Federal agencies are facing a growing volume of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests each year but are getting fewer resources to handle this workload.
Marshall Hamilton, an account executive for Tyler Technologies, said these FOIA workforce shortages add to the time it takes for agencies to find, review and redact documents within the scope of a FOIA request.
Hamilton said these employee shortages are a “big reason why these [FOIA] backlogs are increasing governmentwide.”
“FOIA offices have traditionally been understaffed and underbudgeted. So, when you add the fact that volumes are increasing at a high rate, it’s a lot tougher for them to do things like meet deadlines and address these requests in a timely manner,” Hamilton said.
The federal government in fiscal 2022 received a record high of more than 900,000 new FOIA requests.
Given these challenges, Hamilton said agencies are turning to artificial intelligence and other “force multiplier tools” to optimize the productivity of their workforce.
“I think all technology, including AI, is meant to make a human’s life easier,” he said. “When I think about the most time-consuming activities that FOIA personnel have to deal with, AI is really a force multiplier to help streamline and accelerate things, to reduce that backlog, to do the things that don’t require a knowledge worker or human to make a decision on.”
Hamilton said AI and automation solutions can also help agencies equitably balance FOIA requests among employees.
“Let’s say I’m a FOIA analyst, and I’m working 10 requests, and there’s another full analyst who’s only working two or three. The system can be set up so that, once it gets to a certain threshold for the analyst, it can either reassign it to someone who has more availability or just not assign it to that person in general, because they have too many requests on their plate,” he said. “Think about that staffing challenge — that’s not probably going to change in the near future, which is why having automation to bridge that gap is even more important.”
Despite these challenges, agencies can turn to more sophisticated tools to address a growing FOIA caseload. Hamilton said FOIA software helps agencies particularly with eDiscovery – searching, reviewing, de-duplicating and sometimes redacting government records.
“That’s typically used on the front end of the FOIA process,” he said. “Then you have case management tools that are meant to essentially help manage the FOIA request workflow from beginning to end – do things like reporting, ad-hoc searching, task tracking, deadline tracking, assigning these requests.”
FOIA case management tools also give agencies a deeper level of data analytics that can help managers pinpoint bottlenecks in their workflow.
“Every FOIA request has a certain workflow tied to it, and these tools allow you to say, ‘Alright, where is that request in the workflow? Where are things moving at a good pace? Where are things slowing down? Who’s working that request in that workflow?’” Hamilton said.
These tools can also help agencies that are still manually producing FOIA reports – such as Justice Department’s annual report on the state of FOIA management, or similar agency-by-agency performance reviews.
“Having software that is purpose-built to have the data elements being tracked and managed, so that you can auto generate that report with a few clicks, is a big help to agencies,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton said these FOIA software tools reflect the needs of agency chief FOIA officers.
“I had a conversation with a chief FOIA officer … He said, ‘I want to get a report at 6:30 a.m. where I look at my email, and I see where are the fires that I need to put out. [I need] that high-level 30,000-foot view of what’s going on underneath all of my FOIA offices, and then being able to address those fires accordingly.’”
Agencies can also reduce their workloads by following a few FOIA best practices. Many agencies, for example, maintain online “reading rooms” that feature some of the most requested documents under FOIA. Increasing public visibility of those documents, Hamilton said, can help reduce the total number of FOIA requests an agency receives.
Hamilton said agencies also benefit from adding capabilities to their online FOIA portals that give requesters a real-time look at the status of their request.
“Doing things like that, and just having that frequent touch point, throughout the process, I think will be appreciated by the requester – but also, meeting the government’s goal of transparency and accountability.”