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How the federal government could save money while increasing transparency

Demand for agency Freedom of Information Act records has never been higher — and this record-setting level of public engagement does not show any signs of slowing down. Fiscal year 2017 alone saw a record-high 818,271 FOIA requests, an increase of 3.74 percent over the previous year. In fact, FOIA requests have been hitting record-high numbers year-over-year virtually every year since FY2010 — this year should be no different. As public engagement is driven to unprecedented levels, digital transformation is key to enhanced government transparency.

The cost to agencies

With escalating numbers of FOIA requests come escalating costs for agencies. Last year, the total cost to all agencies for FOIA-related activities hit $480 million in processing costs and $40 million in litigation-related costs. This is up +0.37 percent and +12.4 percent respectively over the previous year. To their credit, agencies’ capabilities are also at all-time highs, as they are successfully processing more records requests than ever before. As agencies themselves acknowledge, there are still opportunities for efficiency gains that have potential to heavily curb FOIA-related costs. So what improvement can agencies make now to ready themselves for the continuing rising FOIA tide?

Key areas of focus

In its 2016-2018 Final Report and Recommendations, the Freedom of Information Act Federal Advisory Committee recommended that agencies focus their technology investments chiefly around records management/search capabilities and tracking systems. If invested in properly, these systems will work holistically to streamline agency records operations throughout the information lifecycle, resulting in substantial cost-savings. To establish these comprehensive records frameworks, agencies will need to invest chiefly into three main technology areas: metadata tagging, artificial intelligence/machine learning, and automation.

Metadata for Search and Tracking

In order to implement fully modernized records management and search functionalities, agencies will first have to invest in comprehensive metadata tagging. Metadata is vital to both managing, accessing and eventually tracking information throughout its lifecycle. Metadata tells agencies vital information about their records, such as what the content is and what characteristics it possesses, ultimately ensuring agency records are exported in a standardized, usable format.

As such, metadata is a predicating requirement for future automation endeavors, as many automation processes will rely on metadata tags to properly sort, search and manage information. It will be vital for agencies to agree upon and conform to standard, universally required metadata elements before going through the process of identifying additional, more granular elements. This “tiered” approach is highly recommended to facilitate the consistent use of the minimum amount of metadata properties for managing the government’s information consistently across agencies. Best practices dictate limiting these essential metadata fields to five, as ease of use is vital.

Streamlined Machine Learning and AI

The modern agency houses a diverse ecosystem of information, distributed across multiple data formats — both physical and digital. As agencies work to meet NARA’s digitization mandates, more and more of government-owned information will be created digitally at birth, but physical records are likely never going to be eliminated. As a result of this diversity of information, agencies over time will tend to create information silos unintentionally. These silos are sometimes governed completely differently from one another, each utilizing its own records and information management processes. This lack of standardized information handling creates inefficiencies that attach added time and dollars to every FOIA-related retrieval.

Agencies can use emerging machine learning and artificial intelligence technologies to alleviate these ailments. Machine learning-based classification of physical and digital information helps agencies add structure, context and metadata to their information to increase overall usability and prevent data silos from forming. The classified and tagged data is then capable of supporting enhanced automated governance and workflow throughout the agency, aiding agencies in more efficiently conducting searches and tracking requests.

Automating Information

The last, but most crucial investment for agencies is automation. Automation lessens the burden and time associated with agency end users, as it eliminates the requirement to touch each file and make separate record-keeping decisions about each one. For instance, automation can be leveraged by agencies to identify and then strip any sensitive or personal data from requested records. Improvements like these have the potential to greatly streamline day-to-day records governance and greatly expedite FOIA requests. Additionally, because automation is tied to standardized metadata tags, the risk for costly human errors is decreased.

With the integration of automated capabilities, records are consistently captured and managed and therefore more accessible for support of the agency mission. Processes can scale up to handle a higher volume of information, a vital capability for agencies that are dealing with increasing data generation on a daily basis. Automation also is capable of automatically determining when information has reached the end of its mandated lifecycle and needs to be disposed, helping agencies avoid unnecessary costs and maintain records compliance with auditable logs.

Conclusion

Investing in metadata tagging, AI/machine learning and automation will lay the foundation for a streamlined, more transparent government. These technologies and frameworks are intended to be built around an agency’s established workflow, acting as complementary tools that will help extract further value from existing records management investments.

Ultimately, agencies will gain a more comprehensive view of their information. This will facilitate decision-making as information moves through its lifecycle from creation to destruction or archiving, including ease of access for responding to FOIA requests. In the end, citizens will gain a more transparent, proactive government and agencies will be able to provide increased levels of citizen service at a significantly lower cost to the taxpayer.

Alex Sisserson is a product manager for information asset management firm Iron Mountain Government Solutions.

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