Managing Records the FOIA Way
October 21, 2011
By providing the public with fast, easy access to your records, you’ll avoid wasted time, wasted money and potential legal challenges.
With its granting of public access to federal agency records and information 45 years ago, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) provided federal government transparency long before President Obama issued his Open Government Directive. But ironically, many federal agencies and independent government contractors still can’t access their own files easily—and therefore fall short of FOIA requirements.
Lawyers, journalists, political activists and other citizens regularly request everything from immigration records to FBI files in paper, photographic or video form. These retrievals cost agencies a great deal of time and money, though the requestor does pick up some of the cost; for example, when an inquiry from a commercial requestor costs more than $15 to complete, the agency can pass along much of the search and retrieval expense, including 16 percent of its administrative outlay. But fragmented, haphazardly stored, or solely hard-copy records that are often stored offsite also drive up costs.
Agency budgets take an even greater hit when a citizen or company sues because an FOIA request exceeded its deadline. When an agency isn’t running efficiently, it may exceed both the 20-working day request response deadline and the 10-working day extension option, putting it at legal risk. Whether or not the agency ultimately wins a lawsuit filed for denial of access, a court battle can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars—or more.
The key to budget-friendly FOIA compliance is to maintain a system of retrieving, copying and sending public records that works with all media types and formats. As you design your physical and/or electronic filing system, you’ll also want to consider an indexing solution. Fortunately, some key technology advances in the following areas are making both of these goals much easier to satisfy:
Optical Character Recognition (OCR) accuracy rates are improving all the time, which cuts down your staffing costs. What’s more, many OCR solutions can read decades-old documents full of handwriting and whited-out corrections.
Document Capture and Classification Systems can draw and index information right from the source—whether that’s email, Web 2.0 applications or paper.
Increased server capacity and prowess means servers can accommodate millions of images daily. Your agency can now convert cumbersome paper documents into easily indexed, stored and accessed digital versions.
As these technology pieces fall into place, some of the most formidable tasks must happen further upstream in the process. You must become familiar with your records, understand the value of each and prioritize them accordingly. In doing so, you’ll provide the public with the access it wants while saving your agency valuable budget dollars.
Did You Know?
FOIA Made Simpler
Know the law. Although you have only 20 working days to respond to a FOIA request, the law provides for a 10-working-day extension. With certain exceptions, requestors must pay for photocopies and worker time spent fulfilling request.
Understand agency protocol. Requests may come via mail, fax or email, depending on your agency guidelines. Each order is given a tracking number that both the requester and the agency can use to track progress.
Allocate resources. If your agency handles a significant number of FOIA requests, you can fulfill them in the order they are received, even if that means you may exceed the legally specified time frame. You may do this provided that your agency has allotted sufficient staff resources to fulfill those requests in the first place. But it's best to be quick. If you fail to fulfill a request within the time constraints without due cause your agency could face judicial review.
Publish. Your agency must publish its required steps for processing FOIA requests in the Federal Register. FOIA also requires that government records storage agencies make final opinions, staff instructions and other documents affecting the general public available in both physical reading rooms and online.
More questions about FOIA and other pertinent compliance topics? Read additional Knowledge Center stories on these subjects, or contact Iron Mountain’s consulting services team. You’ll be connected with a knowledgeable product and services specialist who can address your information management challenges.
Where Is It? Making Government Records More Accessible
Your Agency and the Open Government Directive
A Safer Space: Assessing Your NARA Compliance Status