2018 Audit Reveals Many Federal Agencies Are Unable to Respond to FOIA Requests. Is There a Solution?

06 August 2018 by Anith Mathai eDiscovery law-firm FOIA Audits

Federal agencies struggle to cope with FOIA demands, but there is a solution: Re-purpose affordable eDiscovery software that is designed to help gather, sort through, and release data - quickly and easily.

Iowa, June 29, 2018 - A recent audit of federal agencies has shown that many are unable to respond to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. The National Security Archive conducted this audit by requesting 100 federal agencies to submit emails received from any Republican National Committee domain (for example, rnchq.org) - in particular, emails received from Jan 20 to April 28, 2017. The request was made in light of reports that key members of the Trump administration were using their RNC email accounts instead of their official White House ones.

However, when asked to submit an annual FOIA report to the Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy, two out of every five agencies were unable to (or not required to) fulfill the request. And this was a whole year after these agencies were officially tasked with implementing comprehensive email-management policies.

A breakdown of some of the findings

  • Sixty-six agencies responded to the request, thirty-three didn’t, and one sent a ‘still interested’ letter.
  • Seventeen of the sixty-six agencies that responded claimed that the request was too general and complicated. Some claimed that they would be unable to search email without knowing who the sender and recipient are. And one agency branded the request as a ‘fishing expedition’ that would utilize too much of their workforce.
  • Close to one in ten agencies tried to reduce the NSA’s ‘appeal window’ (I.e., 90 days). And some didn’t acknowledge the appeal process.

“It’s shocking that one-third of federal departments and agencies couldn’t respond to a straight-forward FOIA request in eleven months. Either they can’t search emails, or their FOIA offices are incompetent.” - National Security Archive’s Executive Director, Tom Blanton

Do these agencies have a point?

They deal with large numbers of Word documents, PDFs, emails, text messages, social media content, etc. So, perhaps the FOIA deadlines are too draconian? After all, if an agency doesn’t have the resources to handle multiple FOIA requests simultaneously, how are they to follow protocol? And bringing in experts often costs a lot (upwards of $50,000) and it takes months for all the quotes and requests for proposals (RFPs) to come in.

What’s the price for delaying?

The delayed responses from select agencies will undoubtedly raise eyebrows. This is especially applicable to agencies that denied FOIA requests by claiming that they didn’t have the means to make the required search. Critics might even (perhaps unfairly) wonder if these agencies are hiding something, or perhaps stalling while they doctor data.

Is there a solution?

Thankfully, with the right software, the FOIA delays can be minimized. And the best software comes from an unlikely source - the growing eDiscovery market.

eDiscovery is the new face of law, worldwide. In the past, attorneys who went to trial would prepare by exchange boxes of paper documents to be reviewed. Nowadays, they exchange gigabytes of data in the form of electronically stored information (ESI), like Word documents, emails, and PDFs. So, it’s not surprising that eDiscovery software provides an efficient way to handle (and search) large numbers of electronic files - a key requirement, with FOIA requests.

eDiscovery software: The answer to FOIA woes

The right Cloud-based eDiscovery software - like the eDiscovery application GoldFynch - can solve most of the problems the federal agencies faced. Let’s see how.

Problem #1: “FOIA requests are too broad and would impose an undue burden to process.” GoldFynch can simplify the task significantly. It handles vast quantities of data (100 GB and more) and processes that data in minutes. So, however broad the request, the agencies’ FOIA offices would only need to drag-and-drop the relevant files into GoldFynch - much like they would do when transferring files in Windows - to make them accessible to the requesting party.

Problem #2: “The requests are a ‘fishing expedition’ that require us to search thousands of individual email accounts.” GoldFynch can make complicated and highly specific searches which would help the agencies hone in on the emails they need, in minutes. Also, once you’ve found the files you need, you can tag important topics and redact privileged information.

Problem #3: “It’s impossible to find emails without knowing who the sender or recipient is.” GoldFynch uses metadata (i.e., a digital footprint that accompanies every electronic document) to let you search for keywords, names, dates, etc. So, for example, you could tell GoldFynch to “Find all emails John Anderson sent Sally Nedry, which mention the Pfizer meeting. And which were sent before 2015.” And you wouldn’t be relying only on the sender’s or recipient’s address. Instead, you’d make a topic/keyword-based search. You can even tell GoldFynch which keywords not to search for, which would save you time by eliminating unnecessary results.

Problem #4: “We would need too much IT support.” GoldFynch requires zero technical knowledge to use. For one, it runs in the Cloud (What is the Cloud?), so you don’t need to download and install any software. Instead, you access it through your web browser (Google Chrome, preferably), logging on and off as needed. In fact, GoldFynch is designed, developed and run by an experienced team of software engineers, so you get the best tech support. Moreover, it is easy to use. If you can use Windows and Microsoft Word, you have the skills to use GoldFynch.

Problem #5: “It’s too expensive.” GoldFynch is designed keeping smaller organizations in mind. So, although it can scale up for even the largest companies, firms or agencies, it’s very affordable for smaller organizations too - just $25 a month for 3 GB of storage space.

Adopting a new level of responsibility

All the issues raised have clear, affordable solutions. So, it’s now up to federal agencies to take ownership of their problems and find the technology they need to bring themselves into the 21st century.

Interested in how GoldFynch can help you?

For a better look at just how much you can get out of eDiscovery software, check out these articles: