As far back as 2013, the Department of Justice has received over 70,000 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests per year, and this trend continues to rise. By law, all federal agencies are required to respond to a FOIA request within 20 business days, unless there are “unusual circumstances.” If the requests don’t receive a response to according to law, the agency can be sanctioned, as well as those individual employees, “…who are found to have acted arbitrarily or capriciously in improperly withholding records. Additionally, the court must award attorney fees and other litigation costs against the government.”
This puts a lot of pressure on the FOIA personnel assigned to perform all duties related to the processing of these requests: logging, tracking, searching for responsive records, analyzing responsive records for disclosure pursuant to FOIA provisions, applying exemptions to the documents as appropriate, and communicating with the FOIA requestor. These tasks become all the more formidable when trying to manage them with manual processes and basic tools.
One example of this involves the FOIA administrator at one of the agencies within the Department of the Interior. Their old process was manually searching email, native files and images, opening each one individually in Outlook, changing the metadata, and then making the decision on whether the document was relevant to the FOIA request. They used an Excel workbook to catalog document names since there were no other Document IDs to use as a reference. Needless to say, this proved to be a very labor-intensive process, not to mention that the data was spoliated when changes were made to the file headings and any related metadata.
As an added challenge, if redactions were needed, the documents had to first be converted into PDFs and then redacted manually, using a program like Microsoft Word or Adobe. As Ryan Joyce, VP of Strategy at IPRO, shares, “Time and time again we have seen the same headline—a law firm or government agency warding off the trouble caused by not handling their redactions correctly. Why is this still an issue after all these years? In reality, any software can place a colored box over text, but only the right eDiscovery solution will provide the correct and federally mandated result.”
This is where eDiscovery solutions designed with the specific result of making life easier for FOIA personnel come into play.
The dilemmas listed above are easily solved by a single tool with the features listed below:
- Quickly ingest and OCR a large variety of file types that may be a part of a public request
- Advanced search tools allow the finding of relevant documents in a fraction of the time
- View text and metadata at the same time, without spoliation
- Near-duplicate detection and email threading eliminates the need to review similar documents
- Reporting features easily log and track documents
- Alerts prevent redaction errors and ensure DOJ-quality productions
- Create multiple productions if variations of a FOIA request are required
It’s clear that the challenges of FOIA requests can be daunting, so creating awareness is critical: the right solution for Government Agencies already exists in eDiscovery software originally created for litigation purposes.