Ensuring the Transparency of Government: Streamlining FOIA

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), established more than 50 years ago, was designed to give citizens access to federal records, ensuring an informed citizenry. While the intent of FOIA has remained constant, the use of FOIA has grown exponentially in recent years creating an economic and logistical burden on government agencies.

In FY 2015 (the most recent year for these statistics), the 100 agencies subject to FOIA transparency requirements received more than 713,168 requests while processing “a record high number of nearly 770,000 requests.” The cost of this work is estimated at $480,235,968. FOIA requests are not only increasing in number but also in complexity, requiring more dedicated staff hours for searching and managing the FOIA process.

With all of this growth, it is not surprising that agencies were falling behind and missing their deadlines to be responsive to FOIA requests. The FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 was put in place to address this trend. Agencies across government are looking for ways to improve the automation of FOIA request tracking, fulfillment, and reporting in order to reduce staff time and administrative overhead involved in meeting the needs of the media and general citizenry to have a transparent government.

Dovel worked with their client to develop an application using a process management and workflow automation “integrated development platform”, MicroFocus Solutions Business Manager (SBM), formerly known as Serena Business Manager, to meet their FOIA administration needs. While creating process-based applications is not a new or unique concept, creating applications that are full featured and provide robust functionality can be a challenging endeavor. The Dovel team worked closely with their client to understand their business requirements and translated this into a set of functions that automated many aspects of the FOIA process and provided time saving efficiencies for the customer.

First, the general FOIA workflow followed by our client was programmed into the system, ensuring that requests moved through the proper chain of command and process steps. In doing so, the process was simplified into three main areas:

  • Request Entry and Assignment – with automatic emails sent to various Business Units to determine if there were any responsive documents the Business Units could provide. The Business Units then had the ability to “vote” yes and assign owners (subject matter experts).
  • Search and Review – the search for responsive documents and applicable review for any redactions.
  • Upload and Cost Recovery – Documents (with and/or without redactions) were uploaded with all pertinent metadata. Search and review time and associated costs were automatically calculated and presented as part of final response.

Anyone involved with the request can see where it is in the process as well as how many pages are in review, how many pages are redacted, and the associated costs. The ease and ability to automatically account for the time and costs for responding to each FOIA request is a huge step forward since it previously was a manual process.

The SBM interface was customized to show users only the data tabs that were pertinent to their role and where the overall request was within the process, avoiding confusion over what information applied to a given User and what was current. A “Discussion Forum” was also built in to allow for communication among the team members throughout the process.

The solution incorporated a “Task View” and calendar dashboards that give a holistic view of what pieces of the request are coming due and what is behind schedule. Managers see at a glance what requests as a whole are behind schedule as well as what individuals are behind schedule on their piece of the process.

Finally, a keyword search was included so that staff could look up past FOIA requests on similar or identical topics and use the documents that have already been gathered.

By taking a COTS product to the “next level”, customizing it for the unique needs of FOIA, Dovel was able to leverage the investment made in the software while developing a solution that feels custom developed for the user base.