The Volume of Public Records Requests (PRR) Has Increased Significantly In Recent Years – And So Has The Complexity of Requests 

by Phillip Hodge, Chief Strategic Development Officer in Local Government Sales, GovQA

If you’re a state or local government seeing exponential increases in open records requests, you’re not alone. According to a 2018 study from the Sunlight Foundation, public records request volume for mid-sized U.S. cities (ranging in population from 18,749 to 850,282) grew by approximately 188 requests per month in 2018 — or 470% over the last eight years.  

Significant Increase in Public Records Request Volume

Chart Showing Average Public Records Volume Over Time

*According to an October 2018 Sunlight Foundation study citing the Yale Law Journal

The Federal Government’s Justice Department Office of Information Policy, reports that 2018 was another record year for the volume of new FOIA requests filed by the public – 863,729 requests were submitted — a 5.6% increase over 2017 numbers — a 21% increase in volume since 2015. 

Chart Showing FOIA Requests Annual Summary

The costs of responding to requests have gone up too.  Pam Greenberg, Senior Fellow, National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), in a recent article in the State Legislatures Magazine wrote: “A 2016 report by the Washington State Auditor’s Office found that the number of state and local requests increased by 36 percent from 2011 to 2015, and that the cost of responding to the 285,000+ requests in 2016 was more than $60 million.”

The public safety sector may be seeing some of the largest increases in request volume, given the widening adoption of bodycam and dashcam video records being generated across the country.  The Seattle Police Department, according to an audit published in 2015, saw a 36% increase in requests between 2009 and 2014. Additionally, during that same period, they paid $811,000 in judgements and settlements for WPRA violations related to SPD requests.

Here at GovQA, we have seen customers, like the City of San Antonio, Texas, experience exponential increases in request volume (and complexity as well); with as much as a 600% increase in volume in recent years.

Can your current FOIA processes withstand these kinds of increases in request volume? Likely not if you’re seeing backlogs already! Read on to see how you can modernize your records process to keep up with the pace of change.

Why is Public Request Volume Growing So Fast?

Greenberg, in her State Legislatures Magazine article mentioned above, cites “request bots” — automatically generated PRR’s (public records requests) by computer program or script — as one culprit for the increase in request volume.  These can come from technologically-savvy individual citizens as well as brokers, researchers and watchdog groups mining data for analysis and repackaging. 

The increased volume of FOIA-able data plays a role as well — including emails, texts and social media records generated by government officials and employees. And then there’s all the video and audio records from police bodycams and dashcams — huge files straining data storage and retrieval bandwidth. 

Increasing public awareness of the records request process is another cause.  So are government transparency initiatives.

The Perfect Storm - Request Bots, Digital Data Complexity’s Large File Sizes, and a Shift Towards Transparency

According to the Sunlight Foundation study, since passage of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in 1967, Freedom of Information Laws (FOI) have shifted from reactive models of disclosing government data in response to public records requests (PRRs), to more systematic efforts to proactively publish open data.  In 2017 alone, the study cites, 28 U.S. cities published open data policies, bringing the total of local governments with open data policies to more than 105. 

In summary, things are moving fast in this fourth industrial revolution. Disruptive technologies are changing the way we live and work.

The FOIA Advisory Committee Weighs In

This month, at the FOIA Advisory Committee annual meeting in Washington, DC, presenter Michael Sarich, Director Veterans Health Administration, FOIA program and co-chair of the CFO Technology Subcommittee to OGIS, said: “If we keep doing the same things we’ve been doing with the same level of resources, we’re going to get less satisfactory results in the long term.”

The meeting, which took place on September 5, 2019, shared a summary of the findings of the subcommittee studies on the use and deployment of FOIA technology solutions across agencies; identified best practices; and made recommendations that can be implemented by FOIA practitioners large and small.Their full report will be released later this month. Sarich explained, “Requests are increasing in complexity. Litigation throws sand in the gears of operations. It’s getting more and more difficult over time. So we must embrace new techniques and methodologies if we’re going to continue on the course of improvement that we’re all seeking here in this profession.”

There Are Real Challenges for Public Records Departments. But, Also, Good News: Technology to the Rescue!

One of the most useful solutions to all challenges facing those charged with responding to and managing public records, is the adoption of a cloud-based SaaS (software as a service) technology which utilizes an easy-to-use public portal/online web-based tool for the records request intake and response delivery — paired with a powerful admin portal/online web-based tool for records managers to vet, track, collaborate, and respond to public records requests. With built-in, automated records due date calculation and tracking, notifications, dashboards, full audit trail, and reporting tools, this type of FOIA solution can centralize, standardize and simplify records management. Public Records Management software is designed to reduce request volume and workload, speed up work processing to reduce turn-around times, and provide a level of control, accountability, and risk mitigation that will deliver peace of mind to everyone involved.

Eric Stein, Director of the Office of Information Programs and Services at the U.S. Department of State, co-chair of the CFO Technology Subcommittee to OGIS, and co-presenter at the FOIA Advisory annual meeting, explained the FOIA landscape like this:

We hear from hard-working FOIA officers who say: ‘Our backlog is growing; we’re not able to keep up with demand...We can’t find these records’. Or, now the bigger challenge is: ‘We’re inundated with records’. General counsel and records offices are finding a lot of non-responsive material which slows down the FOIA process. Like overly broad requests coming in that say ‘I want everything on this one word’...It can be a public relations issue.

Deflect Requests Before They’re Submitted

With manual methods and paper-based public records systems, it’s impossible to deflect requests before they are submitted – every request must be dealt with; and records officers must do their best to provide consistent, timely responses using scanners, copiers, sharpie markers and other tools of trade. But there is a technology solution to this problem. Instead of being trapped on paper, when requests are entered into a digital portal (either by the requester or by records office administrative personnel), algorithms can scan the existing data (and previously released responses) to immediately alert the requester that an answer already exists. If your office has already collected records matching the keywords entered by any future requester, your work is done. The technology can automatically and dynamically share a response and prompt the requester to verify that the request is complete – without you ever having to pull a single duplicate file or type a single word in response. This patent-pending technology, offered by GovQA and called In-line Deflection™, can reduce your request volume immediately.

With In-line Deflection, requesters see potential answers to their questions in real time, as they are typing. The system detects keywords being entered, scans existing released data, and shows the previously released data right next to the input field on the form (not just a link to the information).

Additionally, requesters can, on their own, view and search previous requests (which have been flagged for public access by the administrators). This search feature, included with the GovQA exchange platform can be turned on or off and is fully-configurable. An advanced search feature can also be added which scans the contents of released documents, including OCR (optical character recognition) text within scanned paper or rasterized digital documents.

We reduced our average open records request completion time by 66% while experiencing a 673% increase in request volume during the same time period without a single violation of open records laws.

Moraima MontenegroGovQA customer, Public Information Officer, City of San Antonio

Trending Topics, is another GovQA feature that allows governments to proactively address anticipated future requests with self-serve tools and auto-follow functions. When high profile incidents take place in your jurisdiction (whether shootings, severe weather, scandals, or positive policy change announcements), your office can use GovQA’s built-in tools to create a webpage or series of pages addressing the concern prior to the first records request on the topic ever coming through. Citizens, the media, legal offices, and other interested parties will see your messaging and can opt-in to follow centralized updates as you post them.

Eliminate Duplicate Request Processing Time

GovQA’s powerful duplicate request flagging and linking functions mean that even if a requester proceeds and submits a request after seeing the deflection messaging on the public portal, you are protected from wasted time. Duplicate requests are flagged in the admin portal and linked to each other. If it makes sense for your agency, the workflow can be configured to send an auto-response to the requester, which stops the response time clock, closes the request, and ensures your compliance with the law.

And what about vexatious requesters?

Automatically Flag Frequent and Vexatious Requesters

Identify frequent, excessive requesters automatically with GovQA’s solution; so that, if law allows in your jurisdiction, you can serve these folks in a different way. New legislation across the country, like HB 1595 in the state of Washington, allows exemptions for overly complex, vague, or burdensome requests – letting agencies deny these requests or charge fees for compiling exceptionally complicated responses. With GovQA, you can use built-in tools to provide fee estimates – which are a great deflection tool for those requesters just trying to waste your time. You can even invoice customers and collect payments within the tool.

Automate Your FOIA Process to Reduce Workload and Eliminate Risk – How One Large City Did It 

Despite the massive increase in request volume, the city of San Antonio, Texas, using GovQA’s public records management platform, has decreased the average number of days to close a request from 24 days in FY 2012 to just 8 days in FY 2017. To date, the Office of the Attorney General in Texas has not assessed any penalties against the City of San Antonio or any City Officials for failure to properly respond to an open records request.

Each of the City’s 38 departments assigns a trained Open Records Request Liaison to work in coordination with the Government and Public Affairs Department’s Open Records Request Division to respond to requests for public information. Automated workflow rules, which were configured by GovQA’s dedicated implementation team to precisely match San Antonio Public Affairs officers’ needs, auto-assign requests to the appropriate liaison based on information provided by a requestor and send reminders to the assigned staff members as request due dates approach, ensuring no requests slip through the cracks without a proper response.

The City Attorney’s Office works independently from the Government and Public Affairs Department to assist City departments in determining whether to seek an opinion from the Office of the Attorney General and what documents need redactions, as needed. Staff in various departments can communicate and collaborate with each other using tools within GovQA’s collect & control platform, like “@mentions” within request notes, simple activity/task assignments, and shared views and work queues.

The City of San Antonio also uses GovQA’s Trending Topics pages to make frequently requested records related to current topics of significant public interest available to residents without the need to submit an open records request. The Trending Topics pages have helped San Antonio to control the surge of requests related to hot topic incidents by reducing duplicate request volume, reducing follow-up request volume, and allowing staff to streamline responses to requests by simply providing a link to where the responsive records are available on the City’s public portal.

Other Useful Tools to Reduce Public Records Request Workload

In-Tool Redaction™, offered on the GovQA FOIA platform, allows the redaction process to happen within the GovQA tool (instead of requiring a separate program). By keeping data inside the FOIA tool, you’ll be increasing security and reducing steps to successful redactions. Easily collaborate and generate an audit log while performing allowed exemptions with text search, pattern matching, “redact similar”, exemption tracking, and responsive records packeting.

For collaboration and tracking requests that must extend outside your office building or department, GovQA offers Exchange Requests™ which make it easy to delegate work to those who own it with secure, tiered request processing and collaboration amongst infrequent (one-off) users, inexperienced users, untrained users, users in other government agencies external to the request origination point, as well as users in non-government entities such as attorneys.

Response templates, which utilize [MERGE TAGS] to insert customer data into pre-formatted responses, facilitate speedy, consistent responses to common communications. GovQA includes a large set of best practice templates (carefully selected to match the particular office’s needs) with each implementation.

Finally, to best manage the large files associated with bodycam and dashcam video files included in public records requests, the GovQA platform allows seamless integration with repositories and has no file size restrictions.

Can Your Agency Afford Public Records Management Software?  Yes!

Eric Stein puts it this way: “One thing we asked in our FOIA subcommittee meetings was ‘Did you ask for more resources?’”

Michael Sarich adds: “Leverage the budget cycle. Try, try again. If you have a project that’s shovel ready, understand the dynamics in your agency and where the money is. Keep asking and knocking on the door until they say yes.”

Or, better yet, call GovQA

GovQA has a dedicated team of procurement folks who can help you navigate all your purchasing options including resellers, buying groups, and state contracts. Visit our Pricing Page for details.

The real procurement question might be, can you afford NOT to investigate public records management solutions? 

Can Your Agency Afford NOT to Procure Public Records Management Software?  No!

If you’re flooded with public records requests and struggling to keep your heads above water, GovQA offers not just a life preserver, but speedy transportation to safe shores.

GovQA is the leading provider of cloud-based SaaS public records and enterprise workflow solutions for government agencies.  With best-in-class technology, tailored to each customers’ individual needs, and supported by expertise at every step, GovQA is the proven choice for simplified request management and compliance enabling cities, counties, and state agencies to securely collect and control time sensitive information within, across, and outside governments.