FOIA 101: What Government Agencies Need to Know

At its core, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) gives individuals a legally enforceable right to access government information. Last year, there were more than 788,769 FOIA requests, and agencies are struggling to keep up (over 115,000 requests are backlogged).

Although its limited to entities like federal agencies, departments, regulatory commissions and private contractors maintaining records on behalf of these agencies, these agencies have a responsibility to disclose information upon request.

If you’re a government agency or have clients that are government agencies, FOIA should be on your radar.

You need to be aware of the challenges, vulnerabilities and best practices for tackling requests and litigation with ease. You have to recognize that anyone can make a FOIA request, for anything, for any reason. This may be a new revelation, considering litigation information and e-discovery access is limited to those involved in the situation at hand or available only if it has appropriate relevance.

Here are some FOIA basics you need to know:

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  • Federal agencies are required to disclose records unless they’re protected by one of the nine exemptions or one of three special law enforcement record exclusions.
  • You do not have to respond to requests to conduct research, analyze data, answer written questions or create records.
  • Agencies must respond within 20 business days after receiving the request, whether or not fees are paid or waived. You can request an extension of 10 business days if you meet one of three criteria.
  • Requestees may file an administrative appeal if records are withheld or if the agency misses time limit.

Although many who are involved in the process seem to be dissatisfied with it, your organization needs to have the right systems in place to deal with a FOIA request in a timely and efficient manner. Improving your process to create a streamlined response system will only make your life and your customers’ lives easier.

If you’re looking for a way to promptly and securely handle FOIA requests, you need the right technology on your side. Sorting through data to find what you need should be simple—and this starts at the management stage. If you start efficiently organizing files, emails, and documents as soon as they roll in, you can better tackle a request when it comes your way.

Prioritize data recovery processes when implementing a data management and information governance system for your organization. E-discovery is a particularly beneficial tool as you seek to obtain digital documents and then review, analyze and produce the appropriate information. The right system will also empower you to analyze and negotiate request parameters if necessary.

Want more tips? Take workflow into account. Make it easier for yourself when a request comes in and make a plan for who is going to handle the request and how it will be done with the technology at hand. You also need to ensure you’re able to manage the entire process (including searching, filtering and collecting data) from one centralized location. Guaranteeing it’s responsive means you aren’t wasting time, and implementing redaction capabilities ensures confidential information is blacked and able to meet one of the FOIA’s nine exemptions.

Don’t be part of the 10 in 21 who failed to respond to a basic FOIA request adequately. Get a FOIA-compliant data management system in place to appropriately handle any application that may come your way.