When you get a group of seasoned FOIA processors, analysts, specialists, or subject matter experts together, the topic of conversation will eventually arrive at ‘how it used to be.’ It is the inevitable progression of the FOIA conversation to eventually discuss what it is was like before technology took over the driver seat of FOIA processing. It was a time when documents were in hard copy form, redactions were done with bracketing and eventual physical removal, and correspondence with the requester was done via mail. The process was far more reliant on administrative skills than it is now and often the analytical skills required for complex FOIA processing were sacrificed to meet the heavily administrative process.
The emergence of technology has reshaped everything from the way in which FOIA requests are processed to the skills required to work in the field of FOIA processing. Technology became an answer to facilitate the administrative tasks that slowed FOIA processing. An obvious and major technological influence was the establishment of e-mail as a means of communication; e-mail enabled requesters to more easily submit requests and FOIA processors to communicate with requesters. Additionally, the process became more streamlined and organized with the creation of FOIA case management systems, such as FOIAXpress. FOIA requests, their related correspondence and responsive documents could all be organized in a FOIA records management system. Additionally, systems such as FOIAXpress have created document review tools that establish a more secure and streamlined processing workflow.
These technological advancements have removed many of the administrative skill sets required of FOIA processor, which has allowed them to develop a stronger expertise in FOIA exemptions and the actual analytical work required in processing FOIAs.
Overall, the FOIA process has been redesigned by the emergence of technologies – what was always an analytical job which was flooded by administrative tasks has been freed of those administrative burdens through technology. In part three of this series on The FOIA and Technology, we will examine specific technologies and how they continue to change the FOIA.