Agencies are relying on technology to simplify and streamline their public records request process and, as a second-order effect, increase constituents’ confidence in their governing bodies.
To say that the current backlog of public and open records requests at both the state and local levels of government is a problem would be an understatement.
The reasons for these backlogs are as complex as they are varied. Public records request volumes are on the rise, up 35% between 2020 and 2021, with the total time the average agency spends processing requests increasing by 286% within the same period. Many state and local government agencies find themselves understaffed and struggling to fill vacancies, meaning they lack personnel to process and respond to this ever-growing volume of requests. Growing demand for audio, video and other large files further contributes to the delay, as these file formats typically take longer to process.
In light of these challenges, a growing number of agencies are relying on technology to simplify and streamline their public records request process and, as a second-order effect, increase constituents’ confidence in their governing bodies.
These technologies include:
- Centralized, cloud-based repositories: One of the major obstacles to an efficient records request process is disparate data. By digitizing all files and storing them within a centralized repository, agencies can make information easily searchable to government employees, thereby accelerating the records request and e-discovery processes. Prior to implementing such a system, agencies should define data retention periods and policies both for compliance and storage purposes.
- Low-code application platforms: There seems to be a software solution for every government issue under the sun — and for issues without a solution, there’s low-code development. Low-code democratizes development by augmenting traditional, hand-coded programming with a graphical user interface and drag-and-drop tools, making it easy for developers to spin up new applications. Agencies can use LCAPs to rapidly design and deploy custom applications for almost any process, including public records requests, and integrate them with existing systems.
- Cloud-based self-service portals: Although each state and local government agency’s records request process looks slightly different, most begin with a constituent first drafting a public records request letter and then contacting a records custodian and submitting their request. In the interest of saving time and effort, agencies should consider standing up a self-service portal that constituents can use to electronically file requests, monitor the progress of open requests in real time and submit appeals. By digitizing this component of the records request process, agencies can reduce the amount of paperwork required by constituents and employees alike and increase transparency.
- Robotic process automation: Automating key components of the records request process is another way to reduce paperwork. RPA, a form of business process automation that “mimics the way humans interact with software to perform high-volume, repeatable tasks,” has already gained significant traction in the public sector for its data entry, application processing, report generation and public sentiment analysis use cases. Given these applications, using RPA to introduce efficiencies to the records request process is a logical step.
- Collaboration tools: Most public records requests require careful coordination across multiple departments, divisions and agencies in order to share and compile information. Without systems in place to support seamless cross-departmental and cross-agency sharing, bottlenecks can form within the records request process, slowing down turnaround times. Integrating solutions and creating a centralized repository for all digitized documents is a good place to start, but in order to truly enhance efficiency, agencies need to implement tools that enable government employees to communicate in real time — tools such as file sharing platforms, document collaboration software, video conferencing, telework infrastructure and more.
- Digital redaction tools: When processing public records for open records requests, it’s imperative that agencies take the time to mask personally identifiable and confidential information for privacy and security purposes. However, manual redaction is both tedious and time-consuming. Digital redaction tools can alleviate this bottleneck by automating the redaction process. The most common forms of digital redaction are page region redaction, in which users define a specific region of a document and automatically redact that region in its entirety, and pattern matching, in which redaction software recognizes predefined patterns — such as Social Security numbers, credit card numbers, addresses and more — and automatically redacts matching text.
Adnan A. Olia is the chief operating officer and co-founder of Intradyn.