Access to information under pressure

In 2013, over 704,000 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests were submitted to the United States Federal government, and roughly 95,000 remained backlogged at the end of the 2013 fiscal year. According to, many requests were answered in an incomplete form and were usually missing information. Almost half of those requests were considered incomplete by the requestor because the government agency either denied the information or did not provide the information in full.


With press coverage highlighting cases in which FOIA requests were challenged in court and the sensitivity to declassification of government documents , government organizations are under pressure to be more responsive. There have been attempts to streamline the process of fulfilling an FOIA request and accessing information easier, but the onus still falls on the individual government agencies to manage fulfillment.


Beyond FOIA requests, many agencies need to declassify documentation in accordance with record, archival and compliance guidelines. Declassification can quickly become a challenge because the originating department that classified the document or parts of a document must manage the declassification of that content. Accordingly, various documents may have multiple agencies or departments that must coordinate and sometimes deny declassification. Mandatory declassification can be requested on its own or as part of an FOIA request, but the challenge to a declassification request must submitted separately. All of these moving parts and processes can result in delays, backlogs and high costs, as well as additional legal challenges around declassification.


I believe what is needed is to combine several technical capabilities to address the requirements for FOIA requests as well as the redaction and declassification of documents. Technically organizations should be able to integrate and automate more of the declassification workflow and information gathering to help agencies meet the timeframes of FOIA requests or declassification of documents.


We are reaching the limits of existing FOIA technology


With increased demand for transparency and access to information by policy analysts, legal system workers, journalists and citizens, the need to manage the FOIA process and respond in a timely fashion becomes paramount. The typical response time for a request for information is 20 days, but that time can quickly balloon as more requests arrive.


Requests can be complicated and may follow a variety of processes across government organizations. Plus, once information is declassified it must be appropriately managed, as do the growing numbers of court documents generated by legal challenges for information. For example, 372 FOIA lawsuits were filed in 2013, generating 1,800 documents. By automating tasks around the collection of documents and delegation of files, government organizations can better manage and measure timelines.

Taking the first steps to improve the situation

If your agency experiences challenges or delays fulfilling FOIA requests or declassifying documents, there are several steps you can take to improve efficiency:


Assess your agency’s current approach to handling FOIA or mandatory declassification requests.

Understand if there is a backlog of requests and if the information being provided to requestors is as complete as possible.

Identify where requests or processes can be improved and define metrics for success.

Establish the scope for your improvement project and then do both a tech and business assessment Ensure a robust business case is developed.

Thoughts ?


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