What You Need to Know About FOIA Requests

Established in 1967, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) allows any member or entity of the public, such as US citizens, foreign nationals, and organizations, to submit FOIA requests for any reason on any topic. FOIA is meant to provide transparency of US governmental operations and records. Many states have adopted similar policies for transparency into state-level operations.

FOIA requests are requests for the full or partial disclosure of government documents and information. These requests allow the public to more easily identify issues within the US government, push representatives to fix them, obtain information on business competitors, and much more.  

However, not all requests will be fulfilled. After carefully analyzing a request, a government agency must determine whether it contains responsive information, exempt information, or personally identifiable information (PII). Any information deemed exempt needs to be logged into a Vaughn index, a document explaining the exemption. 

Key Challenges of Responding to FOIA Requests 

We’ve identified the top six problems government agencies currently face when responding to FOIA requests. The six problems include:

  • Outdated Practices

Many state and federal government agencies use outdated and impractical methods to respond to FOIA requests. This practice includes the laborious tasks of manually opening each individual item, logging the information into an excel sheet, and deciding whether the information is relevant. If redactions are needed for any information, a third-party application, such as Microsoft Word or Adobe, must be used to manually block out the confidential information. 

Government agencies that do use technology to speed up the process often use fragmented applications so the records must be exported and imported multiple times for a single request. These processes are incredibly time consuming, subject the records to errors and spoliation, and—worst of all—potentially pose a national security threat. 

  • Data Volumes

By now, we all know data volumes are greater than they have ever been before and they aren’t going to decrease any time soon.  But we haven’t quite figured out how to combat these colossal volumes and the more data state and federal governments produce, the more transparency the public wants. 

One of the biggest contributors is email, as it can contain metadata, links, its own items, and more. Emails are also often duplicated with threads and forwards and have hefty retention and preservation policies. Unfortunately for government agencies, emails from select officials must be kept in perpetuity, keeping data volumes high. 

  • Time Constraints and Costly Consequences

Part of FOIA is the responsibility of government agencies to respond to requests within 20 days, otherwise they face sanctions, fees, and other penalties.  Because there are so many FOIA requests, many of them are not fulfilled within 20 days—thus causing the government agencies to pay heavy fees—or the request is released fully censored. 

  • Security and Compliance

Government agencies are privy to a lot of sensitive information that requires robust security. Any applications used to automate responding to FOIA requests need to comply with security regulations, such as those laid out in the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP).

  • Poor Workflows 

Government agency bureaus often operate under the same administrative umbrella, This can require FOIA officers to search across multiple departments to find responsive records. It also inhibits officers from processing multiple times for multiple requests. 

Additionally, the responsibility of responding to FOIA requests is meant to fall on all federal employees. However, a select few actually shoulder the bulk of the work to log, track, search, analyze, and communicate all FOIA requests. 

  • The Backlog

There are tens of thousands of FOIA requests still backlogged from the previous fiscal year, and thousands still coming in every day. This leaves FOIA officers very little time and resources to establish a new system and meet the 20 day response deadline. 

As with most things, the pandemic has exacerbated the six problems above. Government agencies also faced smaller budgets and smaller staff with more people needing time off to recover from COVID-19 or take care of family members who had been infected. The biggest benefit to the pandemic for government agencies was highlighting the biggest problem: outdated practices and technology. Remote work accommodations were hard to fulfill without a unified cloud-based platform, causing more exporting and importing of responsive records. 

FOIA Requests & eDiscovery

The process for fulfilling a FOIA request is similar to the nine stages of eDiscovery. The request first must be logged and tracked, similarly to the identification, preservation, and collection of electronically stored information (ESI) in eDiscovery. Then, the request will be searched for responsive records, just as ESI is for relevance and privilege during the processing and review stages. 

The responsive records are then analyzed for disclosure pursuant to FOIA provisions, any exemptions are applied to the responsive records, and the government agency fulfilling the request communicates with the requestor. Similarly in the eDiscovery process, relevant ESI is analyzed, produced and then presented. 

The similarities between responding to FOIA requests and the eDiscovery process make it easy to use eDiscovery software and applications to automate, and thus quicken, FOIA requests. By utilizing eDiscovery features—such as unified cloud SaaS, keyword searching, built-in redaction and email-specific tools, and enterprise-grade security—responding to FOIA requests can be faster, safer, lower costing, and more efficient. 

Responding to Requests With Venio Systems

Venio Systems’ fully integrated Venio Cloud is perfect for government agencies and all your FOIA needs. With Venio Cloud, you can access:

  • A secure end-to-end platform- As compliance and security are pillars of Venio solutions, we offer the latest, enterprise-grade protection with SOC II compliance to  ensure your data is in the safest hands and will meet industry standards, like FedRAMP.
  • Investigation and FOIA ready applications - Our AI-powered automation enhances your workflow with tools, such as native redaction and keyword search to save you time and resources. 
  • Customized workflows to fit your needs - Match your workflow to your specific needs and the cases you handle with easy-to-configure and repeatable processes.
  • Controlled costs with certainty - Our predictable costs you control with this in-house solution allow more flexibility and scalability.

Unlock the powers of automated logging, tracking, searching, and analyzing by scheduling a demo today.

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