Discussing the Challenges Facing FOIA/ATIP Automation


Check it out…interviewed on Yahoo Associated Content

Making the Transition to an Open Government Through FOIA

Open government is a major focus of the current administration. From the start, President Obama has encouraged implementing more transparent government practices and policies. In his January 21, 2009 “Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies,” President Obama encouraged all government agencies to make the necessary preparations to offer a greater degree of transparency for all government activities.

Many government agencies are delaying the implementation of systems to handle the demands placed on them by President Obama, in part due to a lack of direction for achieving these goals, a lack of funding and a fear of change. The impact on the FOIA industry as a whole is yet to be seen, but it is hard to dispute the need for new FOIA processing systems.

Due to the increased volume of FOIA requests across the nation, FOIA automation has become a big issue for government agencies. Establishing efficient handling methods for FOIA requests is a top priority for agencies that deal with a high volume of requests, as evidenced by President Obama’s memorandum on “Transparency and Open Government.”

Privasoft (http://www.Privasoft.com/) has been delivering software solutions to government agencies for nearly 20 years. Their AccessPro Suite allows agencies to easily implement FOIA automation to comply with President Obama’s open government memorandum. Through workflow integration, Privasoft’s AccessPro Suite allows agencies to adopt a more streamlined and efficient process, while preserving their current procedures. Privasoft’s approach to FOIA automation has been one of adaptation, working with new clients in order to integrate the AccessPro Suite FOIA automation software into the agency’s daily operating procedures. This approach allows for minimal downtime, as typical agency processes remain unchanged.

Privasoft’s Chief Technology Officer (CTO), Stephen Davis, spoke with me about how Privasoft’s AccessPro Suite not only addresses agencies’ current needs, but also ensures future innovations. In our interview, we discussed how Privasoft can be integrated into current workflows, as well as what the future holds for FOIA automation.

Automated FOIA processing is something I expect all agencies to adopt in the near future. How will this impact the FOIA industry as a whole?

SD: “Automation, by its nature, is a mechanism for improving the efficiency of a process. The FOIA industry is a perfect candidate for this process improvement. A large percentage of the US FOIA offices have little or no automation. The idea will be to apply technology is such a way that all offices can be brought up to a consistent level of automation and thus make the FOIA experience consistent and efficient across the government. As a public requester, why would I expect different treatment from one agency to the next? Legislated timelines need to be met and compliance to legislation needs to be demonstrated all while protecting the sensitive and private data contained in the responsive documents. Consistent, secure, timely processing of requests is the benefit of automation.”

In addition to currently existing FOIA automation software, what technological advances are on the horizon that will affect this industry?

SD: “The technology involved in the FOIA processing pipeline is very well understood and the various pieces are, for the most part, seeing slow but consistent technological advances. The biggest change that the FOIA industry will see, in the short to medium term, will be the integration of these technologies into a streamlined, end-to-end process, with appropriate checks and balances. Extending the FOIA offices out into the Internet in a reasonable way will be a huge change for this industry. Not just in a “type your request here and hit submit” kind of way but in an integrated requester-centric model.

With this, requesters will submit their requests online. Prior to submission, they will be able to search for existing release packages or proactively released documents that satisfy their requests. Once a request is submitted they will be able to pay online, receive feedback, respond to clarification questions and view status directly from the FOIA office. Once the release package is ready the requester will be notified electronically via email or SMS and the package will be downloaded directly for viewing. This is the future of interactive FOIA.

But what good is an Internet portal to a FOIA office that has no internal automated workflow or efficient document handling? It simply increases their intake without providing any tools to handle the increased workload.

The biggest advances these offices will see is in tying the pieces together and making them work in a way that actually increases the efficiency of that office.”

Automated FOIA processing will not only make filing requests easier, but will also make things easier for requesters. How will the volume of requests be affected by these new systems?

SD: “As I mentioned previously, automated filing is only one piece of the puzzle. The volume of FOIA requests could actually increase for a period of time once an Internet presence is established.

If the Internet presence, or portal is truly interactive it can provide a location for the requester to check the status of their requests, interact with the agent handling the request, pay any required fees and ultimately receive their responsive documents. Very few FOIA portals do this today but it is possible with the technologies that exist today.

A reading room provides a location that can be used to post documents before someone requests them; documents that have been previously requested or documents that are pro-actively disclosed. By providing a location where the public can search for information prior to submitting a FOIA request it is possible to actually reduce the number of FOIA requests using the same piece of technology that was put in place to improve the speed and handling of those requests. If the information is already available they don’t have to ask for it.”

Could this have an overall negative effect on the industry if new limits are not placed on FOIA requesters due to the high volume of requests? If so, how can this be addressed?

SD: “Mechanisms are already in place to address frequent requesters. Fees are charged based on volume of information, spurious requests are rejected, overly broad requests are clarified and simplified by talking to the requester and duplicate requests can be identified with content searches and streamlined.

The reality is, if you are going to have open government and promote open government you need to believe in it and put the processes in place to handle it. Technology can improve efficiency, pro-active disclosure can make documents available so a request isn’t required, but the volume of requests must still be handled.

An integrated FOIA automation solution can speed up request turn around time while helping to ensure and demonstrate compliance with the legislation. The result often translates into backlog reduction, as staff can be reallocated to this effort. The benefits of automation go beyond request handling and present themselves in administrative aspects. This includes making filing the Annual Report a push-button activity, as opposed to the hundreds of hours analysts have spent putting this together in the past. Operational performance metrics gained through automation provide insight into the bottlenecks that could be causing backlog. “

Privasoft’s software was created by industry experts; how has this affected the development of the software? What features does the AccessPro Suite contain that individuals in the FOIA industry will find invaluable?

SD: “Based on a depth of understanding of the industry, the AccessPro Suite offers value for all users, from the new FOIA hire to the power user. The software has become very comprehensive and feature rich as it has changed over time with the realities of open government. Privasoft has been in this business for nearly 20 years; we know what our customers need but we continue to learn every day as the industry evolves and our customers evolve.

AccessPro Suite provides a case processing environment for FOIArequest handling. Collaboration is core to this; teams working together, with different job functions and levels of responsibility, can easily co-exist and complement each other using this software. The focus is on compliance to FOIA legislation. The software is designed to ensure cases are handled promptly and accurately, and includes built in safeguards to ensure no sensitive information is disclosed unknowingly. Push button reports detail compliance levels so that the FOIA office can demonstrate that it is doing what it is tasked to do.”

Privasoft seems to be at the forefront of eFOIA processing, especially considering the flexibility of the software and its ability to be custom tailored to any business flow. Can you tell us more about this, as many businesses are afraid of change due to their desire to keep the same work flow?

SD: “Even though all FOIA offices are performing functions that respond to the Open Government Act they all have slightly different internal processes and workflow. Across federal, state and municipal boundaries, we see an array of different legislation. AccessPro Suite can be configured to match exactly what each customer requires. We offer extensive, process analysis prior to installing any system. Upon configuration of the system, we match the process flow to the exact workflow that is currently present in the offices, or implement on recommendations we make to improve operational efficiency.”

How long does the workflow analysis typically take, and how have customers responded to the result of process configuration?

SD: “The process experts in our professional services group are available to every Privasoft customer. In situations where it is felt that a customization effort is required, a detailed engagement is scheduled. Starting with a process review which is approved by the customer our process experts can customize the workflow in the software to suit an individual agency’s needs. The length of this engagement varies with the complexity of the process and change required. The result is a software installation that meets the exact requirements of the end user situation and business process. Our customers have always responded very enthusiastically to this engagement and we feel this is a key value-added service to our approach.”

How will the AccessPro Suite software change in the future?

SD: “Our primary focus at this time is developing products that help to address every stakeholder in the FOIA office. Not only are we enhancing our case management and redaction capabilities but we have introduced technologies that reach out to the field offices, directly to the record holders to facilitate document retrieval. We are enhancing our Internet portal to allow agencies to directly connect their internal FOIA automation process to the Internet and to the requester, along with supporting reading room and proactive disclosure initiatives.”

Currently, many agencies use Adobe to redact their documents. It has widely been publicized that documents redacted with Adobe products can easily be un-redacted, exposing sensitive information. What advice could you give to agencies currently using Adobe products, and what are the dangers associated with this false sense of “security?”

SD: “There are well documented methods for securely redacting information from documents, using many easily available desktop tools. Anyone following these methods can be confident in the security of the document when it is released. Some tools, such as ours, have built in safeguards to prevent the accidental release of sensitive information.

A false sense of security comes from not understanding the process, the requirements and the risks. Regardless of the tools used it is critical that anyone who finds themselves in a situation where they are required to release a document that contains sensitive information, information that needs to be redacted before it is release, understands exactly what they are doing and applies the known good redaction mechanisms.”

With President Obama’s Presidential Memorandum regarding FOIA, on January 26, 2009, why has there been such a delay for most agencies in pursuing ways to fill requests in a timely manner. Overall, do you feel agencies have put the priority needed on changing the way FOIA requests are handled?

SD: “Change takes time; people are resistant to change. They feel they are already doing a good job (and they probably are) and procurement of technology is an “interesting” undertaking in the federal government.

If they are planning properly then they are looking at the proper ways to apply technology to make their process more efficient, but this takes time. If they are not planning adequately then they may have purchased tools and are unable to wedge them into their existing process or are not making efficient use of them. In either case change takes time.

I think that the agencies and the FOIA groups in them are doing their best. These groups always put priority on meeting the legislated timelines. We do not have a lot of exposure to their internal decision making or priority setting but we are seeing more and more agencies looking at tools that are available to help them streamline their operations.”

What do government agencies need to do to prepare for the changes to the way FOIA is handled?

SD: “The first thing is to embrace technology. But plan, like the old saying, measure twice, cut once, this is equally applicable in software as in carpentry. Get advice from industry experts, find a vendor you can trust with a good track record for customer success and execute.”

What does Privasoft do to ensure that their software meets the needs of their customers, both now and in the future?

SD: “We are a very customer driven software company. The best ideas come from conversations with our customers, they live in this world, and they know what capabilities they need to be more efficient. Our product management group spends a good deal of time interviewing customers, analyzing the market and determining what is next for Privasoft. Our engineering group constantly assesses new technologies and design techniques to determine what is good, what is bad and what are the best technology investments for the long term. By marrying these ideas we come out with product that meets our customers’ requirements and is applicable to the entire market.”

While the shift towards a more requester-centric, automated approach to FOIA requests is on the horizon, agencies need to be taking a proactive approach to making the transition. Contacting vendors and discussing how their products will affect individual office’s workflow, as well as how easily they can be integrated are the steps agencies need to be taking now. Making the right decisions when adopting a new way of doing business is crucial.

Thanks to Stephen Davis for talking about FOIA automation.

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