The COVID-19 pandemic’s effects on FOIA processing and the use of e-discovery are among the topics in our latest report, Assessing Freedom of Information Act Compliance through the 2020 National Archives and Records Administration’s Records Management Self-Assessment. The Records Management Self-Assessment (RMSA) survey for 2020 —administered to agency records officers between January 2021 and March 2021 by the National Archives and Records Administration, Office of the Chief Records Officer (CRO) — included seven questions regarding FOIA administration. Key results highlighted in this assessment include:
- Nearly half of all respondents (49 percent) reported that the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted their agency’s ability to respond to FOIA requests.
- A majority of respondents (80 percent) whose FOIA programs were disrupted reported that their agency’s paper records were inaccessible due to office closures while nearly half (46 percent) reported that agency staff were not available to search for records.
- A majority of respondents (72 percent) reported that their agencies worked directly with requesters to tailor their requests for most efficient processing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- A majority of respondents (72 percent) reported that their agencies use e-discovery tools to search for records when responding to FOIA and/or legal discovery.
- Of the agencies that reported using e-discovery tools, a significant majority (91 percent) reported that their agencies use e-discovery tools for FOIA responses involving requests for email records.
- Of the respondents who reported that their agencies do not use e-discovery tools to search for records, roughly half reported that such tools are not available at their agencies.
- A majority of respondents (51 percent) reported that their Agency Records Officer and Chief FOIA Officer work together on information technology (IT) requirements that benefit both programs, and half (50 percent) reported that their training programs address the importance and relationship between FOIA and records management.
We are grateful to the Office of the CRO for its continued collaboration with OGIS and its willingness to include FOIA questions in the annual RMSA survey. We are hopeful that agency efforts to OMB/NARA Memorandum M-19-21, Transition to Electronic Records, will improve records management and FOIA administration throughout the federal government.