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As the provider of the leading CRM in the public sector, the Leidos DSI team deals with many Federal and state agencies who are struggling to efficiently manage their FOIA and public information request (PIR) processes. For agencies who may be looking to improve their FOIA management and customer service, here are five tips that we think will help your organization improve and simplify FOIA request management.

Proactive data posts

One way to help ease the burden of public information requests on your agency is to proactively publish unclassified materials that may be of interest to the public. One great example of this was the CIA’s decision in 2017 to publish thousands of recently de-classified files from the Kennedy assassination. Once they decided to de-classify the material, they may have been inundated with FOIA requests from journalists or citizens wanting to review the materials, but proactively making the documents available online made it accessible to the public without a FOIA request. Committing to proactive posts—particularly of files that may be of special interest to the public—ultimately results in a constantly growing library of documents available to the public online and can save your agency valuable time and staff resources that otherwise would be tied up in information requests.

Modern IT Tools

Making the request process simpler for both the requestor and your staff can also go a long way in saving your agency’s finite resources. There are many software solutions available that can help streamline and automate the request tracking, payment collecting and overall back and forth involved in processing and filling FOIA and PIR requests. However, even with these resources available, there are still many state and local agencies that are tracking and managing information requests in spreadsheets. Upgrading to a system that can take a request through your agency’s website, auto-assign it to a staff member, estimate and collect fees and provide a reference number to the agency and the requestor makes a huge difference in the efficiency and quality of the experience for the requestor and the organization. If you are interested in learning more about how software solutions can automate this process for you, take a demo of Intranet Quorum.

Disciplined Communication

Another big key to improving the FOIA process for both agency staff and the public is committing to disciplined communication. What this means is having a set of standards for communicating with the public about their requests and making sure those standards are consistently applied across your organization. Something as simple as acknowledging an incoming request when it’s received can make a big difference in the requester’s experience so implementing agency-wide communication guidelines can ensure each requestor has a positive experience. If your agency is using a modern tracking system, arming a requestor with their request’s tracking number and the ability to check in and see live status updates can eliminate many follow up communications and help ease the mind of an anxious reporter or other member of the public. Additionally, if you are communicating back and forth, it’s a best practice to record all of your communications in one repository where it can be referenced along with the request itself.

The spirit of the Freedom of Information Act is about government transparency. We know this is not always easy, but we believe it is important. One way to make sure that you’re complying with the nature of that stature, more than simply the letter of the law, is to think of your role as an advocate for the requestor by cooperating with them to try to understand what information they are looking for and doing the work to help fulfill the request. We know not everyone is a FOIA expert, and they may make a request that is not quite clear in scope or directive. We recommend whenever you encounter an unclear request to reach out directly to the requester, using plain language, and try to understand as best as you can exactly what they are looking for. This can help focus your work, foster good will with the requestor and help to avoid litigation or disputes later on.  

Disclosure Standards

Every agency, whether required to by law or not, should define and publish a “foreseeable harm” standard that is specific to their agency to ensure both openness and protection of information that could be harmful if improperly released. What we mean by this is clearly identify the types of materials that would be harmful to release to the public that your staff can refer to when they receive a request. A well-defined policy makes it easier for your staff to make informed decisions regarding disclosure while working with the public. When filling a request, be sure to confirm that requested documents that are classified continue to be properly classified, rather than assuming their status has not changed. Lastly, releasing documents to the requestors as they become available rather than waiting until the entire request is filled can help ease the mind of the requestor and show that your agency is working on their request.

Clear Fee Structure

Processing fees is a big part of FOIA processing which can be simplified by implementing a few best practices. First, agencies should provide costs estimates as soon as possible after receiving and reviewing a request. Having a defined pricing structure clearly listed on your website can help mitigate back and forth between the requestor and agency as well. Secondly, each agency should apply a minimum fee for small requests.  One federal agency does not charge for any request that they estimate to be less than $50. This makes it easy for their staff to process less labor intensive requests more quickly. Finally, agency staff should be empowered to waive fees above and beyond their outlined policies.  There may be a time when a staff member assesses that waiving a fee may be a more efficient means to accommodating the requester and avoiding a dispute. Providing flexibility for your staff to make that call in certain situations can help them manage a situation before it escalates.

Hopefully these tips will be useful for your agency in efficiently managing the FOIA process. For more information on how Intranet Quorum can help you improve public relations and service fulfillment at your agency, please reach out to us at iq.info@leidos.com

FedRAMP, or the US Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program, is a government-wide program that acts as a standardized model for security assessment, authorization and continuous monitoring for cloud-based IT products and services. Through FedRAMP, federal agencies can work with an approved cloud computing service provider with complete confidence that their data is secured according to a stringent set of cybersecurity safeguards. This is critical in the digital age as some of the nation’s largest companies have succumbed to phishing scams and data breaches. It is imperative that the government, across its many agencies, stays vigilant in ensuring the safety and security of their mission-critical data and sensitive information.

When a government agency selects a FedRAMP certified (or FedRAMPed) partner, they benefit from the highest possible levels of data protection but also from significant cost savings across the entire enterprise.  Working with a FedRAMPed cloud solution can cut costs by 30-40% and save staff time and energy by eliminating redundant security assessments.  When you see that a potential service provider is FedRAMPed, you can rest assured that they’re serious about keeping your data safe. 

IQ is the CRM solution designed specifically for government organizations. It’s flexible enough to handle the complex and unique processes of robust government agencies and available on a FedRAMP approved cloud platform to ensure the utmost in security standards and regulatory compliance. When you choose IQ, your government agency benefits from the security, flexibility, and reliability of a CRM provider invested in helping you carry out the mission of your government organization.

Security
IQ is available on a FedRAMPed CSP uniquely positioned as a highly secure option for organizations operating at every level of classified status.

Flexibility
IQ is highly configurable and designed to navigate complex workflows. We work with 100+ government agencies to help simplify and automate even the most involved business processes.  

Reliability
When you choose IQ, you will receive a Project Manager, an Information Technology Consultant, an Engineer, and a Trainer to help you install and tailor IQ to fit your unique organizational priorities, and to guide you along the process of getting set up.

Leidos Digital Solutions is pleased to offer government agencies IQ, our industry leading CRM solution, available on a secure, stable and scalable FedRAMP certified cloud platform. IQ can be acquired quickly and easily on our GSA Schedule 70, Contract GS-35F-0636K.  To learn more about IQ, browse our website or contact us with any questions you may have. 

Visit our YouTube channel for a preview of how IQ really works!

After the 2016 election, many political scientists turned their attention to the ways social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are impacting and evolving political discourse in the US. And while Facebook has been around for a long time, its use as a conduit for the spread of political information feels much newer. Facebook, which started out as a social network to help college students meet and connect, has grown into a platform for over 2 billion people, companies, and brands around the world to reach each other in ways people could hardly imagine just 15 years ago.

But is this phenomenon really new? Or is it just new to our democracy? Much research has been published on the effects of social media on governments in other parts of the world. The Arab uprisings, which began with the ousting of Tunisian President Zine El Abedine Ben Ali in 2011, have been repeatedly cited as evidence of the destabilizing effects social media can have on longstanding regimes. Most Western talking heads pointed to social media with pride while examining its role in tumbling governments in other parts of the world. However, now that the focus has shifted to the US and we are beginning to see exactly how powerful and disruptive social media can be to the usual order of politics, suddenly there is a sense that we may have created a monster that even we cannot control.

According to a study by the Pew Research Center, Facebook may in fact be contributing to increased polarization on both sides of the aisle. Pew reported that 25% of social media users follow government officials or political candidates online, and that Facebook is the main social media site most Americans go to for news. Pew analyzed data from January 2015 to July 2017, and found that of the news articles shared by Members of Congress on Facebook nearly half (48%) were to outlets predominantly linked to by members of just one party – and 5% of those news links pointed to outlets that were exclusively shared by members on only one side of the political divide. Additionally, they found that the more partisan the news source was that the Member of Congress linked to, the more likely it was to be shared among Facebook users – meaning the most partisan stories had the farthest reach.

In analyzing this data, it’s no surprise that many have been feeling a rise in political tensions in the US relative to the past few decades. But the heightened tension online has not escaped those in Silicon Valley. Facebook has faced intense scrutiny over its role in spreading “fake news” with executives even being asked to testify before Members of Congress about vetting practices of political advertisers. In response to growing concerns by Congress and the public, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced some surprising changes to its News Feed algorithms, changes that he said in a Facebook post, “should encourage meaningful interactions between people” by making public content like posts from businesses, brands, and the media less visible to Facebook users. He also conceded that he expected time spent using Facebook to decrease among users as a result. Advertisers and media outlets alike have decried the change, arguing that it will hurt American democracy and advertisers’ revenues. But the true impact of the imposed changes remains to be seen.

What do you think about the role of social media in politics? Has your office faced challenges adapting to the age of social media? For tips on using social media to connect with younger demographics, check out our best practice tips here.