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How City & State Government Offices Can Scale Open Records Request Processes

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic and nationwide protests, many city and state government offices have seen a surge in open records requests. In some instances, the number of requests has doubled, and backlogged FOIA cases jumped nearly 18% in 2020 from 2019.

While these requests are costly and time-consuming to fulfill, they are also a crucial part of ensuring government transparency. So how can city and state government offices scale their operations to meet this increased demand?

Tools & Tips to Help Scale Your Records Requests Response

The first step is to prioritize requests. Urgent requests, such as those related to ongoing criminal investigations, should be moved to the top of the queue. Non-urgent requests can be processed in batches. Prioritization of requests is industry agnostic and there are best practices that can help you prioritize the urgency of your requests depending on the tools and systems your agency uses. For example, if your agency uses Jira to manage internal tasks, they have their own set of best practices for automatically prioritizing requests. If your team is more familiar with Microsoft, they can follow Azure’s priority pattern queue to ensure the most urgent and impactful requests are dealt with first.

To further reduce the workload, consider implementing an automated request system that allows requesters to track the status of their requests and receive updates when new records are released.

In addition to prioritizing record requests, scaling up your operation will require additional resources. This may include hiring more staff, extending work hours, and investing in new software or hardware. Automating processes with software will free up your staff to focus on other important tasks and ensure that requesters receive their records promptly.

Here are a few tools that help local governments scale their response to open record requests:

Automated Social Media & Web Archiving for Scaling Response to Open Records Requests

Automated social media archiving is a crucial tool for local government offices struggling to keep up with increased open record requests. These automation tools can help reduce the time and resources needed to review and process open records requests. Additionally, automated archiving can help to preserve important social media data that may be required as evidence in open records requests. 

Fulfilling requests related to web content and social content can be laborious, tedious, and time-consuming. However, social and web archiving solutions can drastically simplify the process of finding and exporting relevant web and social records.

Redaction Software for Scaling Responses to Requests

Redaction software can help city and state government agencies scale their response to open records requests by allowing them to easily remove sensitive information from documents before releasing them to the public. This is important because it helps protect classified or non-disclosable information quickly and effectively.

There are various redaction programs suitable for open records requests available on the market, but not all of them are created equal. Some critical factors to consider when choosing a redaction software program include:

  • Ease of use: The software should be easy to use and understand so that government employees can quickly learn how to redact sensitive information from documents.

  • Effectiveness: The software should be able to effectively remove sensitive information from documents without damaging the quality or content of the document.

  • Flexibility: The software should be flexible enough to work with various document types to be used for open records requests involving different documents.

  • Security: The software should be secure so that only authorized personnel can access and use it.

The best way to find a redaction software program that meets all of these criteria is to speak with other local government agencies that have successfully scaled their open records responses and ask for recommendations.

Open Record Request Response Template

Open records request response templates are documents that make it easier for government offices to create and send open records request response letters and ensure that all necessary documentation is attached (almost like a checklist). These templates can help offices manage open records requests more efficiently and ensure that all requesters receive their responses and information in a standardized format.

Public Record Management Software

Public records management software built for streamlining FOIA/public records request fulfillment can greatly help local government offices when it comes to scaling their response to open record requests. By automating the process of tracking and managing open records requests, these types of software can help ensure that all open records requests are properly accounted for and that responses can be processed quickly and efficiently. 

Public records management software can also often include search tools that make it easier to find specific documents or information within large data collections like website, social media, text messaging, and enterprise collaboration content. This can be especially helpful in cases where open records requests are made for large batches of data or documents.

rsz_adobestock_250067750 (1)4 Tips for Scaling Fast Responses to Open Records Requests

1. Make it Easy for the Public to Find and Retrieve Public Record Information

If your organization makes it easy for the public to retrieve public records, there will be fewer formal requests that your agency needs to respond to. A great example of this is the City of Sacramento. They employ an online library of open records on their website and utilize a public records portal service from Pagefreezer. The City of Sacramento clearly identifies its frequently requested records with hyperlinks, including social media and website archives. 

Robust retention, organization, and DIY access for the public reduces the number of records formally requested because citizens have on-demand access to the most commonly-requested records. This saves this city time and money and illustrates an earnest attempt at transparency.

2. Implement an Optimized Filing Process

Your agency should also have a process for managing and organizing existing files. Ultimately, public records requests are for documents that are already on file with the government body, so to save time and resources, it's important to have an optimized filing process that makes these documents easy to find and retrieve.

There are a few ways to do this:

  • Use a central database: Store all documents in a central database and create a process for requesters to submit their requests online. This way, you can track which documents have been requested and fulfill requests quickly.
  • Use document management software: Document management software for online data governance can help you organize and track your documents, making them easier to find and retrieve. 
  • Create a standard request form: Use a standard request form for open records requests. This will help you ensure all the necessary information is included.
  • Label all documents clearly: Make sure all documents (both physical and digital) are labeled clearly and correctly. 
  • Adopt a proactive approach: Instead of waiting for requests to come in, you can proactively release certain types of documents regularly. For example, you could post agendas and minutes from public meetings online or release budget information quarterly. Make a list of commonly requested documents and post them in a visible spot, like on your website. This will let people know what kinds of documents are available and may discourage requests for information if the public may already find the bulk of what they were looking for. This proactive approach will save you time and resources in the long run and build trust with your community.
  • Educate your staff: It's important to educate your staff on open records laws and best practices. This will ensure that everyone is on the same page and knows how to handle requests properly.

3. Keep Response Times as Short as Possible

To effectively scale their response to open record requests, local government agency offices need to keep their response times as short as possible. In Washington State, local and state agencies have only days to respond. So, get started on processing requests as soon as they’re submitted. This will ensure that the office can handle the influx of requests while still providing quality service to those who have made the request.

As we mentioned above, one way to shorten response time is to have a designated open record request staff member or specific team responsible for handling all public records requests. This staff member should be familiar with the office's policies and procedures and be able to quickly gather the information requested by the individual making the request.

4. Maintain Open Lines of Communication with the Public

Finally, remember to keep communication lines open with requesters. Send updates regularly and be transparent about any delays in processing their request. By working together, we can ensure that government offices meet the increased demand for records while maintaining transparency and accountability.

Taking these steps will help ensure that your office is well-equipped to meet the increased demand for public records requests while maintaining transparency and accountability.

Download our government Guidebook to Electronic Records Management for FOIA & Open Records Compliance for more information about recordkeeping of website, mobile text, and social media records.

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George van Rooyen
George van Rooyen
George van Rooyen is the Content Marketing Manager at Pagefreezer.

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