Earlier this month it was announced that the State Department had hired a FOIA “czar” and had moved some fifty employees to the Clinton email FOIA requests to accommodate the workload. But the State Department is not the only government agency drowning in requests and document processing. In 2014, the Department of Homeland security received a record high number of FOIA requests. According to a recent report by the Chief FOIA Officer, most requests are being received by a select number of departments, leading to a crippling backlog and tensions between an image-conscious administration and journalists, activist groups, and citizens alike.
So why can’t departments keep up? According to the report, each department is facing its own unique challenge, but most are rooted in a basic lack of technological depth to accommodate increasing needs. For example, the TSA is struggling with data migration and implementing their chosen commercial web application solution. The Office of Inspector General can’t keep up with complex, high-volume requests for data that need cross-departmental consultations to weed out sensitive information, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement has few trained FOIA employees capable of handling the complex process required for requests relating to immigration issues.
The need to improve the FOIA request process becomes more urgent as the backlog continues to grow exponentially. Departments like FEMA, who are often asked for records pertaining to disasters, assistance, and grants, requested the involvement of the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS), which resulted in the release of a compliance reportearlier this month evaluating performance and offering suggestions for improvement. At FEMA, the underlying problem is that each FOIA request is processed in the order it’s received, so small, quick requests are being lost underneath larger, more complex requests that take much more processing time. In the report, OGIS recommends developing a multi-track process to sort out simpler requests for quick processing and leaving the larger requests for specialists who can focus their energy appropriately, effectively reducing the pileup.
This seems like a simple solution, but the OGIS compliance report mentions an issue that is far more indicative of the overarching problem behind the FOIA request backlog. The current software FEMA uses only allows for records to be released in PDF format, which is prohibitive if working within a database or spreadsheets. What FOIA requests need is an agile platform that accommodates data migration, collection, review, and redaction, and does so according to the needs of a given department. To date, the market for FOIA software is slim, but by integrating a product like Blackout with a full-service platform like Relativity, a solution may not be far away.
Between the Clinton email scandal and now the US Customs and Border Protection currently being under a class action lawsuit for their failure to respond in a timely fashion, FOIA shortcomings have been brought to the forefront. It’s evident that there is a pertinent need for the backlog to be addressed, and based on the performance reviews being released, the technology around which FOIA request processing has been built would be a good place to start.