Meeting Time Deadlines and Avoiding Lawsuits

Using Technology to Address Public Records Priorities

Meeting Time Deadlines and Avoiding Lawsuits were the top priorities for 2020 across all PEERS in Public Records survey participants.

The number one priority across all 320 respondents for the first annual PEERS in Public Records Survey was “Meeting Deadlines” — with 60% of all respondents ranking this as their top concern for 2020. Number two (at 59%) was “Avoiding Lawsuits”. After analyzing the survey data, it’s clear that these two priorities go hand-in-hand.

“Meeting Deadlines” was a fairly consistent priority across all agency types as seen in the “Meeting Time Deadlines” chart. “Avoiding Lawsuits” was ranked higher for county agencies than it was for city and state agencies – with public safety agencies ranking it highest of all. 

Key Finding #1: States with strict deadlines are concerned with meeting them while those without are concerned with being sued

How do these priorities vary geographically?

Let’s take a closer look at respondents’ answers, state-by-state for those of your peers providing their location information (50 survey respondents did not provide any location identifier and therefore cannot be included in the geographic data analysis):

First, a little frame of reference

The chart below shows the amount of time allowed to respond to a public records request per state laws. As a peer in public records, you know that some states allow (and specify) a time extension (as indicated in orange). And some states have vague or no timed response specified by law (as indicated by those states with no blue or orange bars).

PiPR Survey - Response Time Allowed by State Chart

If we lay “meeting time deadlines” survey responses (those which can be identified from specific states) over the state response time deadlines (with and without time extension laws) across the country, we see some interesting data.

PiPR Survey - States Time Extension Map (Responses)

State response time laws overlaid with number of survey respondents ranking meeting deadlines as a highest priority.

And now, some assumptions.

1

Assumption 1: No Response Time Law = Least Concern for Public Records Deadlines (Debunked)

Respondents from the 11 states with no (or vague) response time deadline laws should be the least concerned about meeting deadlines. Yet, of the responses we can identify as coming from one of those states, Florida, a relatively high number (14) ranked “meeting time deadlines” as a top priority for 2020. Here is where the “avoiding lawsuits” priority might come into play. Florida has a very high enforcement of “presumptive public disclosure” - so, even though there are no specific timeframes mentioned in Florida public records law, the assumption is that responses will be “prompt”. And, when responses are not prompt (or when the requester feels they are not); the only recourse is a lawsuit.
2

Assumption 2: Long Response Time Allowance = Less Concern for Public Records Deadlines (Confirmed)

States with the longest time allowed to fulfill requests should be second least concerned about deadlines. And in fact states with 30+ days to respond did have the fewest people prioritizing meeting time deadlines (Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Iowa had none and Maryland had just one).
3

Assumption 3: Shortest Response Time Allowance = Greatest Concern for Public Records Deadlines (Confirmed)

The 28 states with a single deadline and no time extension should be the most concerned about meeting deadlines. And nearly half of these states did, in fact, rank meeting deadlines as a top priority for 2020. Washington, Texas, and California, all states with a single deadline and no time extension, had the highest number of survey respondents ranking meeting deadlines as a top priority.

As the data seems to show, concern about responding promptly (or on-time) can be correlated with having actual deadlines in the state law. And, in the absence of deadlines, having a real threat of litigation may also increase concern about responding promptly. 

Key Finding #2: Using Automated Public Records Request Workflow Tools Can Significantly Reduce BOTH the Need for Manual Tools AND the Stress Over Meeting Deadlines and Avoiding Litigation

How does having technology (or lack thereof) correlate with respondents’ priorities surrounding deadlines and lawsuits?

One of the best ways to meet deadlines and avoid lawsuits is to use modern tools that simplify your work and help you get each request completed as quickly as possible. We found an interesting relationship between those respondents using only the manual public records tools-of-the-trade vs those also using automated public records workflow management tools. While only 2% of all survey respondents reported using sharpies or wax pencils (the most manual tools of the trade), 73% of those were non-users of automated tools.

PiPR Survey - Manual Tool Usage Reported

Those respondents who were non users of automated tools were also more likely to have indicated concerns over deadlines and lawsuits in the survey’s space for comments:

The State has very defined deadlines; the system that we are using is not robust enough to track all of the deadlines. With (Oregon) HB 2841, it is going to be a priority to track exemptions and the justification for exemptions.

We've already had over 800 requests this year and we only had about 375 total last year. Judging what is PII seems to be a subjective process; I am often at odds with departments about this. 10 days is not enough for about 1/3 of the requests...and any request with eDiscovery. We need something better than the People's Business to distill the exemptions and provide citation language.

Can workflow software replace manual tools of the trade?

According to our survey data, yes. It does appear that using automated public records workflow management software (such as GovQA) can significantly reduce reliance on manual tools. 

PiPR Survey - Tool Usage by Workflow Software Users

How Can Manual Tools Be Automated to Help Meet Deadlines and Avoid Lawsuits?  

Automated workflow tools for public records request management include alternatives to manual processing tools, including the following for each phase of the public records request lifecycle:

Online public portal to replace manual intake (paper) forms, scanners, copiers and faxes.  Automated intake forms reduce rekeying errors, allow proactive sharing of previously released records and information prior to customers submitting official requests, and can utilize deflection technology to reduce the volume of requests (which reduces the workload of staff trying to meet deadlines). 

Online admin/staff portal to link duplicates, create estimates, request clarification and delegation of tasks vs. manual efforts with word processors, spreadsheets, and email.

Online admin/staff portal with built-in calendars, notifications and reminders to simplify collaboration and parallel processing vs. manual calendars and spreadsheets. 

Online admin/staff portal with built-in redaction tools vs. secondary redaction software tools or sharpies and wax pencils.  Built-in redaction tools make it easy to perform whole packet redaction and to log, track, and report on exemptions. Built-in tools also keep data more secure vs processes which require importing and exporting potential PII (personally identifiable information) and confidential data in and out of Adobe or other redaction tools.

Online public portal to post responses with links to download files (with no file size limitations) backed with a full audit trail vs. typing responses in a word processor or email and trying to help the public use Dropbox/Sharepoint links to retrieve their files (or copying files to expensive and insecure flash drives and CDs) to be mailed to requesters. The full audit trail here is key to avoiding lawsuits! The audit trail, compiled in the background as you process your requests, can be used to prove (in a court of law if needed) the time and date stamps of all activities, as well as files delivered and the number of times files were opened, viewed, and  downloaded by the requesters. When your peers mail CDs and flash drives to requesters, there is no way to change them after they’re sent and versioning can be problematic.

Online admin/staff portal to pull custom and on-demand reports with dynamic charts and export tools vs. manual counting (or limited spreadsheet functions).

What do you think about these results?  Do you agree with your peers?  Do you have additional insights to share?  Send your comments and questions to peers@govqa.com and we’ll feature them in a survey results summary post in the coming weeks!

Did you find these priorities useful?  Check out Part Two and our Main Survey Results for more information.

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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