A Delicate Dance: Updating Policies and Keeping Up with Evolving Public Records

Managing how data is used and disseminated is an immense undertaking, particularly as it applies to fulfilling FOIA requests. When it comes to public records, government agencies find themselves balancing growing request volumes with changing file types and other challenges. In some cases, the policies in place have not kept up with the evolution of public records.

Public records requests are changing, while growing in complexity and in volume. Though fulfilling requests is a responsibility for government agencies, it is clearly not their only pressing duty. Making records available and maintaining transparency is necessary; but as policies change, so too does the public records fulfillment process. 

How Can Information Governance Help with Updating Policies?

The explosion of data in recent years has created a need for government agencies to get their arms around information management. Actively auditing and assessing existing policies helps show any gaps in compliance. Jurisdictions that have adopted best practices in public records fulfillment and have properly trained staff on these policies may realize reduced inefficiencies.

The importance of information governance becomes even more relevant as files continue to evolve or new file types are introduced to the FOIA world. For example, guidelines for releasing body camera footage are determined by each department in each jurisdiction and are dependent on individual factors. 

In addition to making public records available online, many government agencies adjust their policies to accommodate current events. Last year, Riverside County in California introduced courtroom audio live-streaming in response to the public health crisis and have decided to make it a permanent installation. At the same time, the county has decided to reduce free access to criminal case records. Each of these changes reflect new policies driven by what is happening in the community, what works well for the public, and demonstrate the flexibility of public records officials.

Updating Policies in the Time of COVID

The onset of COVID-19 and the subsequent shutdown of public and government buildings resulted in a wave of necessary changes in public records policies. The previously mentioned Riverside County example demonstrates the need to alter how information is shared; in other cases, information sharing at its core became the issue.

In the face of a public health crisis, government agencies took inventory of existing resources and determined where policy adjustments were necessary. New Jersey lawmakers granted more flexibility in public records response deadlines and permitted meetings to be held remotely as offices learned how to navigate unprecedented territory. At the federal level, some agencies continued to process FOIA requests, albeit with delays, while staff worked remotely; other jurisdictions temporarily suspended request fulfillment until they could effectively resume these operations.

Regardless of whether policy updates are a response to an ongoing external crisis or an adjustment borne of internal necessity, government agencies are pivoting like never before. Departments in jurisdictions across the country make adjustments which will not only make the most sense for their agencies, but will have the greatest positive impact on the communities they serve.

Software Complements Policies and Helps Achieve Compliance

Comprehensive public records software solutions configured to individual jurisdiction’s needs can help support shifts in policies. Customized workflows help keep data secure, automate actions, and improve citizen experiences. Public records management software helps agencies manage deadlines, track exemptions, charge fees, and collect payments. 

Software solutions complement policy updates, help streamline processes, and improve collaboration. As governments continue to balance growing volumes of requests with other responsibilities, the need for supportive tools becomes even more prevalent. For more information on public records management software and how it can help your agency, visit GovQA.

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

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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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