How To Keep Your FOI Files Organized

Windows File Explorer showing FOI file folders.

This article will be somewhat more prescriptive than usual. There is no single “right way” to maintain Freedom Of Information (FOI) files, and if you already have a system that works well for your institution, then I hope this article offers you some interesting ideas that you can compare to your own process.

For other readers, who may be caught in the trap of constantly improvising new processes for keeping things in good order, and who may be somewhat anxious about the state of their FOI files — for those of you in this crowd, I think you will find this article invaluable.

FOI File vs. a Record

In this article I draw a distinction between the term “FOI file” and a “record”. Here, a “record” is a document in the possession of the institution which may or may not be responsive to a particular FOI request. An FOI file, on the other hand, is a collection of records related to a particular FOI request. An FOI file is generally created by the institution upon the receipt of an FOI request. An FOI file may contain correspondence with the requestor (including the original FOI request itself), correspondence with other parties (such as other institutions, or internal staff), records responsive to the request (including redacted and unredacted versions of records), and in some cases, the FOI file may even contain records which are not responsive to the request.

Paper Files vs. Electronic Files

The first choice when deciding how to keep your FOI files organized is deciding whether to keep paper files, electronic files, or both.

Paper Files

Historically, institutions generally kept only paper files, and when the occasional electronic record arose in relation to an FOI request, institutions might manage such electronic records by printing them for inclusion into the paper file, or occasionally, include them in the file on physical electronic media, such as by putting an actual diskette, CD or USB media into the paper file itself.

Combination Files (Paper File + Electronic File)

As electronic records gained prominence, it became more cumbersome to print each record or to store physical electronic media in a paper file. Further, storing electronic media in a paper file risks losing electronic records when such media malfunctions. Therefore, institutions began maintaining electronic FOI files, either in a content management system (such as iManage, Sharepoint, Google Drive, or a similar system) or simply in file folders on a file server or hard drive. But as a compromise, paper files were often still maintained alongside the electronic file, and some FOI files would be split across two locations — an electronic FOI file containing electronic records, and a paper FOI file containing paper records.

Electronic Files

Finally, some institutions aim to have entirely electronic files. There are many obvious advantages to this system, including ease-of-access (both onsite and offsite), the ability to secure and limit access to files, to maintain automatic backups, etc.

However, there are also significant drawbacks of trying to go purely electronic:

  • Many documents begin their life as paper documents, so there is an added step of scanning documents to convert them into electronic records
  • Some documents may not be scannable, or may be extremely difficult to scan
  • Scanned copies do not always maintain all of the information in the original paper document (e.g., some pages may be illegible, or partially illegible)
  • Electronic files tend to get duplicated far more often (e.g., saved on staff hard drives, as email attachments, etc.) complicating file lifetime management and file deletion practices
  • Evidentiary concerns: institutions may wish to ensure they keep the actual original signed copies of letters, agreements, etc. to head-off allegations that the electronic version of a record may not be an accurate copy of the original
  • Ease-of-use: sometimes, paper is simply easier and faster to work with than an electronic version

Suggested Approach

Given the options above, my recommendation is to “lean electronic”.

Generally, I suggest creating an electronic FOI file as well as a paper FOI file for every FOI request received, but not expect that every document will appear in both — rather, in practice, institutions should aim to maintain both sets of files so that staff can rely on the electronic version first, and then fall back on the paper version only when necessary (such as when there are records that can’t be scanned, or if there is a need to check the accuracy of the electronic version of a record against the original paper version.) This avoids having to create a paper FOI file “last minute” when it turns out there are records that must be stored as hard copies.

Another reasonable approach is to create an electronic FOI file for each request, but create a paper file only when it appears that being entirely paperless is about to cause friction for a particular file. Using this method, many FOI files will go their entire lifetime without a paper FOI file ever being created (especially routine requests, which, at many institutions, make up the majority of their requests). This approach can save a lot of work and a lot of paper.

The remainder of this article won’t assume that you are maintaining either electronic files or paper files; rather, the suggestions below are compatible with either approach. When I suggest creating a “folder”, this can be taken to mean either:

  • a new folder on your hard drive (or file server or content management system), or
  • an actual paper file folder (or accordion folder) if you are using paper files.

Keeping Track of FOI Files

Active and Closed

I suggest splitting FOI files into two categories: “Active” and “Closed”. A new file starts in the “Active” category, and then moves to “Closed” when it is completed or abandoned by the requestor. Paper files would be stored in the “Active” location of a filing cabinet, while electronic files are stored in an “Active” electronic folder.

File Numbering

One very sensible way to number your FOI requests is to assign them a two-part number, where the first part is the year in which they were received, and the second part is a sequential number. So your first files of 2021 would be numbered as follows: 2021-01, 2021-02, 2021-03. (The leading zero in front of the last number will help when sorting files in order on a computer. If you expect over 99 FOI requests in a year, you may wish to use additional leading zeros.)

On the file server, I create a folder for each file using just the file number — this tends to be far less cumbersome than also trying to include the “name” of the FOI file within the folder name.

Using this system, with a few FOI files on the go, your FOI file folders would look something like the following:

Your paper FOI file folders would also be labelled with the file number, and sorted in order using the file number, but the label should generally contain other useful information as well, such as the “name” of the file, the date on which the FOI request was originally received, and perhaps the name of the staff person responsible for processing the FOI file.

File Naming

Each file should also be given a name. Generally, this is a short, inexact summary of the request wording itself. For example a request with the wording “All files, emails, documents, correspondence, records, etc., relating to Fencing RFP #2021-12345 between Jan 1, 2021 and December 31, 2021” might be given the file name “Fencing RFP Records”.

Note it is considered a bad practice to identify the requestor in the file name, because the file name will generally be used by people who do not need to know the identity of the requestor. (So I would not name the file above “Fencing RFP Records requested by Acme Co.“)

Within Each FOI File

Within each FOI file, it is helpful to have separate sub-folders for Correspondence, Search Results, Responsive Documents, and Disclosure:

Correspondence Folder

The “Correspondence” folder should be where all correspondence to and from the requestor is kept, as well as correspondence to and from other parties. Generally, I find it simplest to keep all correspondence related to a single FOI file in one folder arranged in chronological order, but if you wind up having a significant volume of correspondence for a single file, you may wish to further split the correspondence folder into separate sub-folders representing correspondence to and from the requestor, a separate folder for other external correspondence (such as with affected third parties), and a third folder for internal correspondence.

One useful tip if you are simply using a hard drive or file server to store these documents — I have found it helpful to include the date of the file at the start of the file name in YYYYMMDD format. For example, a request letter received on January 30, 2021 might be given the following file name:

20210130_original_request_letter.pdf

This allows me to quickly sort all of the correspondence chronologically by simply sorting the records by name. (Sorting by “date” doesn’t always work as cleanly, as files may be created, moved, copied or modified out-of-order of the actual date of the record contained within.)

On the other hand, if you are using a content management system (such as Sharepoint or iManage), it will generally keep track of each record’s date information (and other information) in a useful way on your behalf without you having to use a special file name format.

Search Folder

The “Search” folder is where documents retrieved during the search process are kept. These may have been originally retrieved by the FOI professional themselves, or by other internal staff that part or all of the search was assigned to. I find it useful to create sub-folders in this directory identifying the source of the records in each folder, e.g., “My Search”, “From Procurement”, “From Maria”, etc. (Obviously the names of these folders will vary from request to request.)

Responsive Folder

It is generally up to the FOI professional to review all of the records in the Search folder and select the records that are actually responsive to the request. As part of this process, duplicates and non-responsive records are removed.

Once documents have been added to the “Responsive” folder, it’s time to number them. For electronic documents, I generally find it helpful to prepend the document number to the start of each record’s file name as follows:

001_fencing issues.pdf
002_emails about fencing.pdf
003_pricing request.pdf

If you are using paper records, your responsive folder should contain a photocopy of each record (not the original), and the number assigned to each document can be written directly on the photocopy itself. A reasonable location to write the document number is the top-right corner of the first page of each document.

Disclosure Folder

Documents should only be placed here if they are going to be disclosed to the requestor, and only in the form in which they will be disclosed to the requestor. If a document has been fully exempted from disclosure, do not copy it into this folder. Likewise, if a document is being redacted, place only the redacted version in this folder.

Do not mark-up or remove any of the documents in your Responsive folder when adding documents to your “Disclosure” folder. The documents in your Responsive folder must remain intact for record-keeping purposes, as you may be required to provide a copy of the documents in your Responsive folder to the Information and Privacy Commissioner in an appeal.

Work-In-Progress Records

To make effective use of the file folder structures above, FOI professionals should also maintain file status reports (file inventories) and other “work-in-progress” records which help them to ensure:

  • they are aware of each file’s status and its current deadline
  • they know which records have been reviewed and which exemptions have been applied
  • they are able to quickly prepare their year-end statistical report

Examples of work-in-progress records which each institution should maintain include:

  • File Status Report (File Inventory)
    • Provides an inventory of every file, including, at a minimum, the file number, file name, whether the file is active or closed, and the current deadline of each file
    • It may also set out the date the file was received, whether a file is contentious, the current request wording for the file, and a summary of the current status or the most recent progress made on a file
  • Memo To File
    • A Memo To File is a note which explains and keeps a record of certain steps taken or decisions made on an FOI file, thoughts about the file, and/or potential next steps
    • Think of them as “notes to self” except they are intended to be seen by anyone who might be reviewing the FOI File
    • Traditionally, they are stored in the correspondence folder of the FOI File
    • For example, a Memo To File is a good way to set out notes from a conversation between an FOI Coordinator and a delegated decision maker
    • Consider creating a brief electronic Memo To File whenever a record is placed in the paper FOI file and no corresponding electronic version is filed (otherwise, the paper record could be missed by users of the electronic file)
  • Index Of Records
    • An Index Of Records should be created for each FOI file (perhaps other than for the simplest and most routine requests.)
    • Per the Information And Privacy Commissioner Of Ontario, “an index of records should include:
      • Document number and description of each record;
      • Indication for each record whether access granted or refused or whether part or parts of the record severed
      • For each record or part of a record refused, the provision of the Act under which access refused
      • For each record or part of a record refused, the reason the provision applies to the record”
  • File Opening And Closing Worksheet
    • Rather than review each file “from scratch” trying to piece together each file’s history months later, it is much more effective to use a “File Opening/Closing Worksheet” to track the required information while the file is active and fresh in the minds of the FOI professional responsible for it
    • By taking just a minute or two when opening a file, and then a few short minutes when closing a file, all of the information needed for the annual statistical report can be recorded in one easy-to-find place
    • By using a “File Opening/Closing Sheet”, the workload involved in preparing the annual statistical report to the IPCO is not only significantly reduced, it is also spread out throughout the year
    • A sample File Opening And Closing Worksheet is set out in my previous article, Year-End Statistical Reporting doesn’t have to be scary

The FOI Assist Software

These work-in-progress records may be created and maintained by the FOI professional manually; or alternatively, with the FOI AssistTM software, the File Status Report is maintained automatically for you, and the processes of creating and storing Memos To File, Indexes Of Records, and performing File Closing are considerably improved and simplified.

Below are preview screenshots of how the FOI Assist software handles various work-in-progress documents:

File Status Report

Quick Memo To File

(The “Quick Memo to File” tool is at the top-middle of the Work On File screen above.)

Index Of Records

File Closing

These screenshots are just small previews of the features provided by the FOI Assist software, which is scheduled for release in early 2021.

Conclusion

I hope this has been a helpful overview of how you can keep your FOI files organized and maintain appropriate records of your work-in-progress.

I look forward to presenting additional information about the FOI Assist software in an upcoming article.

In the meantime, if you are interested in finding out more about the FOI Assist software or scheduling a demo, please don’t hesitate to contact me. If you’re interested in learning more about me, please feel free to get in touch, check out the About page for the FOI Assist website or view my LinkedIn profile.

The FOI Assist software is due for release in early 2021. To see previews of the software in action, and to be notified when the FOI Assist software is available for your institution, please follow the FOI Assist website. Simply enter your email address at the bottom of the page then click the follow button.

Published by Justin Petrillo

I am creating FOI Assist™ software to help Ontario’s provincial and municipal government institutions of all sizes track and respond to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. For most of my career I have been a lawyer, advising clients on commercial, intellectual property and FOI/privacy issues. From 2013 to 2015, I managed the FOI program for the Toronto 2015 Pan/Parapan Am Games Organizing Committee while serving as Legal Counsel to the Games. Prior to becoming a lawyer, I obtained a computer science degree and worked as a software developer at several well-known technology companies.

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