Spurway: Battle of the paperwork bulge

Here are 4 things to consider before you invest in software to speed FOIA requests

Handling Freedom of Information Act requests is a resource-intensive and costly process for government agencies that are already overburdened with paperwork and operating under tight budgetary constraints. As the volumes and costs associated with processing and tracking such requests continue to increase, added technological requirements — including the creation of electronic reading rooms as mandated by E-FOIA amendments — impose another layer of compliance-related complexity.

Before agencies invest in FOIA software, they should follow these four steps.

1. Determine if software is appropriate for solving your agency’s FOIA challenges.
Agencies seeking to improve their FOIA processes face complex and costly decisions about development and deployment. Small agencies with one or two FOIA officers that receive fewer than 150 requests a year can typically manage their requests with a simple spreadsheet. Large agencies that handle a higher volume of requests have found software helpful in managing complex processes and generating annual reports.

2. Provide effective mechanisms for online request tracking and reporting.
Pending legislation to reform FOIA, such as the OPEN Government Act of 2005, will require government agencies to provide the public with a means to track their FOIA requests. Agencies seeking to improve and optimize their systems should look for comprehensive, Web-based solutions that enable flexible request tracking and reporting while providing advanced, fully integrated document management, collaboration and analytical capabilities.

Agencies that have already implemented tracking systems have experienced an increase in citizens’ satisfaction with FOIA filing and tracking and have reported measurable decreases in citizen complaints about the overall process.

3. Adopt policies and practices that facilitate online records posting.
Since the 1996 E-FOIA amendments, government agencies have been required to post released records electronically. Nearly every government agency has complied with this requirement by creating online reading rooms on their public Web sites. Reading rooms vary widely in terms of the accessibility and extensiveness of records, but adopting policies that require posting released records online can drive tighter intra-agency consistency and improve the overall experience for citizens who request information.

Agencies that employ such practices realize tangible benefits. Although FOIA requests increased by 71 percent between 2002 and 2004, agencies with aggressive online posting policies have seen their requests decrease — in some cases by more than 50 percent — in the same period.

4. Monitor and track financial data more closely and effectively.
Government agencies are required to keep timely statistics detailing the costs and status of FOIA requests and to record fees collected from requestors.

Because manually tracking, collecting and updating such financial information are tedious and time-consuming tasks, many agencies gather the information only once a year for the annual Justice Department report on FOIA statistics.

To align their fee collection and statistical reporting data, agencies must update their financial tracking and reporting processes to enable real-time visibility into their financial systems.

Spurway is vice president of solutions of Appian, which makes business process management software.

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