How To Pick The Right FOIA Solution: The Road Less Traveled

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FOIA agencies are encouraged to modernize their FOIA solution as the EPA announced the end-of-life (EOL) of FOIAonline. The market has a solid offering. But not all solutions are created equal.

Software companies are an interesting breed. They are usually hiring creative, highly skilled staff that work on solving the world’s problems. From smart sensors in your car, to the software powering the device you read on at this moment. Over the years, companies have come and gone. From those that remain, one characteristic stands out: if they solve a problem significant enough to matter, and tell the world about their solution, such companies have a bright future. As problems evolve, so do solutions. And here lays the problem.

Companies usually grow too big for their own good. They build products around old problems and expect that minor touchups will make that old solution work in a new setting. This doesn’t mean that an older FOIA software solution from a veteran company won’t do the job. But we can easily wonder how good of a job can it does, if it was originally built around pre-existing products that the company wants to repackage and extend the shelf life.

So, for FOIA agencies that are looking for a modern replacement before FOIAonline EOL arrives, this question of “which FOIA software” may need a paradigm shift. In this blog post, we’d like to propose such a paradigm shift that will help decision makers come to a purchasing decision based on forward-thinking, rather than looking back and hoping for the same in the future.

What Do You Expect From Your FOIA Software Vendor?

If you’ve been tasked to research FOIA solutions and come up with a shortlist of what seem like reliable companies, you’re up for quite the challenge. Where do you start in your search?

Usually, people will jump to Google for a quick solution. Who else to ask when you have a complex task and need a solution fast? Google invests billions of dollars in their search engine, so they probably know best, right? Right?

While this approach is a safe bet, you could do a much better job by first looking inward, in your own organization. Ask your colleagues that process FOIA requests every day. Ask them what their pain points are, what sort of repetitive tasks are taking up most of their time and brainpower.

But other than these hands-on questions, ask your decision-making team, what kind of service you expect from the company behind the FOIA software solution.

In a hyper-connected world, what we seem to miss is the human connection. Companies with a large staff usually tend to grow ever more distant from the very individuals they serve. Think of the time you wanted to get some kind of support from any company, and you were put on hold, waiting for dozens of minutes listening to a peaceful tune.

Is this the way you’d want to be treated by the company that will provide you with a FOIA solution? In some cases, such a distant relationship may be all right. But in some cases, like in the case of the company that supplies you with the mission-critical software, some may find it prudent to have a quick way to reach a human being on the other side, without the pleasant but time-wasting tune.

Another important detail to consider is the uniqueness of your FOIA processing situation. If you’ve already started scouring the net for potential FOIA solutions, especially as a FOIAonline alternative, you are already familiar with the big bold claims companies make to attract you. Often companies will boast about the number of FOIA requests their software processes every day. Perhaps that is relevant for FOIA agencies that receive large volume, simple FOIA requests.

But if your organization receives a handful of FOIA requests but the response contains thousands of pages worth of structured and unstructured data, these claims of thousands of FOIA requests are immaterial. It would be like a bold claim of how fast a sports car can go, when you are looking for a family hauler with reliable 4×4 when the road gets icy.

What Sort of a Company Can Provide You With The Needed Service?

Once you understand your team’s needs from your next FOIA software solution, the next obvious question is to look for a company that can respond to your needs.

Continuing the example above, if your agency processes fewer FOIA requests that require hundreds and even thousands of datapoints to process, you will need a solution that is built around finding important details fast. That’s the technical requirement. The personal-touch requirement will be to be able to call someone and ask for help in automating a specific task tied to such low-volume but high-impact FOIA requests.

Say your team needs a period of handholding during the transition period, with knowledgeable staff that can visit your premises and train your staff. If this is the case, then a multinational conglomerate with an outsourced call center overseas will definitely not be a good fit. While you’d be glad to benefit from an outsourced development team that translates in lower cost of purchase, and lower cost of ownership, you will want someone local you can call and talk to.

It is important to consider the size of the company, and the amount of industry coverage they hold. A huge company with dozens, or even hundreds of offerings will probably not have much interest to provide you with a concierge-level service. On the other hand, if you go to a specialized company that ONLY works with FOIA requests, your business will matter far more to them, and you will be treated with greater care.

Is The FOIA Software Doing All the Right Things

Once you have narrowed down the list of expectations your team has, and you have created a shortlist of companies that seem to fit the bill, the next obvious question is to carefully consider the FOIA solutions themselves.

In this stage, you will want to ask questions such as:

  • Is the software a SaaS offering, or can it be deployed in a hybrid model?
  • Is it easily accessible for work-from-home staff with secure login technology?
  • Does the software come with a public-facing portal for submitting paperless FOIA requests?
  • Is there a proper workflow to receive the requests and apply pre-processing based on your specific needs?
  • Is there a seamless eDiscovery integration with intuitive interface that is easy to use?
  • Are there automations in place to recognize and mask sensitive information with annotation of what legislation requires each applied redaction recommendation?
  • How is the collaboration engine working, can clerks and FOIA reviewers work easily and communicate directly in the software, without creating unnecessary email chains?

Clearly you will already have a rough idea of the technical requirements which goes in far more detail than the list above. By now, you should have a shortlist of FOIA solutions that your team can review on a demo call with the software supplier. And hopefully by now, you should have confirmed that there is a proper culture fit between your organization and the companies on your shortlist.

Why Consider ArkCase FOIA?

Unlike other solutions built by companies who have a variety of other tools, ArkCase is a market contender focused on regularly over-delivering on the FOIA needs. Our laser focus helps us know the minutia of day-to-day FOIA requests management needs.
Among others swimming in this market just to see if they can catch yet another client, we are indigenous to the FOIA market. We built the software around the needs of FOIA staff specifically.
Instead of you having to scour through large offerings of various solutions for each need and having to compile a list of products that would somehow work together for you, we took the FOIA shopping list and built a single solution that does things right the first time.

ArkCase has been in close contact with FOIA agencies and attentively listened to individual experiences. We developed a keen understanding of the challenges and frustrations of FOIA staff as they tirelessly work to produce timely FOIA responses. We have integrated these ideas and feedback into our FOIA solution.

This year, ArkCase was invited to a key event to do a presentation of the ArkCase FOIA solution. Our team showcased ArkCase FOIA solution at the NARA FOIAonline and the Chief FOIA Officer Council NextGen FOIA Technology virtual conference.

ArkCase breed of enterprise case management

Our dedication over the years has paid off and our solution was recognized as a significant leap in the right direction. We have received highly positive feedback and excitement about the integrated approach for providing full lifecycle of FOIA requests.
We have heard that the way ArkCase FOIA handles the submitted requests, the pre-processing, the eDiscovery powered list of potential close-matching documents, pre-masking PII with annotation of what legal framework covers each redaction, the collaboration features, the audit trail, etc.

Being a small team with a strong focus on FOIA agencies, we are able to meet the needs of FOIA agencies that have highly complex FOIA requests.

We’d love to hear from you during your FOIA software search. Please feel free to reach out to us for more info, or for a product demo.

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