We have entered a period in our society in which people want to second guess government decisions. In an effort to peak into our decision making processes, people will make requests for information under the freedom of information act (FOIA). Many requests that are made are overkill and as such government has the right to charge the appropriate fees when responding to such requests. Many times, when government provides an estimate to the cost involved with producing the request, the requester will either refine their request or claim that the information is for the “public good” and ask that the information be provided at no charge.
FOIA requests give us opportunity to review how our information is stored. Most requests are for emails on certain topics. Many large government organizations backup the email server nightly and email requests can be handled through the IT Department. Organizations need to be constantly reminded that retention of documents must be adhered to.
Some government organization prohibit texting and social media because the information is usually not archived and thus unsearchable. If you cannot search records that are used in your government employment, you should not use that method of communication. It becomes critical that your staff does not delete messages, text, or social media posts if they are used to conduct government business. The more methods that you use to conduct your business, the more searching you have to do when responding to a FOIS request. Anyone who works for an organization that records telephone calls will understand the difficulty in searching audio files that have been requested.
When updating your local laws, it might be a good idea to see how your client records are protected. I have had FOIA requests for licensing data of pet owners. Your database is a good source of data that someone can use to target the pet owners of your community. Although FOIA states that you must give the information in the form that it is maintained, electronic data becomes problematic and it might be a smart move to offer the data in printed form… maybe a mailing label, so that data is used only once. If you are considering protecting your data from vendors, you should consider protecting the data that comes from your veterinarians when administering rabies vaccinations, since licensing requires that information. By protecting the information from veterinarians, your licensing data will also be protected.
It is common for someone to request adoption information. The request is usually by the owner of a pet who failed to timely reclaim their pet and wants to use the information to bully the person who adopted their pet. I would suggest that you find a way to protect that data as well. There are two ways to do that: the first way is to protect the data by ordinance, the other is to put a check mark on the adoption contract in which the adopter can ask for confidentiality. It would force the old dog owner to take you to court for the information; then you can explain to the judge that the previous owner has no legal right to the animal and providing the information may place the adoption family at risk.
FOIA requests have become so common that you might consider having a person specifically responsible for handling them. Time limits are set and it is important not to violate a person’s right to information. When working on a FOIA request, you’ll need to track the length of time to conduct the search and wages of the people involved. You should calculate the cost of paper and the ware and tear of your copier or printer. Many organizations just simplify the process by charging per page. Some database request would resort in thousand of pages, so to save paper, you might consider converting the files to PDF and provide them via email. Make sure you collect your fees first.
FOIA is a necessary service for the public to see how their government is working, but it frequently is used to bog an organization down in work to punish the organization for performing an action that a person dislikes. It is important that you are meticulous in performing this function; many times the person knows that there is a specific file (probably one leaked from an employee or volunteer) that they are looking for and if you fail to find it or fail to provide it, you will face some difficult questions that you will have to answer.