5 reasons why agencies struggle to meet their FOIA goals

5 reasons why agencies struggle to meet their FOIA goals

5 reasons why agencies struggle to meet their FOIA goals

When it comes to Freedom of Information Act requests, it is mandatory to disclose information on time.  Content must be collected, reviewed, and packaged as a response.  That is easier said than done when agency data is scattered, hard to search through, or difficult to collaborate around.   Deadlines are missed, critical records are lost, and sensitive information can spill.

When agencies work their FOIA caseload manually, they struggle to meet their objectives. Here are 5 main reasons why agencies fall short of their goals.

 

1.  There is no uniform solution across the agency.

Many agencies leave staff without a uniform solution to create FOIA deliverables.  If organizations use legacy desktop clients to house that information, systems can’t communicate with each other, and staff are left to sift through them for content.

Even if systems are connected, IT needs to continuously integrate them to ensure knowledge workers’ access.  That much administrative work consumes human resources.   Documents are searched through manually, information gets lost, and budgets are strained. 

Agencies need a centralized system to meet FOIA deadlines.  The single workbench approach allows knowledge workers to access anything and everything they need to manage FOIA cases.

 

2.  There are too many complexities to handle FOIA requests manually

The sheer volume of data that agencies capture, process, and archive increases every day.  It is time-consuming to manually search through that much information.  Once captured, agency rules mandate different kinds of redaction for different types of content.  Without the right tools to create a pixel-by-pixel replacement, redacted information may not be redacted at all.  Sensitive data is left visible and released by accident.

When there are hundreds of FOIA requests to create, package, and deliver, it is a challenge to track all of their statuses. There is no way to pinpoint which of those hundreds of requests are more urgent, and which of those due dates are closer.

Automation is the only way to fix this. When cases are automatically created and the content in them can be automatically redacted, time is freed up for knowledge workers to focus on more critical tasks.

 

3.  Collaboration Challenges

The outcome of a FOIA request is dependent on the communication among those assigned to the case.  The past year has challenged the government to do a large portion of this work from home.  Often the contents of FOIA requests are cross-departmental or even cross-agency, which creates a line of communication between SME’s in different locations.   When there are problems or questions, knowledge workers must ask SME’s for assistance via email.  These emails are often left for several days in the SME’s inbox without an answer, and dead stops put the agency at risk of missed deadlines. 

Knowledge workers must be able to communicate with each other and with the requestor.  When the case is opened, the team assigned to it must keep up communication with the requestor and give them estimates, status updates, and the ability to track the case through its lifecycle.  When this process is done through phone or email, communication is not transparent.  No one knows what the FOIA team has already communicated to the requestor, or what still needs to be said. 

Another hurdle that agencies struggle over is collaborative access.  With no system in place to allow group work, team members will not be able to interact with systems at the same time for collection.  Without the tools to control access, FOIA teams can’t permission content or control who can see what within the case.  When agencies can’t control who can see what sensitive information, FOIA goals are not met.

 

4.  Poor Access to Data

It is a challenge to keep information organized when there are multiple data types and sources.  Email is a source now, with social media and chat to become sources in the future.  Email search and retrieval is sub-par and will take a considerable amount of time when compared to advanced search features.  Once the information is collected, there is also no way to see both text and metadata at the same time.  If knowledge workers find that they need more information from the eDiscovery side, they have fallen short of their FOIA goals.

When workers cannot interact with their cases, time is wasted.  SME’s should be able to connect to their workstation from any location and on any device.  If they know where they need to work and can get into their cases, the collection process can start immediately.   

A lack of a real Records Management system lives at the heart of this challenge.  With a repository in place, knowledge workers have access to collect and create deliverables.

 

5.  No Oversight/Accountability

At the end of every FOIA case is a potential audit process.  The work that FOIA teams complete should be entirely defensible. There needs to be a visual tally of everything done to create the deliverable.  Vaughn indexes display that tally of case actions and guarantee transparency.  Certain solutions can create Vaughn indexes automatically, but if there is no solution in place then it is up to an individual to create one by hand.  That process can take up mission-critical time and put the agency at risk of falling short of its FOIA objectives.

Supervisors need oversight tools to be able to meet their own FOIA goals.  When they are unable to see who completed what task or what the status of their case is, there is no accountability.  Cases are not tracked across their lifecycles, and there is no way to tell which action officers are busy and which can take on more work.

 

 

Take Control of the FOIA Process

Agencies that manage their FOIA requests with outdated systems and manual practices are in a situation where it is difficult to meet their turn-around time goals.  When it takes hours to search for content and days to hear back from SME’s, time is wasted.

When agencies utilize FOIA solutions to manage their caseloads, their goals are achievable.  Information can be accessed, searched for, collected, redacted on, and packaged for delivery before the deadline.  Teams can work together on content at the same time.  Security features keep sensitive information from the wrong hands, and oversight features allow supervisors to monitor their workers progress and steer them in the right direction.

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Shannon Heim

Shannon Heim

Helping others is what Shannon loves most, making her a great fit for outreach at Records Management University. She is in charge of credits and certificates as well as the RMU email account. When Shannon isn’t talking with students, she edits the on-demand classes to make them as high quality as possible.

5 reasons why agencies struggle to meet their FOIA goals

Simple tips to make the most of your year

The past year has introduced several new challenges to government agencies:  Remote working, changes in resource costs, staff differences, new modernization regulations, and a shift away from outdated technology have agencies looking toward new solutions to modernize the way that they do work.  Task Management Systems are a key part of those solutions because they improve accessibility, collaboration, transparency, and productivity. 

 

What is a Task Management System, and why does it matter? 

A Task Management System controls a task throughout its entire lifecycle.  It gives agencies the tools they need to plan, track, test, and report on the work their employees are doing.  It can help individual users tackle goals efficiently.  It can also help groups of users collaborate while working together to finish a project.   

In a Task Management System, employees have a digital workspace with visual accounts of every job and project that they must finish.  These jobs and projects can be sorted by due date, importance, who assigned them, and other criteria.  Users will always know exactly what needs to be done, when, and why it needs to be done in the first place. 

 

How can I tell if my agency needs a Task Management System?

 
 

Do I have paper-based checklist processes with Outlook for tracking tasks? 

Paper checklist may prove beneficial in our personal lives; but in many cases, assigning agency tasks with paper-based processes just isn’t enough.   Modern goals and projects often involve a much higher level of complexity than paper can support.   

Tracking tasks manually as an agency comes with a heightened compliance risk and reduced productivity. Task Management Systems provide data to easily audit tasks and workers’ productivity. They also provide a digital workspace for every worker to understand his or her workload for the foreseeable future.  When the job at hand changes, updates can be instantly applied to the task, making your workers more informed and efficient.

 

Do I use an Excel sheet to keep track of my tasks? 

It is difficult enough to organize a task spreadsheet while managing a job alone, but collaborating on a task spreadsheet can become a nightmare.  Spreadsheets don’t give teams the ability to comment or chat on shared projects.  Also, emailing around project information can lead to different team members updating different versions of the same document.  When data gets deleted, there is no way of knowing who did it, when, or why they did it in the first place. 

Task Management Systems allow users to communicate on any job or project.  Comments can be left, notes can be made, and team members can be notified when their input is needed.  There is a trail of every action taken within the system, so you will always know who did what and for what reason.   In a world full of alternative work schedules and remote teams where hallway discussions and check-ins can’t happen as often, Task Management Systems take up the slack.

 

Do we need to keep track of which tasks are the most important & which have the closest due dates? 

Depending on their size, government agencies can create and assign hundreds of tasks to thousands of workers every day.  When your average employee has over 100 things to keep track of, they need to be able to see what among those goals is the most important.  If your workers are struggling to meet goals and completing menial tasks over mission-critical ones, you may need a system in place to filter their workload.   Employees also need to know which tasks have more impending due dates so they can finish their work on time. 

Modern Task Management Solutions allow users to filter by tasks that are more important and by the upcoming due date.

 

Do we need to turn larger tasks into sub-tasks for different employees to complete? 

Subtasks are a great way to organize massive, complex projects into more manageable parts.  Depending on the methods that your agency is implementing to assign work, creating and tracking of those subtasks can be a challenge. 

It is not uncommon for the original task at hand to be modified.  Waiting for review, approval, or feedback from a 3rd party is separate from the original task, but also necessary for the project to move forward.  In a Task Management System, it is very easy to add subtasks to the original task and assign them to people within the agency.  Recurring subtasks can even be set to repeat, saving project managers time on routine management efforts.

 

Do we have a responsibility to control security? 

Government agencies need to be able to keep their mission-critical information away from prying eyes and under control.  Paper-based processes, Excel sheets, and even outdated management systems lack the security features necessary to fine-tune exactly who can see what data.   You also can’t revoke access to a downloaded Excel spreadsheet once it has been given. 

Task Management Systems take steps to ensure that agency projects, attachments, user data, and more are bulletproof.  When a task is created, different levels of access are set.  Every file attached to that task inherits the same security settings of the original item, disallowing the wrong people from seeing the wrong content.

 

Do we have a responsibility to create reports & dashboards? 

Many federal agencies are congressionally mandated to provide reports on tasks completed within the organization.  If your project manager has to gather information on task statuses, analyze it, create a report on it, and submit it to the higher-ups, critical man-hours are lost .  With the help of a Task Management system, reports can be quickly and even automatically generated in daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly increments.  These reporting tools let you focus on specific parts of your projects.  They also give you insight and knowledge about the agency’s activity.  

 

Do regulators require that we protect PII/BUI/CUI? 

To properly protect the confidentiality of personally identifiable information, items like the name and social security number of an individual must be redacted from certain documents.  Without the proper redaction tools, the black box put on top of those items may not actually be hiding the information.  This puts your agency at risk of non-compliance. Modern Task Management systems come with built-in redaction tools that replace every pixel within the identified sensitive information, preventing it from ever falling into the wrong hands.   

 

Feith for Task Management 

 
The world is changing, and so is the way that Federal agencies work.   Feith Task Manager leverages modern technology to allow you to structure your organization’s efforts, managing the large number of responsibilities at your agency so that work is completed on time, correctly, and in the correct order. With workforces in the tens of thousands, separated both geographically and organizationally, federal agencies have large volumes of tasks to track, delegate, and manage.  
 
If that task management is done on an ad-hoc basis in email or spreadsheets, work may fall behind, orders and instructions can be forgotten, and leadership will have limited insight into their department’s productivity.  
 
Feith Task Manager is a DoD 5015.02-certified COTS product, available On-Premises or on GovCloud, that gives agencies the tools they need to control the way work gets done. 
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Shannon Heim

Shannon Heim

Helping others is what Shannon loves most, making her a great fit for outreach at Records Management University. She is in charge of credits and certificates as well as the RMU email account. When Shannon isn’t talking with students, she edits the on-demand classes to make them as high quality as possible.

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