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Data Risk Management

3 Ways E-Discovery Technology Can Help Meet FOIA Requests

March 13, 2024

Background on FOIA

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) has burdened federal agencies with the need to conduct electronic discovery for records being requested by individuals and private parties. Passed in 1966 as a way to bolster government transparency, FOIA gives the public the right to access information from the federal government. When the law was passed, few could have imagined FOIA’s impact. Today, many government agencies are struggling just to keep up with the constant barrage of FOIA requests, with some facing request backlogs in the thousands.

It’s not just federal agencies that are caught in the FOIA maelstrom. Every state has public records laws which allow members of the public to obtain documents and other public records from state and local government bodies. Though not identical to FOIA, many of these state laws were modeled after the federal law. In fact, several state courts have held that federal judicial interpretations of FOIA are helpful in interpreting similar language in state public record laws.

Though governed by an entirely different set of rules and requirements as civil litigation and e-discovery, FOIA requests involve many of the same requirements, processes, and challenges. However, many government agencies lag well behind their private sector counterparts when it comes to adopting more efficient processes and more advanced technologies for searching, retrieving, reviewing, and producing relevant data.

Challenges Posed by FOIA Requests

Statistics surrounding FOIA requests are staggering and underscore the significant impact the law is having today. According to the government’s official FOIA website, there were almost 930,000 total requests in 2022, the most recent year with complete reporting, and over 50,000 of them went unfulfilled. What’s more, the backlog for FOIA requests is over 206,000 requests, an almost 35% increase over the previous fiscal year. 

Besides the general increase in information requests, government agencies are also under pressure to be more transparent and respond to FOIA requests in a timelier manner. In general, the FOIA requires an agency to respond to FOIA requests within 20 business days after the office that maintains the responsive records receives the request. That means that within four working weeks, teams must search all the data they hold for relevant information, retrieve it, review it for any extraneous information that might be a violation of another person’s or entity’s privacy rights, redact it, and produce it to the requesting party. 

How E-Discovery Technology Can Help Ease the FOIA Burden

FOIA and e-discovery for civil litigation share many process and technology overlaps. Modern e-discovery technology can provide powerful capabilities that can improve the efficiency and defensibility of FOIA responses capable of weathering even the largest surges in demand. Some specific ways advanced e-discovery technology can support FOIA activities include:

Creating process consistency across the agency

Larger federal agencies have dozens of regional and district offices that are all subject to FOIA demands. Having a common or shared environment from which FOIA activities can be centrally initiated and managed supports better resource allocation and greater efficiency. When the process and technologies are consistent across the entire agency, it’s much easier to shift people from one project to another since they don’t need to be trained up on an entirely new system.

Predicting document volumes and targeting only relevant documents

FOIA requests can involve a very small set of relevant materials or many thousands of documents depending on the nature of the request. Bound by search tools designed only to analyze collected data, government agencies often struggle estimating the size of a given request without first conducting a collection, which inevitably pulls in a lot of irrelevant documents. More advanced in-place search technologies allow for basic queries and even some advanced searching within data sources, without actually collecting any data. Understanding potential data volumes early on helps agencies budget, plan, and target only the data that needs to be collected.

Expediting the redaction process

Nothing increases the duration of a FOIA project more than manually redacting exempted information from each individual document. Document review technology can automate the redaction process by identifying patterns in documents that relate to exempted information. For example, the tool can automatically detect a numerical pattern consistent with a social security number and redact all instances of that pattern across an entire document set. Done manually, such work would take many hours, or even days, to complete and still result in oversights.

To learn other ways e-discovery technology can help, click the link below to download our recent whitepaper, Overcoming FOIA Challenges: Implementing Best Practice Processes and Advanced Technology. 

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