Many public sector entities process FOI requests using generic applications such as Microsoft Excel. In this article, Vayle guest blogger Else Khoury discusses how workflow automation software can streamline FOI processing and mitigate compliance risks.
In an election year, municipal staff have a lot on their minds: hiring support teams, organizing polling stations, counting votes, and onboarding new council members; not to mention keeping the regular machinery of municipal programs and operations running – more or less – smoothly. Throw the processing of freedom of information (FOI) requests into the mix, and things can go sideways quickly.
Many municipal entities reported an increase in FOI request volume during an election year, often related to candidates’ positions on hot-button issues (mask mandates, anyone?), but also for answers to the questions that decide votes: meeting attendance and voting records, to name only two. Processing FOI requests can prove especially challenging for smaller municipal entities that lack the resources or expertise that larger municipal entities, which often process hundreds of requests every year, have. The FOI request process can be difficult, even at the best of times and even for the most seasoned municipal staff.
Volumes are increasing
Although the number of FOI requests across Ontario dropped somewhat in the first year of the pandemic, requests in 2021 were back up and approaching pre-pandemic levels. According to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (IPC) of Ontario, over 60,000 requests were filed in 2019, while in 2020, that number dropped to around 44,000. In 2021, more than 55,000 FOI requests were filed across provincial and municipal entities in Ontario. Some have seen a surge in activity, particularly when implementing online FOI request forms and e-payment options.
So many requests, such little time
Initially, upon receiving a request under the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (MFIPPA), municipal entities are bound by the 30-day response period. Once the request has been received and confirmed, the real work begins: finding records. This task can be particularly challenging for municipal entities that lack electronic records management solutions.
The search for e-records, including emails, in and of itself can easily extend the response timeframe outside the established 30-day limit. This is followed by the inevitable review, sorting, copying and redacting of records, at the end of which 30 days rarely feels like enough time. Of course, time extensions are always an option. Still, since requestors can challenge them by going directly to the Office of the IPC, the designated Head must carefully consider the risk of employing this option.
Next comes exemptions. As is the case with all legislation, the devil is in the details. With a laundry list of mandatory and discretionary exemptions to choose from, MFIPPA is rife with options. And because exemption descriptions can be complex and verbose, it is sometimes difficult to know which one to apply and when. When making a disclosure decision, the best option for the Head (or their delegate) is to review IPC orders related to the request in question to see how the IPC has ruled in the past. However, this approach often takes more time than is allowed when you’re in the position of processing FOI off the corner of your desk; and when IPC decisions on a particular issue are numerous (consider that a search on IPC orders related to “dog bites” yields 27 orders!).
Legacy tools are inefficient
For most municipal entities, processing FOI requests is still a manual exercise. Microsoft Excel and other software applications are often used for this purpose: Requests are logged and tracked in spreadsheets or databases, which lack the ability to track timelines and schedule each step of the request. It usually takes a day to send a confirmation to the requestor, a week for the department to send files to you, and about two weeks to collate, redact, etc. Without a means to track these timelines, municipal staff are forced to manually track each part of the process in addition to their core job duties.
All public sector organizations in Ontario that are subject to either FIPPA, MFIPPA or PHIPA must submit annual statistics to the IPC. Reporting requirements account for the number of requests received and processed, how long it took to respond, total privacy breaches, and the number of appeals filed with the IPC. Processing inefficiencies only add to the workload.
The benefits of FOI automation
Some municipal entities utilize purpose-built software to simplify and track FOI processing and annual reporting tasks. There are several benefits to this approach:
- Save time when inputting and tracking requests, fee calculations, maintaining records, addressing appeals, and publishing reporting statistics.
- Mitigate risks associated with missing response deadlines, improperly calculating fees, and publishing inaccurate reports.
- Improve insights through advanced reporting, tracking everything from total requests to year-over-year performance comparisons.
Assess your FOI program
If you are unsure about whether FOI automation will benefit your organization, consider conducting a simple three-step analysis:
- Map your workflow using a simple document to identify each step of your FOI processing system. Identify areas which are creating bottlenecks.
- Estimate the time required to fulfill each stage of your FOI processing system, starting with intake through to the appeals process.
- Overlay the benefits of automation into your current workflow, estimating the time saved by automating each task multiplied by the number of FOIs processed annually.
An FOI automation solution purpose-built for Canadian public sector entities
If you believe FOI automation could benefit your municipal entity, consider Vayle FOI (formerly Nordat), a software application that streamlines the end-to-end workflow for FOI requests. While Vayle FOI provides many of the benefits mentioned above, some clients have reduced their workload by as much as two weeks through the application’s automated annual reporting feature alone. Vayle is currently offering complimentary assessments to help public sector entities estimate the amount of time and money that can be saved by utilizing their FOI automation solution.
Customers range from small municipal entities to large police services agencies processing over 1,000 FOI requests annually, some of which have been users of the software, and its modernized versions, for over 15 years. Built and hosted in Canada, Vayle FOI was designed specifically with the Canadian public sector in mind.
Else Khoury has worked in the municipal privacy field for almost 20 years, and currently provides training and advisory services in the areas of Records and Information Management and Access and Privacy. She holds a Master’s of Information Studies degree from the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies, an Information Access and Privacy Protection (IAPP) certificate from the University of Alberta, as well as the designations of CIP and ERM Master (AIIM International).