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FOIA Matters! — 2012 Information Governance Survey Results for the Government Sector

Created: 31 Jul 2012 • Updated: 29 May 2014
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At this year’s EDGE Summit in April, Symantec polled attendees about a range of government-specific information governance questions. The attendees of the event were primarily comprised of members from IT, Legal, as well as Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) agents, government investigators and records managers. The main purpose of the EDGE survey was to gather attendees’ thoughts on what information governance means for their agencies, discern what actions were being taken to address Big Data challenges, and assess how far along agencies were in their information governance implementations pursuant to the recent Presidential Mandate.

As my colleague Matt Nelson’s blog recounts from the LegalTech conference earlier this year, information governance and predictive coding were among the hottest topics at the LTNY 2012 show and in the industry generally. The EDGE Summit correspondingly held sessions on those two topics, as well as delved deeper into questions that are unique to the government. For example, when asked what the top driver for implementation of an information governance plan in an agency was, three out of four respondents answered “FOIA.”

The fact that FOIA was listed as the top driver for government agencies planning to implement an information governance solution is in line with data reported by the Department of Justice (DOJ) from 2008-2011 on the number of requests received. In 2008, 605,491 FOIA requests were received. This figure grew to 644,165 in 2011. While the increase in FOIA requests is not enormous percentage-wise, what is significant is the reduction in backlogs for FOIA requests. In 2008, there was a backlog of 130,419 requests and was decreased to 83,490 by 2011. This is likely due to the implementation of newer and better technology, coupled with the fact that the current administration has made FOIA request processing a priority.

In 2009, President Obama directed agencies to adopt “a presumption in favor’” of FOIA requests for greater transparency in the government. Agencies have had pressure from the President to improve the response time to (and completeness of) FOIA requests. Washington Post reporter Ed O’Keefe wrote,

“a study by the National Security Archive at George Washington University and the Knight Foundation, found approximately 90 federal agencies are equipped to process FOIA requests, and of those 90, only slightly more than half have taken at least some steps to fulfill Obama’s goal to improve government transparency.”

Agencies are increasingly more focused on complying with FOIA and will continue to improve their IT environments with archiving, eDiscovery and other proactive records management solutions in order to increase access to data.

Not far behind FOIA requests on the list of reasons to implement an information governance plan were “lawsuits” and “internal investigations.” Fortunately, any comprehensive information governance plan will axiomatically address FOIA requests since the technology implemented to accomplish information governance inherently allows for the storage, identification, collection, review and production of data regardless of the specific purpose. The use of information governance technology will not have the same workflow or process for FOIA that an internal investigation would require, for example, but the tools required are the same.

The survey also found that the top three most important activities surrounding information governance were: email/records retention (73%), data security/privacy (73%) and data storage (72%). These concerns are being addressed modularly by agencies with technology like data classification services, archiving, and data loss prevention technologies. In-house eDiscovery tools are also important as they facilitate the redaction of personally identifiable information that must be removed in many FOIA requests.

It is clear that agencies recognize the importance of managing email/records for the purposes of FOIA and this is an area of concern in light of not only the data explosion, but because 53% of respondents reported they are responsible for classifying their own data. Respondents have connected the concept of information governance with records management and the ability to execute more effectively on FOIA requests. Manual classification is rapidly becoming obsolete as data volumes grow, and is being replaced by automated solutions in successfully deployed information governance plans.

Perhaps the most interesting piece of data from the survey was the disclosures about what was preventing governmental agencies from implementing information governance plans. The top inhibitors for the government were “budget,” “internal consensus” and “lack of internal skill sets.” Contrasted with the LegalTech Survey findings from 2012 on information governance, with respondents predominantly from the private sector, the government’s concerns and implementation timelines are slightly different. In the EDGE survey, only 16% of the government respondents reported that they have implemented an information governance solution, contrasted with the 19% of the LegalTech audience. This disparity is partly because the government lacks the budget and the proper internal committee of stakeholders to sponsor and deploy a plan, but the relatively lows numbers in both sectors indicate the nascent state of information governance.

In order for a successful information governance plan to be deployed, “it takes a village,” to quote Secretary Clinton. Without prioritizing coordination between IT, legal, records managers, security, and the other necessary departments on data management, merely having the budget only purchases the technology and does not ensure true governance. In this year’s survey, 95% of EDGE respondents were actively discussing information governance solutions. Over the next two years the percentage of agencies that will submit a solution is expected to triple from 16%-52%. With the directive on records management due this month by the National Archives Records Administration (NARA), the government agencies will have clear guidance on what the best practices are for records management, and this will aid the adoption of automated archiving and records classification workflows.

The future is bright with the initiative by the President and NARA’s anticipated directive to examine the state of technology in the government. The EDGE survey results support the forecast, provided budget can be obtained, that agencies will be in an improved state of information governance within the next two years. This will be an improvement for FOIA request compliance, efficient litigation with the government and increase their ability to effectively conduct internal investigations.

Many would have projected that the results of the survey question on what drives information governance in the government would be litigation, internal investigations, and FOIA requests respectively. And yet, FOIA has recently taken on a more important role given the Obama administration’s focus on transparency and the increased number of requests by citizens. While any one of the drivers could have facilitated updates in process and technology the government clearly needs, FOIA has positive momentum behind it and seems to be the impetus primarily driving information governance. Fortunately, archiving and eDiscovery technology, only two parts of information governance continuum, can help with all three of the aforementioned drivers with different workflows.

Later this month we will examine NARA’s directive and what the impact will be on the government’s technology environment – stay tuned.