Here’s what an FOI app can do for you

Notify Requestor of New Wording diag

When I tell FOI professionals that I am working on FOI software, I often get questions such as “what can it do?” or “how can software help?”

These are great questions — and most of us are too busy responding to requests and processing files to think of exactly how an app might be able to help us!  So I’m not surprised these are the kinds of questions I get asked.

In today’s article, I’ll be describing a number of features that a good FOI app can provide to make your day-to-day practice easier, faster, and more accurate.

What features should an FOI app have?

Here are a few of the “killer” features that an FOI app can provide to significantly assist you in your FOI practice:

Deadline calculation

One of the most basic features of a good FOI app is the ability to automatically calculate the deadline for the disclosure decision to the requestor.  Once you tell the app when the request was received, the app will take care of counting the days on the calendar and can tell you immediately what the initial deadline is for the file.  A good FOI app will also handle time extensions and the affected third party process and be able to automatically update the deadline accordingly.

Deadline tracking

The FOI app should understand what kinds of events “stop the clock” and what events start it going again, and automatically keep every file’s current deadline up-to-date.  Without access to an FOI app, this can be one of the more challenging tasks to accomplish, as when the clock is stopped on a file, the deadline to respond to the requestor is a moving target, and when the clock does restart, determining the new deadline manually can be a source of error potentially leading to an appeal.

Re-calculating frequently-changing deadlines daily is exactly the sort of math-intensive operation that computers are built to do.  Performing such calculations manually may lead to mistakes.

File lists

An FOI app should allow you to easily see a list of all of your FOI files, and give you the options of seeing only active files, files received in the current year, etc.  The app should provide an easy inventory of all of your files to help ensure each is receiving appropriate attention and no files are being neglected.  Further, the app should make it easy to see which deadlines are coming up and help the FOI professional prioritize which file to work on.

File searching

For institutions with a large number of files, file searching can save a lot of time and effort.  The FOI app should allow the FOI professional to search for keywords, such as the name of the requestor, the name of the file, or the wording of the requests, to quickly identify the relevant file or files.

“Next Step” Guidance

As illustrated by the FOI Request Process Flowchart, there are potentially dozens of steps involved in processing an FOI request.  An FOI app can show the FOI professional the steps involved in processing an FOI request, helping the professional determine the best action to take next.  For example, an FOI app can provide the FOI professional with a list of potential actions to take, where clicking on the action takes you to an appropriate task screen for completing the action.  Having all of the potential steps involved in the FOI process together in one place can help ensure the FOI professional thinks about the correct next step to take on an ongoing FOI request file.  For example, should the institution ask the requestor to clarify or narrow the request?  Should the institution reject the request as frivolous or vexatious?  These steps aren’t needed for every FOI file and therefore they are sometimes overlooked in the normal course.

For less experienced FOI professionals, using the app can be a form of training, where seeing the options leads to thinking about the right issues.  For more experienced professionals, it can be reassuring to have an app that helps you turn your mind to all of the potential actions that can be taken on a file that is underway.

Ready-to-use

Ideally, an FOI app should come already customized to your particular jurisdiction and your institution’s relevant legislation.  For example, the FOI AssistTM app is designed in accordance with the FOI legislation applicable to provincial and municipal organizations operating in the Province of Ontario, specifically, Ontario’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act and its Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.  This means that the deadline calculations, the fee estimate calculations, the various steps of the process that the FOI app can help perform, and the built-in letter templates are all ready-to-use by provincial and municipal institutions in Ontario with no need for special programming or further customization to make the app work for the relevant jurisdiction and legislation.

Task screens

The FOI app should have special screens designed to help you easily complete the day-to-day tasks of processing an FOI file, such as opening a new file, attempting to narrow the request, seeking clarification, issuing an interim fee estimate, conducting the affected third party process, etc., pulling up all of the relevant information you need automatically (such as the requestor’s contact details, the wording of the request, etc.) so that you don’t have to go looking for it.  Each task screen serves as guidance on how to complete each step correctly while also significantly reducing the time and effort involved to complete the relevant task.

Fee Estimate Calculation

Creating a fee estimate calculation manually is about as much fun as doing your taxes with a pencil and paper, and just as prone to error.  A good FOI app can make this process both much faster and more accurate, as demonstrated by the Interim Fee Estimate Tool.

Letter generation

Creating appropriate, professional responses to the requestor can be one of the most time-consuming parts of processing an FOI file.  In Ontario, both the provincial government and the provincial privacy commissioner have issued numerous templates and guidance documents setting out what information should be included in various FOI-related letters issued by institutions.  Ignoring such guidance can leave an institution vulnerable on appeal.  The FOI Assist app generates draft letters which are in compliance with provincial government and privacy commissioner guidance.  Further, the generated letters already include all of the relevant information that the app stores about the file (such as the requestor’s contact details, the wording of the request, the date the request was received, the deadline, etc.) saving the FOI professional the significant time otherwise involved in finding the appropriate letter template and gathering the required information manually.

Affected Third Party Process Tracking

Notifying affected third parties and gathering their responses can be one of the most confusing and error-prone parts of processing an FOI file.  By automatically generating draft notifications, and helping to track which notifications have been sent and what responses have been received, an FOI app can considerably help with the affected third party process.

Instructions and Guidance

A good FOI app can offer you guidance that is relevant to the task you are working on — whether through explicit instructions, tool tips, or links to the appropriate guidance issued by government, the privacy commissioner, or other authorities.

Annual Statistical Reporting

When an FOI app is used to track files throughout the year, annual statistical reporting can be a breeze!  The annual statistical report can be generated for you using the information the app already knows about the institution’s FOI files tracked during the relevant time period.

General Reporting

An FOI app can also be used to quickly generate other reports, such as status reports.  This can be a great boon to management, who may wish to know which requests are currently being processed and the status of each file, without being personally involved in the processing of each file.

Conclusion

I hope today’s article has helped increase your interest in FOI software and helped you better understand how a good FOI app can help your institution.  Are there any important features you would like to see added to the list above?  I would love to hear from you!  Feel free to comment below, or alternatively, you can always contact me directly via the contact page of this blog.

If you’d like to stay engaged with updates and see pre-release previews and demos of the FOI Assist software, please follow the FOI Assist blog.  To subscribe, simply enter your email address at the bottom of the page then click the follow button.

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