Next Generation Technologies Reduce FOIA Bottlenecks


Federal agencies are under more scrutiny to resolve issues with responding to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

The Freedom of Information Act provides for the full disclosure of agency records and information to the public unless that information is exempted under clearly delineated statutory language. In conjunction with FOIA, the Privacy Act serves to safeguard public interest in informational privacy by delineating the duties and responsibilities of federal agencies that collect, store, and disseminate personal information about individuals. The procedures established ensure that the Department of Homeland Security fully satisfies its responsibility to the public to disclose departmental information while simultaneously safeguarding individual privacy.

In February of this year, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee opened a congressional review of executive branch compliance with the Freedom of Information Act.

The committee sent a six page letter to the Director of Information Policy at the Department of Justice (DOJ), Melanie Ann Pustay. In the letter, the committee questions why, based on a December 2012 survey, 62 of 99 government agencies have not updated their FOIA regulations and processes which was required by Attorney General Eric Holder in a 2009 memorandum. In fact the Attorney General’s own agency have not updated their regulations and processes since 2003.

The committee also pointed out that there are 83,000 FOIA request still outstanding as of the writing of the letter.

In fairness to the federal agencies, responding to a FOIA request can be time-consuming and expensive if technology and processes are not keeping up with increasing demands. Electronic content can be anywhere including email systems, SharePoint servers, file systems, and individual workstations. Because content is spread around and not usually centrally indexed, enterprise wide searches for content do not turn up all potentially responsive content. This means a much more manual, time consuming process to find relevant content is used.

There must be a better way…

New technology can address the collection problem of searching for relevant content across the many storage locations where electronically stored information (ESI) can reside. For example, an enterprise-wide search capability with “connectors” into every data repository, email, SharePoint, file systems, ECM systems, records management systems allows all content to be centrally indexed so that an enterprise wide keyword search will find all instances of content with those keywords present. A more powerful capability to look for is the ability to search on concepts, a far more accurate way to search for specific content. Searching for conceptually comparable content can speed up the collection process and drastically reduce the number of false positives in the results set while finding many more of the keyword deficient but conceptually responsive records. In conjunction with concept search, automated classification/categorization of data can reduce search time and raise accuracy.

The largest cost in responding to a FOIA request is in the review of all potentially relevant ESI found during collection. Another technology that can drastically reduce the problem of having to review thousands, hundreds of thousands or millions of documents for relevancy and privacy currently used by attorneys for eDiscovery is Predictive Coding.

Predictive Coding is the process of applying machine learning and iterative supervised learning technology to automate document coding and prioritize review. This functionality dramatically expedites the actual review process while dramatically improving accuracy and reducing the risk of missing key documents. According to a RAND Institute for Civil Justice report published in 2012, document review cost savings of 80% can be expected using Predictive Coding technology.

With the increasing number of FOIA requests swamping agencies, agencies are hard pressed to catch up to their backlogs. The next generation technologies mentioned above can help agencies reduce their FOIA related costs while decreasing their response time.

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