Free information need not cost a fortune (Shutterstock image)


Free information need not cost a fortune

Sunshine Week, a nationwide initiative which runs through March 18 this year, highlights the importance of government transparency. It’s been around for 10 years, but a simple Google search for “Freedom of Information” reveals a bleak picture of the time and expense involved in giving public access to government records nationwide. That’s because the complexity and cost of accessing public information and protecting privacy and security keeps going up, right alongside public demands for other government services.

Some government organizations, however, are proactively working to simplify the process of filling freedom of information law (FOIL) requests, making them less cumbersome, less costly and less time-intensive to complete.

This growing number of state and local governments are using document management software with business process automation technology to eliminate many of the manual tasks associated with FOIL requests. Records managers who used to spend days or weeks on these administrative tasks – entering data, ensuring reviews, obtaining approvals from attorneys, redacting sensitive and private information and sending email updates -- can now deliver responses on deadline and spend more time on other services, leading to a better relationship with the public.

The technology is moving past the open-data portals so many government agencies have built into their websites that allow access to readily available public records, such a property assessments. Not all aspects of such documents are public, however, making reviewing and redacting information the real costs drivers of freedom of information requests.

Citizen requests for records like purchase orders, voting records or litigation can be the most complicated to properly fulfill. Some requests can get lost or delayed, exposing governments to penalties or legal action. And with hundreds or even thousands of requests each year, fulfillment can be a financial drain on the government organization that holds the information.

Last year, for example, Washington state spent more than $60 million fulfilling 114,000 records requests. Chicago paid $670,000 responding to FOIL lawsuits in 2016, while at the federal level, agencies received 713,168 FOIA requests in fiscal 2015 that cost  $480 million to fulfill.

These costs can be cut by five and six figures when business process automation software is deployed to eliminate the manual copying, redacting, delivering and many other aspects of allowing access to public records while protecting security and privacy.

Ithaca, N.Y., for example, automated its FOIL request process, reducing the time it takes to process a request by 35 percent and saving 7,000 hours of employee time in just one year. Because the system eliminated paper-based interdepartmental mail, the city could easily to comply with state-mandated deadlines associated with FOIL requests. 

Shortly after the recount following the election of Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), Ramsey County, Minn., used  a business process automation system to build a digital workflow that automatically redacts sensitive information from ballots in case they are put under scrutiny. The county estimates the technology will save significant time and financial resources should another election challenge arise.

Dover, N.Y., estimates it is saving about 1 percent of its annual operating budget as the time spent responding to many of its FOIL requests has been reduced to just a few hours. Albemarle County, Va., automated the process for uploading and indexing building and planning permits and code violation files, reducing the time it spent accessing the information from days to hours. 

Officials at each of these governments agree that business process automation not only sharply cut costs but improved access to government records, making the technology a model for similar improvement in operations agencywide. Freedom of information need not be a burden on government, but with the right technology and processes in place, it can actually be an avenue for better relationships with constituents.

About the Author

Chris Wacker is CEO of Laserfiche.

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