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FOIA Management Software for Local Governments: Digitize Public Record Requests 2023

By Beth D'Arcy

Digital solutions are changing the game for local governments. Multi-step manual processes are now easy, streamlined workflows thanks to going digital. This is especially true for one of the most notoriously burdensome processes in local government: public records requests. 

Manually processing public records requests is ultra time-consuming, error-prone, and can lack transparency. A scenario far from ideal in a democratic society where access to public records is a citizen right, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act. 

Thankfully, transitioning the public records request process into a digital, automated nirvana isn’t as challenging as it may seem. In this article, we’ll show you exactly how to digitize your public records process to create a more satisfying experience for everyone involved. Get a GovPilot Demo

What is The Freedom of Information Act? 

Before diving in, let’s quickly go over what is The Freedom of Information Act, commonly referred to by its acronym FOIA. FOIA is a landmark legislation that promotes transparency within government. Essentially, it gives citizens the right to access information from government agencies. 

Enacted at the federal level in 1967, FOIA underscores the belief that the public has the right to know what its government is doing: the decisions it's making, the actions it’s taking, and the funds it’s spending. Access to government information fosters accountability, keeps citizens informed, and helps maintain a healthy and functioning democracy. 

What does FOIA mean for local governments? 

Although the original Freedom of Information Act was primarily designed for federal agencies, many states have enacted similar laws for their state and local governments to follow. For local governments, FOIA signifies a tremendous responsibility to being transparent and accountable to the public. 

Generally, FOIA laws mandate that local government meetings, records, votes, financial records, emails, text messages, and other official documentation and actions are open to public scrutiny. Although some information may be protected from becoming public and exempt from FOIA, the large majority of local government endeavors are democratized information.  

As technology continues to evolve and advance, officials should be planning for the future of government operations and the impact on public trust. Government operations are rapidly heading into the government cloud and some are already augmenting with artificial intelligence for the public sector. If ever there was a time to improve public accountability with digital FOIA solutions, it’s now. 

Discover all of the Best Ways to Use Public Sector Software

What does The Freedom of Information Act mean for citizens?  

The transparency provided by FOIA laws allow citizens to hold their local officials accountable, which promotes honest and efficient governance. For example, under FOIA laws citizens have the right to ask for documentation about a public works project to ensure taxpayer dollars were appropriated and spent judiciously. 

Local press will often ask for public records to support - or make - a story. They do this to ensure local governments are held accountable to laws, ethics, and even campaign promises. By democratizing information, FOIA fosters an informed citizenry and ensures governmental integrity. 

Positive press can be beneficial for your local government and elected officials too. Learn more about How to Make Political Press Releases to promote the happenings of your community. 

Common Challenges Local Governments Face Without Government Management Software  

Although FOIA is an important hallmark of our democracy, managing FOIA requests manually can be laborious and subject to errors. Error-ridden FOIA responses can be seriously consequential and even land a local government in court. This is one area where local governments must get right. 

Here are a few common challenges local governments face without a digital FOIA process: 

1. Work Silos 

Local governments will often need several departments to respond to a public records request. But coordinating responses from multiple departments can lead to miscommunication and delays, especially if the process is manual. 

Different departments hold different pieces of information and may not communicate effectively with one other. Fragmented work silos result in sluggish government processes, unmet deadlines, and overall inefficiency. 

The negative consequences of work silos are not just internal, but extend to the public sphere. Slow responses to public records requests can erode public trust, give rise to perceptions of a lack of transparency, and potentially result in legal consequences.

Find out exactly how local governments benefit from digital transformation and how to improve municipal services.

2. Sub-Par Interdepartmental Operations

Often, local governments will have to route a public records request to the appropriate department to respond. Without efficient processes to route, track, and provide updates to citizens, local governments are at risk of delays and dissatisfied customers.

When FOIA requests are manually routed, applications might end up in wrong departments, constituents may not receive timely updates, and requests may unintentionally be ignored. 

Want to learn more about municipal software? Find out how it saves every local government department time and resources. 

3. Inconvenience for Constituents 

For some constituents, submitting and viewing public records requests in their hometown is a huge hassle. Long paper-based applications, in-person submittals, and long wait times are just a few of the inconveniences constituents face when manually submitting a FOIA request. 

These requirements can lead to widespread dissatisfaction, and can even lead to diminished public trust in government. People may perceive an unnecessarily cumbersome process as intentional to dissuade public scrutiny of local government business. For localities to address these challenges, they must reduce the inconvenience factor for constituents. 

Other ways to reduce inconvenience for citizens: 

Report-A-Concern software allows citizens direct lines of communication to their government officials to report issues or concerns about their community, from anywhere, 24/7.

Payment processing can be completed online for fees and fines that need to be paid by constituents to the local government. Track funds received by the local government online, so that no payments are missed and the payment submissions can be updated to keep constituents and government workers on the same page about payments received. 

Moving health inspections into a more virtual capacity allows inspectors to utilize GovInspect, GovPilot’s mobile inspection app that makes it possible for  inspectors to complete streamlined inspections on mobile field devices, 24/27. 

Open Public Records Request Software (OPRA): How Can It Improve Your Local Government Operations? 

In the quest to improve local government operations, open public records request software is the answer. It’s a promising solution to many FOIA challenges experienced by local governments. 

Here’s how public records request software can improve local government operations:  

  • Streamlining Clerical Work

One of the most significant advantages of open records request software is the ability for municipal clerks and administrative staff to save time by accepting and managing public records requests online in one central, digital location. 

With open public records request software, clerks can accept requests online, efficiently route requests to the correct department, and keep constituents informed with automated updates. This not only enhances productivity, but also improves the quality of service provided to constituents. 

Learn more about municipal clerk’s software and government administration software and how they can help with FOIA requests and beyond.

  • Meeting Government Deadlines

Open records request systems automatically set deadlines and send the appropriate notifications to both applicants and respondents. Digital processes through public records technology ensure that all FOIA deadlines are met, which eliminates the risk of non-compliance and other negative consequences that could ensue. 

When a request is acknowledged and followed through on, constituents appreciate the transparency and accountability offered by their local government. Done consistently, this strengthens public trust in local government. 

Did you know? Data analysis leads to better government. Learn more about the benefits of government data analytics

  • Encouraging Interdepartmental Collaboration

Open records request software enhances interdepartmental collaboration by allowing all relevant departments to easily upload respondent documents in one place. By centralizing the FOIA process, requests can no longer be overlooked or delayed. 

Centralizing FOIA responses also helps to reduce redundancy, which makes the process more efficient. With one person overseeing the process, identifying where the process is held up is a much more simple task. 

What about collaboration during a crisis? Find out how a government continuity strategy can help during a crisis

How To File a FOIA Request with Software 

The process to file a FOIA request may differ depending on the organization, so be sure to check the exact requirements before filing. 

Here’s a general guide on filing a FOIA request using Open Public Records Request Software:

1. Requestor's Name 

For the request to be processed, you’ll need to enter your full name. Without including your name, the organization cannot respond to you. 

2. Date of Request

The software will automatically register the date of the FOIA request, but you can specify a different date if necessary. The date of request is very important, because it determines when the response is due.

3. Description of Records Sought

This is a crucial part of your request. You must provide a detailed description of each record you are asking for. Software provides fields where you can include the title or name of the document, the author of the document, the recipient of the document, or the subject matter of the record. Providing these details in an organized manner will make the search for these records much easier and prevent delays in a response.

4. Willingness to Pay Fees

Some localities will charge fees to process FOIA requests. For some requests, the manpower to source, review, redact, and process the FOIA request can take many hours. While using the software, you may come across a section where you can indicate your willingness to pay any fees associated with your records request. 

5. Sufficient Contact Information

Lastly, provide your contact information where staff can reach you during normal business hours. This is essential in case any clarification is needed regarding your request. Contact information is also important so you receive a response!

How to Start Automating Outdated FOIA Processes with Public Records Request Software From GovPilot

If you’re still sorting paper applications and trudging through spreadsheets to manage FOIA requests, know that the end is in sight! GovPilot’s FOIA Software automates the cumbersome FOIA request process, making the process more agile and convenient for workers and citizens alike. Reach out to a member of our team to book a demo. 

FOIA Management Software FAQS

1. What is Public Record Request Software?

Public Records Request Software is a digital tool designed to manage and streamline the processing of public records requests. It aids in collecting, tracking, and fulfilling public records requests efficiently, ensuring compliance with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and other public access laws. The software automates the entire process, enhancing transparency and increasing productivity in government operations.

2. How Can Local Governments Fulfill FOIA requests?

Local governments can fulfill FOIA requests by implementing a public records request software, like GovPilot. FOIA software automates the handling of requests, simplifies the collection and organization of information, coordinates interdepartmental communication, and ensures timely responses. It also facilitates the redaction of sensitive information to maintain privacy while ensuring transparency, as per FOIA guidelines.

3. What Local Government Departments Benefit from FOIA Software

Almost every local government department can benefit from FOIA software, as it streamlines the process of handling public records requests. Specifically, the Clerk's Office, Courts, and Zoning & Construction departments often see significant benefits. The software helps every municipal department manage a high volume of requests more efficiently, ensuring transparency and adherence to FOIA regulations.

Learn more about the software solutions for specific government departments below: 

4. What is OPRA? Can GovPilot Work for NJ Public Record Requests? 

OPRA, or the Open Public Records Act, is New Jersey's state law that ensures public access to government records, similar to the federal FOIA. Yes, GovPilot can effectively work for New Jersey Public Records Requests. The software is designed to manage and process any public records requests, including those made under state laws like OPRA. 

5. How Does Cloud-Based Public Data Storage Make Public Record Requests Easier? 

Cloud-based public data storage streamlines the process of citizens applying for public records requests by allowing them to make OPRA requests online any time, rather than having to travel to city hall. Same constituents time and money by allowing them to apply to access public records online, anytime for free.

Tags: Open Data, Government Efficiency, Constituent Experience, Digital Transformation, GovTech