Complying with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is an important way that our government agencies serve our democracy, but the fact is that complying with these mandates is incredibly time-consuming and expensive.
A 2016 report from the U.S. Department of Justice found that the 100 agencies subject to FOIA transparency requirements received more than 713,168 requests in 2015 while processing “a record high number of nearly 770,000 requests.” The report nonetheless challenges government agencies to “continue to focus on improving timeliness in their responses, particularly for simple track requests, and to reduce the age of their oldest requests.”
“The biggest issue we hear about from our customers in the public sector today is managing the ever-growing amounts of data that must now be considered when responding to FOIA requests and other government transparency mandates,” said Pete Johnson, public sector sales director at LexisNexis, and the expert speaker during a recent LexisNexis webcast to help government professionals better understand how to navigate FOIA compliance challenges. “These are important initiatives, but the explosion of information available creates difficult challenges.”
Johnson noted that government agencies simply aren’t getting more staffing and they’re not getting more money.
“So the give here must be with technology,” he said. “How can we leverage technology to automate these processes, accommodate all of this data, and maintain both our deadlines and compliance obligations?”
In moving to a digital-first approach, government agencies must display, store, manage and let citizens access a rapidly growing amount of data and public records. However, leading legal technology solutions – particularly workflow, review and processing technologies – can help government agencies better display and manage public records information efficiently and transparently.
Here are five ways that government agencies can leverage existing legal technology to automate FOIA compliance:
- Handle large volumes of data
Some legal software products were designed to handle large volumes of data and documents for complex cases. FOIA teams can use this processing capability to scan, import, de-duplicate and produce all of the potential documents needed to answer a request. Once all documents have been reviewed and appropriately redacted, these software tools – such as LAW PreDiscovery — can produce the final package for delivery to the requester.
- Manage documents from request to closure
Legal review tools can be put to use by government agencies to more easily determine which documents meet the needs of the FOIA request, then review relevant documents for necessary redactions. Moreover, agencies need to show their ability to manage FOIA requests on an annual basis. Using legal review software not only helps streamline the process internally, but aids in reporting to outside entities.
- Automate discovery of documents
One keyword search with a legal review software tool – such as Concordance – can cover an entire document population, while also utilizing de-duplication and near-duplication of records to reduce the clutter and get reviewers to the most relevant documents. Also, government professionals can take advantage of powerful full-text search capabilities that allow searching by names, words, phrases, addresses, phone numbers, email addresses and much more.
- Keep sensitive information secure
While FOIA ensures that anyone has access to government information, there are real security and privacy concerns in that data. Many times documents are held back because the redaction process is just too difficult. This violates the spirit of FOIA. Automating the process of redacting sensitive information ensures that all applicable documents can be released without security or privacy risk. For example, legal review tools enable government professionals to: mark an electronic document as confidential; selectively redact appropriate information; insert reason codes, annotations or comments; and then ensure that only approved personnel can see what was redacted.
- Expand your data pool
With the processing power of legal software, agencies can search extremely large data sets to get down to relevant data within just one search. Users can customize searches to get the right data the first time. Everything becomes text-based at ingestion, allowing for metadata collection and making PDFs and scanned documents searchable.
Carahsoft recently entered into an agreement with LexisNexis in which Carahsoft will serve as a master government aggregator for LexisNexis litigation software solutions, making them available to the public sector via Carahsoft’s GSA Schedule 70 and SEWP V contracts.
To listen to the full audio recording of Johnson’s webcast for government agency professionals, please click here.