For those not familiar with FOIA, it stands for Freedom of Information Act, and helps create transparency between government and the public. For example, a citizen may request safety records of a nursing homes or information about bids for capital equipment purchases or other large expenditures. For some agencies, these request can number in the thousands per year and results in millions of documents being delivered.
Challenges with responding to FOIA requests
FOIA requests continue to be paper intensive and requires searching of electronic and paper documents to satisfy a request. This has created some serious inefficiencies within agencies when responding to these FOIA requests including:
Lack of access to the information – Quite often the information is predominately paper and not centrally managed, which requires an agency to take a manual piecemeal approach to collecting the information. This manual approach is costly, extremely slow and inefficient.
Risk of being out of compliance – By law agencies are required to respond to a request in a certain period of time. Agencies are often not able to collect and deliver the requested information in a set timeline, which can result in litigation.
Dealing with confidential information - In many cases, the information being requested includes documents that contain confidential data (e.g. social security numbers). Before an agency can deliver the documents to the requestor, the information must be redacted (obscuring or removing sensitive data). In the case of a manual paper-based process, this is done by an employee using a black marker.
Operational costs - Government agencies budgets are tight and in today’s economy agency staffing is getting smaller which puts a lot of pressure on agencies to respond to these requests. To top it off, these request often result in added expenses like the printing, photocopying, and mailing of documents.
Document capture helps with responding to FOIA request
What many agencies are doing is getting in front of this problem, by digitizing paper, capturing key metadata, and storing the information electronically in a centralized repository. Essentially creating a digital office for managing and accessing paper as electronic information. By doing so, agencies are then able to process these FOIA request by simply locating the electronic content (scanned images) in a centralized repository. Searches are done based up key metadata and classification of the content that is captured at the time of scanning and indexing.
A great example of this is the New York State Department of Health – read the EMC press release: “New York Health Department Achieves Compliance; Accelerates Response Time By 50% with EMC Captiva”.
In the case of this state department, they receive more than five thousand freedom of information requests a year, amounting to more than 10 million pages annually that they gather and send out.
To handle the large volume of requests, the department leverages EMC Captiva as the document processing foundation for its automated platform for freedom of information compliance. The benefits achieved by the New York State Department of Health are quite impressive.
- Requests which previously took 40 business days to resolve, now require less than 20 business days.
- Ordering of paper and printing supplies were reduced by 95%, along with a 75% decrease in total hard copy communication, and staff training accelerated to 12 weeks from a year.
- Award winning solution—the EMC-based solution received a Best Practice Award in Technical Implementation from the New York State Forum.
FOIA certainly has its benefits in creating transparency between government and the public, but government transparency does not come without an added cost. The good thing is there is technology that can significantly reduce the cost and time it takes to respond to many of these FOIA requests. That technology being intelligent capture. Capture is a first step in making it easier for agencies to respond to these requests in a timely manner, creating a win-win for both the agency and the public.