By: Moe Goswami, CEO and Pam Ackley, Vice President of Product Support and Sales Growth, AINS
This article is part of a series on solution areas for the eCase digital process automation platform and was originally published on LinkedIn. You can read the original article here.
As the leading provider of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request management software to U.S. federal agencies, we have seen firsthand the transformation open government offices have undergone in the last few decades necessitating digital automation and low-code tools. The U.S. Department of Justice Office of Information Policy (OIP) 2020 Summary of Annual FOIA Reports shows rapid increase in the number of FOIA requests in the last decade, with federal agencies receiving more than 850,000 requests in both 2018 and 2019. Additionally, with the increase in emails and digitally-born records, the volume of records to be searched and released has grown exponentially. Without a comprehensive solution, FOIA analysts would not be able to process requests in the allocated time, and agencies would be forced to hire more analysts on a limited budget to keep up with public demand.
Fortunately, we have been able to mitigate these risks and speed FOIA processing through our low-code solution, FOIAXpress. Our robust software for FOIA request management and redaction has powered the secure processing of FOIA requests for decades. Because FOIAXpress is a low-code solution, we have been able to quickly meet the changing demands of technology, rapidly prototyping and deploying several modules including a public request portal, eDiscovery, AI, and in the near future, video redaction through integration.
Let’s first take a look at how our low-code solution has revolutionized the public request portal through our Public Access Link (PAL). In the past, requesters would issue FOIA requests by mail or phone. With no central location to track the status of a request, FOIA analysts could expect daily phone calls from requesters checking on the status of their FOIA request. But now, with so many yearly requests received by federal agencies, this process is no longer viable. FOIA offices would be inundated with calls, unable to do the necessary work of processing the requests. Relations with the public would suffer, as requesters would be unable to have their questions answered.
With PAL, members of the public are able to electronically submit FOIA requests and appeals, track the status of their request, communicate with FOIA analysts and receive records for download all through the portal. PAL provides automatic case tracking and real-time data analytics and reporting for FOIA analysts. If FOIA offices are receiving a high volume of FOIA requests on the same topic, they can release the records to a public-facing reading room which the system will direct new requesters to No more copies and mailings and wrong address. All of this is available on the agency’s public-facing website, and integrated with external systems like FOIA.gov and PAY.gov.
Moving on, we must recognize the impact eDiscovery software has had on FOIA processing at many levels across the government. Since FOIA law has mandated the inclusion of emails, attachments, duplicates, text messages, voice mails, and other types of digital information as subject to disclosure, the amount of data that has to be reviewed and released has increased exponentially, and will continue to increase because we have generated more electronic data. In many cases, request processers have to go through potentially tens of thousands of emails to see which ones are unique. That is why analyzing through deduping and cluster analysis becomes essential. FOIA analysts are able to see and compare groups of documents to determine if there is anything of importance, and to remove whole clusters at a time. The Freedom of Information Act Federal Advisory Committee recommends best practices for FOIA offices using eDiscovery in their software.
Streamlining and speeding FOIA processing can be further achieved by leveraging AI algorithms and machine learning capabilities to pre-process documents and find and redact information. Plus, the deep learning capabilities of robust AI tools like the FOIAXpress AI Assistant allows the technology to get better over time. While requests have increased, budgets have stayed the same. The technology allows FOIA offices to keep up with the extra demand, and allows FOIA officers to focus on mission rather the mundane tasks of shifting through millions of documents. A 2021 University of Maryland study supports the efficacy of machine learning in FOIA review, citing three potential “efficiencies”: 1) machine learning is beneficial to “large scale” review; 2) machine learning provides the ability to highlight passages that require “the most careful” review; and 3) machine learning detects inconsistencies between reviewers at the end of the process.
All-in-all, low code has been essential for prototyping and rapidly deploying state-of-the-art technology to FOIA analysts who desperately need the assistance. With FOIAXpress, modules can be added to the solution over time as government agencies require more resources and faster processing. Integrations allow for further improvement of the technology as we are beginning to integrate with video redaction software for increased capabilities. The solution is also able to integrate with agency program offices, allowing for faster communication and release of documents for processing and review. Reporting capabilities provide an enterprise view of the FOIA request process, allowing agencies to gather data that can assist in providing greater transparency, and assist the agency in pursuing its ultimate goal of an open government.