Lessons From 100 Implementations: Public Safety

Achieving the Perfect Public Record Request Intake Form

One thing we’ve learned over hundreds of large public safety implementations is that public safety organizations are all different.

Joedy SmithDirector of Implementation, GovQA

We understand that, as public safety organizations, your first responsibility is to catch the bad guys.

Matt EcksteinSenior Implementation Engineer, GovQA

You should be looking to create an elegant solution — as complex as it needs to be to solve the workflow problems...but no more so.

Kevin O’BrienChief Customer Officer, GovQA

4 Key Public Record Request Intake Form Considerations

For Public Safety Organizations

So, you’re considering converting your manual public records management process and intake form to something more modern and digital?  You want to reduce your request backlog, meet transparency initiatives, and/or avoid litigation? Congratulations!  Your work day is about to get a whole lot simpler! But, where should you start? 

  • Data Security: improve your data security and lock down the flow of unredacted records. Protect yourself from accidental release of PII and potential data theft.
  • Separate Request Types & Collect the Info You Need: do it right and you benefit from reduced workload; do it wrong and you’ll be solution-shopping again within months.
  • Deflection: use technology to divert redundant and vague requests. Greatly reduce your request volume (and backlog).
  • Response Automation: centralize and standardize your responses — and enjoy the benefits of an unbroken audit trail!

Data Security

Whether you plan to manage requests for incident reports; internal affairs files, 911 audio; radio logs; or body worn, dash, or surveillance camera video, your public safety records will contain a lot of sensitive, private information. Accidental release of PII was the number one concern of county public safety respondents to the 2020 PEERS in Public Records Survey. This is a great reason why your data should reside on a CJIS and HIPAA compliant software platform, hosted by a CJIS and HIPAA compliant hosting company, and protected from the human factor by ALL those with potential access to that data.

The idea of security might seem like a no-brainer for public safety companies considering public records automation tools; but unless you complete your due diligence prior to signing on the dotted line, assumptions might lead to a bad match between your organization and your tool of choice.

Separating Request Types & Collecting the Right Information

When automating your public record request intake form and process, it’s critical that you identify both unnecessary complexities AND necessary complexities in your current workflow. Take the time to understand what fields are needed on your public portal to ensure the smoothest processing on the back-end staff portal. Your goal should be to eliminate (or greatly reduce) the need for back-and-forth clarification with requesters.

Some good questions to ask yourselves:

  • What are all the service request types handled by your organization?
  • Are the questions asked for these request types different enough that they warrant totally separate public record request intake forms?
  • Will dynamic fields (which show/hide questions depending on what your requester selects in the form) be useful to keep the intake form looking simple for requesters?
  • Who are all the users inside and outside your organization who will play a part in fulfilling requests?
  • How do each of your staff members contribute to the process?
  • What is the chain of command?
  • How are documents and data entering and leaving your process now?
  • What it will take to streamline these documents and data types?
  • Does a knowledge library already exist?

Broward County Sheriff

Click the image above to see an example public safety portal in action. This public records center drills down to different intake forms for different request types – with each form customized by department to simplify the back-end staff management process and views.

Arlington Police Dept

Click to see how the Arlington, TX Police Department created a separate request type just for vehicle crash reports that mimicked the TxDOT form.  This reduced foot traffic by 65% at the records window, collected close to $30,000/year in additional revenue, and provided better customer service to citizens.

Download Our Free Worksheet

If you’re considering a move to a more automated records request management solution, download our free Implementation Discovery worksheet.  It will help you and your team discover what’s working well and what might need an overhaul in your public records request intake form.

Deflection

We’ve learned that, for our public safety customers, if the city or county gets 1000 public records requests per year, the PD or Sheriff’s office gets 4000.

Joedy SmithDirector of Implementation, GovQA

With that kind of volume, public safety organizations like yours need serious tools to help make sure staff is getting through their work as efficiently as possible. When your backlog is massive, requesters become impatient and might submit their request multiple times trying to get an answer.

During implementation, make sure your chosen tool puts a full stop on these productivity killers:

  • Don’t do work twice! (It introduces the opportunity for errors and takes up time you could be spending doing other things)
  • Don’t do work you don’t have to do! (Make sure request types are routed correctly and that it’s clear to requesters which types of records are exempt)
  • Don’t fulfill voluminous requests without tools to track the time your staff spends! (You’ll want the ability to report on this to get more support in the next budget year)
  • Don’t give away responses for free if you can collect fees for time and materials costs. (If allowed by laws in your state, fees can help offset the cost for additional staff you may need as request volume continues to rise)

The simplest request to process is the one you never receive.

Deflection technologies that divert citizens, the media, and other government agencies away from submitting public records requests are a great way to reduce your workload. These in-line digital functions can deflect requests that you’ve already completed (duplicates), as well as those which are non-responsive or vexatious. Here are some best practice deflection examples:

Frequent Request Deflection

Keywords can trigger alerts with links to FAQ information available on your portal. This type of deflection helps you answer the most frequent questions BEFORE they’re submitted as new requests. Frequent Request Deflections might include alerts that certain types of records are available somewhere else (or are exempt).

Published Records Deflection

Keywords that match published records request responses can trigger alerts with links to the relevant files. Ideally, you can post any responsive record generated in your system to your public library as you are closing the request (based on your organization’s guidelines for transparency — whatever those guidelines are).

Materials Estimates

When permitted by law, materials fees estimates can separate the serious requesters from those just creating makework. Look for a tool that lets you display and email estimates to requesters, and then easily convert those estimates to actionable invoices and payments connected to your preferred online payment provider.

The Admin Portal Should Have Another Layer of Deflection Tools

Once the remaining, undeflected requests are submitted via the intake form, they will move into the staff-side admin portal where you should have even more tools to vet them prior to the gathering & tracking phase of a public records lifecycle. These tools might include “similar request” alerts popups with one-click similar request linking capability. “Trending Topics” with opt-in and auto-follow functions that let you proactively post information for visitors about hot topics (which have the potential to trigger multiple requests for the same records).

Cook County Sheriff

Click the image to see an example of a public record request intake form for public safety in action. When viewing the request form as an anonymous requester, note how selecting “Requester Affiliation” changes the questions on the form. For example, selecting “Current Detainee” reveals a “Requester Booking #” question.

Deflection Technology

Click to see how GovQA’s patent-pending deflection tools can help reduce your request volume and get relevant data to requesters BEFORE they submit public records requests.

Learn More

Response Automation

Beyond the Public Record Request Intake Form Fields

Ideally, when requesters create a login* for your public records portal and submit their request, they receive a confirmation email automatically and can track their request, materials estimates (if permitted by law), invoices and payments online. You will want detailed, on-screen instructions to guide requesters and make the whole process quick, clear, and satisfying. But when you need clarification on a request, you’ll want to make sure you have workflow automation tools to help you streamline and log communications, including:

  • The ability to send an email from within the system to the requester (because keeping all your communications centralized within the tool eliminates the potential security risks of external email transactions…and makes an audit trail possible)
  • Built-in and custom templates [with single-click, dynamic MERGE TAGS] to standardize your responses for efficiency and consistency
  • Automatically generated audit trail history for every interaction (so if a requester comes back to you saying they didn’t get a file you sent; you will have the audit trail proof to show them when the file was sent, downloaded, and even how many times it was viewed)

Optimizing Your Unique Public Safety Records Process Automation Needs: Summary

Need to split request types into separate forms for Law Enforcement Agencies, Media Outlets, and Child Welfare Agencies? Make sure your solution can handle it. Have different questions to ask for requests relating to crash reports, 911 Audio, and incidents? Make sure your solution can handle it.

The goal in designing your public records intake form should be to achieve productivity as soon as possible; leverage existing operations knowledge completely; revise workflows (including triggers and actions) as needed to achieve efficiencies and effectiveness; and ensure comprehensive training to embrace the new technology.

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).

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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