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Picture the scenario. You get to your desk on Monday morning and over the weekend you’ve received a new Freedom of Information (FOI) request from a journalist on the city newspaper. He is looking for information on a specific topic, and so you need to forward the email to the right person with the right knowledge in your organization.

In theory, you should be able to follow a straightforward process, where the right member of staff is given the case and they carry out searches for information. Anything sensitive is redacted from documents, and these are then sent to the journalist.

If only.

In reality, resolving an FOI request is a highly time-consuming task. The employee you ask to carry out the research tells you she has searched through SharePoint and none of the documents requested seem to be there. Someone eventually works out that three specific employees have all the content related to the request in their inboxes—it never even made it to SharePoint. After some more investigating you discover that one of those employees has since left the organization and one is on vacation (the most important document you’re looking for is, of course, on her computer’s desktop).

This scenario is emblematic of the kinds of problems that FOI professionals deal with every day in state and local government. On July 25th and 26th, we will be presenting a webinar discussing this exact issue, and looking at ways it can be resolved. 

Sign up to attend the webinar

Why does this kind of scenario arise so often?

In an era of digital technology, storing and searching for documents of record should be easy. However, in reality, technology can act as an obstacle to correctly storing the documents, emails, files and records that FOI requesters want access to.

As a recent study by the Knight Foundation highlighted, one of the biggest challenges that FOI requesters report about the process is that the technology used in state and local government often presents a major barrier to receiving a complete response. Although tools like SharePoint are in and of themselves very efficient and effective, the user experience with such products can often be confusing for less tech-savvy employees. And this means that all too often, they cut corners with information management best practices.

Download our whitepaper
“How to excel at FOI compliance: Practical advice for government agencies to improve response times for FOI requests”

Three ways digital technology creates a barrier to FOI fulfilment

The promise of digital technology was that it would make record keeping significantly easier, saving employees time when searching for content and allowing them to store it safely and securely. Although digital technology is certainly a step up from the days of paper records management, it continues to present major usability problems, which makes it harder to find content and, ultimately, complete FOI requests.

1.Too many steps to store content

Say a member of a team receives an email containing an attachment that could be considered important and in future may be subject to an FOI request. While that employee might have the best intentions, they are also busy. If storing that document correctly in SharePoint is complicated, we can guess how likely they are to complete the task correctly:

  • They have to download the attachment to their computer
  • They then open SharePoint
  • They have to find the right library
  • They must then upload the document

All these additional steps make it unlikely that busy staff will put in the required effort to store documents correctly.

2.Email is never thought of as a document

Emails are just like any other document, containing important content which could quite reasonably be requested by a journalist, activist or member of the public seeking information on how decisions were made. Yet, most technology platforms treat emails as somehow unique. None of the information management best practices which are applied to other content are applied to emails. As a result, we typically discover silos of important information, all stored within many different employees’ inboxes. The challenge for FOI professionals is that not only are emails hard to find at the best of times, they are impossible to discover when an employee is ill, on vacation, or has left the organization.

3.The metadata challenge

A final barrier for successful FOI responses is metadata. Metadata is a useful and practical way of categorizing information. However, it has several inherent limits, including the imposition of using terms which don’t effectively describe the content of a document, or the tendency for content to ‘outgrow’ metadata—work shifting away from the original terms you decided upon.

For FOI officers, this means that searching for content in your SharePoint environment may well never return results which contain the information you are looking for. Either because employees can’t find an appropriate metadata tag or term, and so apply none, or because the metadata tag/term they did choose doesn’t occur to you when searching for the content.

The right technology for the FOI

Freedom of Information is a pillar of modern democracy. It is therefore a shame that another important modern creation—namely, digital technology—should hold it back. However, this does not have to be the case. Instead, by using smarter technology, which fits more appropriately to the way employees think and behave, state and local government can more successfully respond to FOI requests.

Learn how can help on our dedicated State and Local Government site.

Find out more: sign up to attend our webinar on July 25th and 26th


David Lavenda
Chief Product Officer