Successes in FOIA Administration: Part IV – Greater Utilization of Technology

May 29, 2014

Over the last five years, agency Chief Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Officer Reports have provided detailed descriptions of agency efforts to improve FOIA administration in five key areas addressed by Attorney General Holder’s FOIA GuidelinesAs part of a series which started during Sunshine Week 2014, OIP continues to highlight some of the successes in these five key areas as reported by agencies in their 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports

Steps Taken to Greater Utilize Technology

A key component of the President’s FOIA Memorandum is the call for agencies to “use modern technology to inform citizens about what is known and done by their Government.”  In response to this directive, agencies have utilized advanced technology to not only make more information available online and improve their websites, but also to assist in their overall administration of the FOIA.  Each year, OIP asks agencies to describe in their Chief FOIA Officer Reports the steps they have taken to greater utilize technology in their FOIA administration. 

As a part of the first Chief FOIA Officer Reports, submitted in 2010, agencies were surveyed to determine the extent to which they were using technology to receive, track, and process requests, and to prepare their Annual FOIA Reports.  As has been done for each section of the Chief FOIA Officer Report, every year OIP has refined the questions for this section as the use of technology in FOIA has matured.  For 2014, agencies were asked to report on whether they provide requesters the ability to track the status of their requests online, and if so, to provide details regarding the functionality of such online services.   Agencies were also asked to report on the extent to which they are using more advanced technologies to assist with the processing of requests.  Finally, agencies were asked whether there were any additional tools that would be helpful to achieving further efficiencies at their agency.

Over a quarter of the agencies reported offering requesters the ability to track the status of requests online, with decentralized agencies like the Departments of Housing and Urban Development, Labor, and Interior offering such services for all of their components.  The form and functionality of the online tracking provided by these agencies varies.  For example, a number of agencies reported providing tracking through online portals, while some other agencies explained that they regularly post updated request logs with status information on their websites.  In addition to providing online tracking, some agencies reported that they provide requesters estimated dates of completion through these services.  Of the agencies that do not currently provide online tracking, about half reported that they were taking steps to establish this capability.  For those agencies that do not plan to establish online tracking at this time, many reported that such services would not provide a substantial public benefit given the small number of requests they receive and their short processing times.

The use of technology to reduce the time and labor needed to process requests, such as technology that can sort and de-duplicate documents, provide shared platforms to facilitate consultations, or improve search capabilities, has great potential for improving agencies' FOIA administration.  For 2014, many agencies once again reported that they are taking steps to utilize more advanced technology to assist with the processing of requests.  For example:

  • The Privacy Office and fifteen of the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) components deployed a new web-based tracking application that includes a number of features for the agency’s FOIA professionals including new search capabilities and the ability to share documents across offices for consultations and referrals.  Additionally, DHS added a new de-duplication capability that allows FOIA staff to upload e-mail correspondence files and de-duplicate the correspondence based on a comparison process performed by the application.
  • The Department of State is updating its records archive, the State Archiving System, with new tools to assist its FOIA staff in conducting searches in response to FOIA requests.  The agency plans further improvements to this custom-built system, including the ability to search across document formats, streamlining the process of identifying duplicate messages, and adding a 25-year review enhancement for classified material.
  • The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is in the process of implementing an advanced document review module which utilizes logarithmic record analysis capabilities to de-duplicate voluminous record sets, which will reduce the processing time for large volume requests. 

A number of agencies reported that they could benefit from the types of tools described above that provide shared platforms for consultations and that would assist with the search, de-duplication, and review of large volumes of records.  As agencies continue to acquire such tools for use in their FOIA operations, they can expect to see greater efficiencies in their overall FOIA administration.  As the Chief FOIA Officer Reports continue to illustrate, agencies are eager to use more advanced technology to streamline their FOIA administration. This is just a brief summary of agencies' use of technology in FOIA as reported in their 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports.  OIP encourages both agencies and the public to review the individual 2014 Chief FOIA Officer Reports issued by agencies for even more examples. Be sure to continue reading FOIA Post for more information on the Department's continuing efforts to improve both transparency and understanding of the FOIA.

You can read previous posts in this series on FOIA Post (Part I, Part II, Part III).

Topic(s): 
Open Government
FOIA Post