Five Steps To Addressing A FOIA Request

Last month, we discussed what government agencies need to know concerning to a FOIA request (including the rules, regulations, and responsibilities you have to follow).

A FOIA request can be extremely broad or painfully precise; it’s all up to the person or entity requesting the information. But it’s something you must put at the top of your priority list, if one comes in, as any type of litigation or government-related work usually has a very short timeline. Other projects you may have, with artificial due dates, can hit pause. With a FOIA request you’re essentially taking your raw information and publishing it in an acceptable, accessible way. And don’t worry about the internal systems and processes you use to get there. Do what makes sense for your organization to get the materials appropriately transformed and submitted properly.

We do recommend, however, that you identify the important players from your agency, like a specialist or custodian, to take charge of the process. This content specialist should know the documents, as well as one possibly can, and should assist the local FOIA officer along the way. This production manager should be responsible for committing to due dates, knowing how quickly documents can be digitized, properly indexed, and the data published. They also need to communicate with the appropriate parties on a daily basis to make sure they can overcome obstacles as soon as they are identified.

Once a request comes in, here are five steps you should follow if you receive a FOIA request.

  1. Digitize. Whether your files are already digitized or not, your documents must be converted into a digital format. If you already have an electronic records management system rolled out in the first place, responding to a FOIA request will be many factors easier.
  2. Normalize. This process turns your documents into text-searchable PDF files. That way, the contents are easily discoverable and information can be found rapidly. Because digitized documents won’t be homogenous, normalization is a way to get all appropriate documents to look similar to one another. There are exceptions, like a large Excel spreadsheet for example. These native files can’t easily be turned into Adobe Acrobat files and would typically lose their power if reduced to an inconvenient format.
  3. Index. Each document requested requires five specific index fields: author, recipient, document date, document type and subject/description. Sometimes, that information isn’t readily accessible or obvious. Consider this example: The only information you have about a document is that it was created in 1995. This may not be when the document was officially published and does not include a month or day. At this point, a date of creation will most likely need to be determined (check with your FOIA officer for further clarification).
  4. Produce. Once you have well-organized, well-formed and well-indexed documents, you’ll need to provide the final record. This is known as an AR (administrative record) index: a spreadsheet that lists every document that was being supplied as a response to the FOIA request or a PDF file that acts as a spreadsheet. It makes it easy to identify what files are included in the response.
  5. Comply. At this point, you’re ready to submit the documents to a designated FOIA officer. (Note: If private information resides within your documents you will need to advise the FOIA officer, as they have the authority to redline the documents and ultimately redact any potentially Personally Identifiable Information (PII). They may also request at this point to duplicate your FOIA response. This isn’t too difficult; you will just need to replicate your AR and data onto multiple sets of media).

P.S. What Not to Do: A word of advice from experience: Don’t just copy the documents you need for compliance. The papers will likely go back into the box from which they came, and you may find you’re no better off than you were before. Digitize your documents; it will make your agency’s life much easier going forward.

What to Do Now: When it comes to assisting you with a FOIA response, it’s a timesaver to find a partner who will help you analyze and classify the data where it resides. As you can see there are many components to a FOIA request, but the DocuLynx team is here to help you identify where the information gaps reside and where that data needs to be filled to comply with regulations.