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GovCon Expert Amy Hilbert on How Outdated Technologies Contribute to FOIA Struggles

By Amy Hilbert, executive vice president of government solutions at Casepoint

In an era where transparency and accountability are paramount, the Freedom of Information Act stands as a critical tool for citizens seeking access to government records.

However, behind the ideal of openness lies a stark reality: the federal government is struggling to respond to FOIA requests. Backlogged requests (those unable to be completed within mandatory response times) are mounting, with more than 200,000 requests piled up at the end of FY 2023. This is also helping fuel a rise in FOIA-related litigation, with more than 800 such suits filed in FY 2023.

So what’s going on here? Why are so many agencies overwhelmed and unable to cope with the demands of efficient FOIA response?

Reason #1: Overwhelming volume

The first and most apparent challenge is the sheer volume of FOIA requests inundating federal agencies. In the fiscal year 2023 alone, the number of requests soared past the 1 million mark—a 29 percent increase from the previous year. To put this into perspective, agencies are now grappling with an average of 4,600 requests every single day.

Reason #2: Increasing complexity

Compounding the issue is the escalating complexity of FOIA requests. Gone are the days of simple inquiries; today’s requests often span thousands of pages and require extensive searches across various file formats. Moreover, many requests necessitate coordination across multiple agencies and geographic locations, further complicating the process.

Reason #3: Staffing shortages

Adding to the strain is the critical shortage of adequately trained staff dedicated to handling FOIA requests. Despite the escalating demand, hiring levels have remained stagnant, leaving agencies understaffed and ill-equipped to manage the increasing workload. Without sufficient personnel to process requests in a timely manner, backlogs continue to swell, exacerbating the problem.

Reason #4: Escalating litigation

Another factor contributing to the backlog is the rising tide of FOIA litigation. As requests become increasingly complex, more and more individuals are turning to the courts to compel agencies to release information. Unfortunately, the rise in litigation is compounding the problems for agency FOIA teams. In order to prioritize meeting court deadlines for producing evidence, they often must pull time and resources away from processing initial FOIA requests, creating additional backlogs that will likely generate further litigation.

Reason #5: Outdated technologies

Finally, many agencies are relying on outdated software and pieced-together solutions that don’t work together to manage and fulfill FOIA requests efficiently. Without modern, integrated FOIA management platforms, agencies are forced to contend with cumbersome processes that do little to help address the problems FOIA teams are facing.

Better technology can help address problems

Without major changes to the FOIA process or significant increases in staffing, it comes down to how agencies can work smarter to help meet the growing challenges of FOIA compliance — and better technology is likely the key.

At Casepoint, we’ve been paying close attention to the FOIA landscape and listening to our agency partners share how they believe the process should work, and what features they are looking for in new integrated technology solutions.

  • A user-friendly portal for requesters that allows the public to track the status of their requests.
  • Automated notifications to agency staff that work across agencies, offices and locations eliminate the need for manual communications and keep stakeholders informed at every stage.
  • Advanced file format support to process, view, and render multiple file formats (documents, PDFs, images, videos, etc.)  seamlessly.
  • Integrated eDiscovery capabilities to analyze files and then identify and tag the information relevant to each specific request.
  • Automated redactions to accurately identify and protect confidential information.
  • An established “reading room” that creates a public repository of released documents to avoid producing the same documents multiple times.
  • Integrated reporting capabilities to help meet DOJ and maintain accountability.
  • Strong security protections that offer the highest protection against cyber threats.

This is where integrated FOIA management technologies can really help. Streamlined data discovery platforms that draw on the power of AI can help agencies more efficiently manage the massive volume of data involved in FOIA requests.

Because when it comes down to it, despite the challenges agencies are currently facing, the volume of FOIA requests can also be seen as a positive sign. It signifies that the public is engaged in the democratic process, actively seeking information and holding their government accountable.

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