Federal agencies struggle to keep up with FOIA requests

by DeeDee Kato, Senior Director

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The National Security Archive revealed shocking revelations in a recent report: One in three federal agencies have yet to respond to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, 11 months after the request was made.

The Archive team sent FOIA requests to 100 federal agencies. This came amid reports that members of the Trump administration were inappropriately using Republican-based rnchq.org email accounts instead of their authorized government-issued addresses. Here’s a look at the details.

  • 33 of the 100 agencies did not respond to the FOIA request at all
  • 17 of the 66 agencies that responded argued that the request would impose undue burden on their staff. Some agencies added that they cannot search emails without the identity of the recipient or sender.
  • About one in 10 agencies that denied request gave an appeal deadline below the mandated 90-days set forth by the 2016 FOIA Improvement Act.

Part of the Managing Government Records Directive requires management and archiving emails in an electronic format. Most reasons for denial, it turns out, were relatively easy to solve if they’d only made a simple inquiry to their own internal IT department.

Agencies are mandated to follow FOIA criteria

Aside from transparency and accountability, agencies need to follow FOIA criteria because case law requires it. The law is on the side of the requestor, with the burden on the agency to produce the requested information. Agency FOIA departments must conduct a search for the information or go through their IT department if it’s unclear how to do so.

Furthermore, the courts ruled that agencies cannot require requestors to know both the sender and recipient when requesting e-records. This was confirmed when the non-profit news site MuckRock successfully sued the CIA over access to its CREST database. The database holds over 13 million pages of records dating back to the Cold War.

How your agency can meet FOIA criteria

Solutions to meet FOIA request criteria for effective email search aren’t difficult. In fact, your own agency may already have implemented processes and procedures for searching email within its archives.

Regardless, by following these guidelines, you should be able to meet FOIA requests in a timely fashion:

  • Forward all FOIA email requests to your internal IT department. They should be able to solve most email and record requests or implement a process for your agency to do so.
  • Adopt email systems that enable easy search and retrieval. This doesn’t necessarily require complex, or even new, software. Even free email services like Gmail offer effective search functionality. Your own email system may have such capabilities imbedded or available as options to add into your current system.
  • Give agency FOIA administrators authority to carry out email searches across the entire organization. Other administrators should not have unrestricted access to search their own emails without company approval. Staff may unintentionally or deliberately delete or modify records.
  • Adopt a uniform solution across all departments that converts all paper and electronic documents into a standardized, searchable, readable, archivable format. Foxit Enterprise Automation products are a good example. These solutions convert electronic and paper documents, including emails, faxes, receipts, and invoices, into PDF or PDF/A format. PDF/A is the preferred standard for long-term archiving because it preserves searchability and readability years or even decades down the road. Converting files to PDF/A also ensures files can never be edited, thus making them tamper-proof for extra security measures.
  • These same solutions can perform automated redaction at scale, using pattern recognition to consistently and systematically remove sensitive information mandated to be redacted properly before FOIA information is released.
  • Foxit Enterprise Automation products can also auto-tag documents for 508 accessibility compliance, all at scale.

With the above implementations, you’ll have the solutions you need to fulfil this obligation.


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