requests.

Why the Increase?

Many factors in recent years have contributed to the increase in FOIA requests, and the combination of all of these has created a perfect storm in terms of volume. As the public becomes more engaged in current affairs, the types of public records continue to evolve, and the media produces content for a 24-hour news cycle, FOIA requests have surged nationwide. 

More public engagement in current events

In recent years, high-profile law enforcement events garnering 24/7 media coverage have thrust the importance of public records into the spotlight. Citizens are demanding more transparency from government entities and taking a more active role in their communities amid civil unrest. The city of Staunton, Virginia has seen requests rise to more than three times the normal amount, a swell which is attributed to increased activism and demand for transparency. 

In response to the heightened expectation of transparency, agencies (in states where the law allows) are proactively releasing records such as body camera footage and audio recordings. In other cases, records are released in response to public demand in an effort to calm civil unrest. Whether proactive or reactive, agencies are responding to unprecedented demand for FOIA requests and meeting the public’s demand for transparency.

Public records are evolving

The introduction of body-worn cameras (BWCs) has created a wealth of new public records, in the form of video footage and audio recordings. BWC footage is one of the largest driving forces behind the volume increase in FOIA requests as more law enforcement agencies add BWC programs

Additionally, some agencies have established “drone-as-first-responder” programs to supplement their law enforcement department, which has led to the creation of drone footage records. Though drone footage has typically been exempt from inclusion in public records given privacy concerns, some cities are seeing challenges to existing policies. Drone footage could be the newest public record in some areas of the country.

A Never-Ending News Cycle

Media coverage is everywhere and outlets, both online and off, are in constant competition with each other to break the big stories. Part of “getting the scoop” for journalists can involve obtaining access to public records and though the media comprises just under 8% of FOIA requests on average, reporters frequently use public records as part of their fact-finding process for varying topics and rely on them as time-sensitive support for their stories.

The Pandemic’s Ongoing Impact on Public Records

Government agencies have long operated with limited resources; the complications of the current pandemic have only added additional hurdles in processing FOIA requests. The pandemic created unique challenges for public records as agencies who were not set up for telework or worked primarily with paper-based records made the shift to working remotely. The resulting delays have created a major backlog for agencies and could have long-lasting implications for the request process. The Office of Government Information Services estimates that the number of FOIA websites alerting requesters to processing delays as a result of COVID-19 increased from 37 percent to 47 percent between May 2020 and October 2020.

Exploring More Efficient Management through Software

The public records space continues to evolve and change; factor in the implications of the ongoing pandemic and it is unlikely the volume of requests will be going down any time in the near future. Government agencies that take a proactive step in implementing customized technology solutions will reduce FOIA request logjams and save untold resources.

Public records request management software can be a game-changer for jurisdictions that are overwhelmed with FOIA requests. Web-based solutions improve efficiency and timeliness while helping ensure compliance with standards and policies. With features like predictive intake deflection, self-service, automated document redaction, cloud-based data security, and more to streamline FOIA requests; government agencies can better meet the growing demand for public records.

Want to read more about public records request volume increases?
Check out: “Drowning in Public Records (FOIA) requests
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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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