March 2021 marks one year since the COVID pandemic shut down most of the United States. But it’s also a marker for another event – Freedom of Information (FOI) Day. FOI Day is an annual event on or near March 16, the birthday of James Madison, who is widely regarded as the Father of the Constitution and a prominent defender of open government.
So, how are these events connected?
It’s been widely reported that public records have become harder to get since the world was upended by the pandemic. After pandemic-related shutdowns, ‘delays in responses to FOIA requests were exacerbated by remote work, outdated public records laws, underfunded budgets, understaffed offices, and heightened oversight from administrators’ wanting to review potentially sensitive data before it was released, according to GovQA spokesperson Jen Snyder.
But even before the pandemic, responses to FOIA requests were slowing. The number of requests increased by over 30% for agencies from 2012 to 2018, and 15% were backlogged during the same period. For any given year, increases in the number of requests vary by agency. For example, the U.S. Department of Defense currently has a backlog of 16,000 FOI requests – and the longest-pending request was more than 3,900 days old as of this week, according to FOIA.gov.
There are many reasons agencies deny these requests and a number of exemptions that apply. According to a January 2021 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, agencies’ use of (b)(3) exemptions more than doubled from fiscal year 2012 to fiscal year 2019 while the number of FOIA requests processed increased 32 percent. Meanwhile, FOIA requests continue to accelerate in number, data volume and complexity for government organizations, resulting in more documents in need of review and more time spent to determine which information, if any, can be shared
In parallel with these trends, we are seeing greater adoption of eDiscovery technology and services within the government sector as agencies look for more sophisticated and modern FOIA capabilities and more ways to automate workflows. More US agencies are moving away from on-premise technologies, with the main drivers being scalability and greater collaboration across teams and with external partners.
In the past year in particular we are seeing a clear push by the public sector toward cloud-based eDiscovery. In two recent examples, Casepoint announced agreements to provide its SaaS eDiscovery technology and support for the West Virginia Office of Technology (WVOT) and the U.S Forest Service. The latter agency specifically requested a fully integrated, end-to-end eDiscovery platform to support the its business needs for increased litigation and growing data volumes in a FedRAMP-authorized environment.
Casepoint helps government agencies sift through large volumes of data to determine the corpus of information needed to meet a FOIA request. Within a single platform and interface, diverse types of information can be reviewed, coded, redacted, and routed for approval before producing to the requesting party. In many instances, these FOIA requests are part of congressional inquiries and larger litigations that may involve class action lawsuits or multi-agency investigations.
We are encouraged to see more agencies moving their eDiscovery to the cloud and using eDiscovery software in innovative ways, a development that speaks to a larger trend of organizations looking for more robust and efficient information governance. Casepoint has extensive experience working through agency authorization processes and follows a rigorous change management approach that helps make a government agency’s migration to the cloud seamless and secure. This is our way of helping agencies ensure requests for public information can be addressed in a timely manner, government transparency is maintained, and compliant litigation workflows are more efficient.