Government agencies remain snowed under Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. FOIA allows individuals or organizations from anywhere in the world to file a request for information under the act, and federal agencies are required to respond within 20 working days. In the fiscal year 2020, just over 790,000 people filed a request, causing a resource strain on the affected agencies.1
FOIA allows the public to request information that otherwise only government entities would be able to access. As an increasing amount of government data is being produced and stored electronically, along with a growing public interest in information transparency, the demand for information has accelerated. Government Agencies are struggling to find the time and resources to respond to FOIA requests.
The volume of requests is not the only problem. The costs associated with responding to requests are vast. In 2020, 5,595 employees from multiple agencies were engaged in responding to requests, which drained almost $600 million from agency budgets, while only a minuscule 0.4% was recovered in FOIA fees.1
Delving a little further into the numbers, five agencies processed over 75% of all FOIA requests, with the Department of Homeland Security shouldering 51% of the load.1 All 790,000+ requests required careful examination to identify the correct actions determining which information should be released, which should be withheld based on the FOIA’s exemptions, and which requests should be closed for procedural or administrative reasons.
Fewer Cases, More Backlog
The Justice Department report notes a slight drop-off in the numbers of FOIA requests in 2020. Despite this, the year ended with roughly 141,000 cases backlogged – a 17.7% increase from the number of backlogged requests reported at the end of FY 2019.1 Some requests require access to document sets from multiple agencies as well as sophisticated data analysis to determine whether the information is responsive, exempt, or contains personally identifiable information (PII). Mushrooming data volumes and new types of data compound the problem. In fact, some of the more complex cases are now taking over 100 days to process. To make matters worse, government agencies are facing the same pandemic-related staffing struggles as commercial enterprises, wrestling with shrinking budgets, altered working environments, and more employees requiring medical leave due to COVID.
Time to End the Manual Era
The pandemic has highlighted a critical problem for agencies struggling with FOIA requests: outdated technology. Few agencies have adopted cloud-based technology solutions that can readily accommodate remote work and quickly scale to handle complex, high-volume requests. In general, agencies still rely on a multitude of disparate and often outdated applications that have been cobbled together to manage FOIA responses, thus complicating workflows and increasing the potential for error. Features are limited, search functionality is poor, and many software applications are difficult to learn and use. Many can handle only a restricted number of data types and don’t meet current redaction security or overall data security standards like those specified in the federal government’s FedRAMP program.
The good news is that a mature, time-tested solution to the challenges of FOIA responses already exists: eDiscovery technology. Powered by AI and advanced analytics, the latest generation of cloud-based eDiscovery software for FOIA requests can produce relevant, complete, and defensible information from enormous, varied data stores in a fraction of the time required by less current software – and with greater accuracy.
These platforms are fully integrated, eliminating the inefficiencies of logging in and out of, or importing and exporting from, different applications to complete a request – significantly reducing the risk of data loss or exposure. Advanced eDiscovery platforms include robust cloud-based security, role-based permissions, dynamic workflows, advanced keyword searching, and advanced redaction tools, including auto-redaction and bulk redaction – features that save agencies valuable time. Real-time dashboards and reporting provide important levels of control and accountability. At the same time, efficiency is enhanced by the ability to automate and streamline workflows across multiple requests through re-usable templates. Agencies that adopt these solutions also have the opportunity to manage litigation, investigations, and FOIA requests with a single platform, opening the door to additional efficiencies and cost savings.
eDiscovery software for FOIA requests provides an elegant, cost-effective, and scalable data management solution to meeting 20-day deadlines and reducing the growing backlog of requests, even in the face of increasing data volumes and data types. Not only can they help agencies avoid the risk of penalties and sharply improve their year-end statistics, but they can also reintroduce some sanity into the madness of data and FOIA request overload. While they do require an up-front investment, the benefits of having a single integrated solution for both eDiscovery and FOIA more than compensate for the initial expense, as a growing number of government agencies are already experiencing.
Select eDiscovery solutions integrate all the features necessary to make sense of the growing chaos of FOIA requests. What overworked FOIA team wouldn’t welcome a little more sanity during these crazy times?
Click here to see why government agencies choose Casepoint’s eDiscovery solution to manage FOIA request overload.
1All cited statistics come from the Department of Justice Summary of Annual FOIA Reports for Fiscal Year 2020. FY 2021 numbers were not yet available as of the publication date of this post.