Like flossing, we all know that we’d be better off if we were better organized, but we either dread the prospect of starting, or we lose the motivation to keep going after we start.
Some governments feel overwhelmed by FOIA requests. Indeed, a clerk in Powhatan County felt so overwhelmed by multiple requests from a single person that she asked the county attorney, who asked his legislator, to introduce a bill this session allowing governments to take someone to court for filing too many FOIA requests (i.e., harassment).
The bill was sent to the FOIA Council, which will begin study on the issue tomorrow, July 22.
Setting aside the question for now about FOIA requests motivated by a desire to harass or trouble a government body (and I know it happens), there is still the question of government bodies and agencies trying to respond to everyday FOIA requests.
At any given moment, a clerk’s office could be flooded with multiple requests from multiple individuals seeking vastly different records. It’s the luck of the draw, because next week, the office could be echoing with the sounds of crickets.
With tighter and tighter budgets, government employees are being asked to do more with less. Even when times were better, I have heard of some local government employees grumble because FOIA takes them away from their “other” duties, as if FOIA wasn’t one of their “other” duties to begin with. FOIA can’t be set aside any more than other projects, deadlines or tasks can.
But I’m sympathetic to feeling overwhelmed, and that’s where organization comes into play.
Simply put: the better organized your records management system is, and the better your FOIA tracking system is, the easier your FOIA life will be.
Records responsive to a request must be searched for. The search usually takes up more time than the copying or the review time, and sometimes both.
Effective filing and archiving can help. So can reviewing the Library of Virginia’s records retention schedules and using the resources in their records management department for guidance. So can creating lots of topical folders and backups of email. So can adding metadata -- keywords, tags, links -- to electronic records. So can “tickler notes” that cross-reference related files.
Keeping track of FOIA requests can help, too. A routinized process for receiving, tracking, responding, etc., can cut down on misunderstandings about who is supposed to do what and when. And by indexing FOIA requests, government employees may discover that the records being asked for in Request A were already searched for and prepared in response to Request B a few weeks ago. Voilá! No need for further searching.
These are pretty basic suggestions coming from someone who uses a lot of sticky notes and handwritten messages to keep track of where her documents are. But there are experts in the field.
This fall, VCOG is looking to present a seminar by these experts on this very subject. Working in conjunction with the FOIA Council, the Library of Virginia, the Virginia Municipal League and the Virginia Association of Counties, as well as with insight from local and state government representatives, we hope to share with records managers across the state tips and strategies for better organization of an office’s records.
The tentative date is Sept. 15 at the Library of Virginia, but a few loose ends need tying up before we can officially announce the seminar. There will be a low registration fee, but we hope that records managers from agencies and departments of all sizes will find the presentations worth it.
So, stay tuned for more details.
And now, if you’ll please excuse me, I have to go floss.