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2012-2013 Agency FOIA Success Stories

Key Agency Highlights

Seal of Department of Agriculture

Department of Agriculture (USDA): Reducing Response Times, Processing More Requests, Providing Searchable Data, and Creating Separate Webpages for Hot Topics

  • Participation in a Lean Six Sigma process by the FOIA program at the Food Nutrition and Consumer Services resulted in that office reducing its average processing time for FOIA requests from twenty-one days to sixteen days.

  • The Office of the Secretary/Office of the Chief Information Officer (OSEC/OCIO) prepared and executed a strategy to reduce its backlog and close its ten oldest pending requests and appeals.  As a result, despite receiving 24% more requests in Fiscal Year 2012, the OSEC/OCIO processed over 50% more requests than the prior year and closed eight of its ten oldest pending requests, as well as all but one of its pending appeals.

  • The National Agricultural Library launched the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) Digital Commons, an online resource which offers the public access to a broad inventory of peer-reviewed, standard formatted United States Life Cycle Assessment data on the potential impacts of a given agricultural product, process, or activity throughout its entire life span.  By offering the public access to the best quality and most accurate data representative of United States agricultural production practices, the LCA Digital Commons allows consumers and businesses to make informed decisions about changing processes or the materials that go into them to reduce the burden on the environment.

  • In response to experiencing one of the most severe and extensive droughts in the past twenty-five years the Economic Research Service created a "U.S. Drought 2012:  Farm and Food Impacts" webpage which is continuously updated with information on the impacts of the ongoing drought on food prices, consumers, farms, and the crop and livestock sectors.

  • In an effort to ensure quick and easy access to all of its data online, the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) enhanced its Quick Stats 2.0 data query tool and introduced a new Quick Stats Lite tool which offers a more guided approach to accessing NASS's most common data requests.


Seal of Department of Commerce

Department of Commerce: Improving Timeliness, Implementing a New FOIA Tracking and Management System, and Cataloging High-Value Data for Researchers

  • The Department of Commerce improved its average processing time for simple track requests from thirty-four days in Fiscal Year 2011 to eighteen days in Fiscal Year 2012.   For Fiscal Year 2012, this meant that the Department's FOIA professionals were able to promptly respond to over 60% of all requests processed within an average of less than twenty working days.

  • The Department of Commerce implemented the FOIAonline system to track and manage its FOIA requests.

  • Recognizing the public interest in records concerning the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) engaged in a cooperative effort with the NOAA Library to make responsive records concerning this subject available through the NOAA Library's online catalog.  In addition to providing easy access to these records, by using Library of Congress Subject Headings, NOAA's online catalog allows interested parties to see what other useful information may be available through multiple international cataloging services.

Seal of Department of Defense

Department of Defense (DoD): Continuing to Achieve Backlog Reduction, Focusing on FOIA Customer Service, Improving Response Times, and Posting New Material Online

  • As a result of the efforts by the FOIA offices at the Department of the Army (37%), Defense Commissary Agency (100%), Defense Contract Management Agency (22%), Defense Intelligence Agency (29%), U.S. European Command (37%), Department of the Navy (28%), National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (45%), and National Reconnaissance Office (25%) to reduce their FOIA backlogs, DOD overall achieved a backlog reduction of 12%.  This continues a five year trend of backlog reduction at DOD.

  • DOD trained over 600 FOIA professionals by continuing to utilize in-house experts to host low cost training workshops in San Diego, California, Knoxville, Tennessee, and Padova, Italy.  DOD also provided online training for a significant number of its FOIA professionals and implemented a course to promote conflict resolution and customer service throughout the agency.

  • Through several targeted efforts, the National Security Agency (NSA), Office of the Secretary of Defense/Joint Staff (OSD/JS), and TRICARE Management Activity (TMA) increased their focus on customer service and good communication with FOIA requesters.  NSA established call centers to meet the specific needs of FOIA requesters, OSD/JS provided its FOIA professionals training on customer communication, and TMA established customer feedback opportunities.

  • OSD/JS significantly reduced the time needed to search for records by uploading both PDF and open source XML versions of documents to its OSD Executive Archive system, which consolidates the agency's highest levels of organizational accomplishments and policies from the 1950's to the present.  Through the use of sophisticated software, OSD/JS is able to locate responsive records in the Executive Archive system almost instantly.

  • The U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) established a Prominent Case Release Working Group to mobilize as a quick response team for prominent cases or investigations.  The efforts of this new Working Group resulted in CENTCOM significantly improving its response time for complex requests, with 62% of these requests being closed in 100 days or less in Fiscal Year 2012 as opposed to 14% in Fiscal Year 2011.

  • Ninety-seven percent of DOD components were heavily engaged in posting new material on their websites over the last year.


Seal of Department of Education

Department of Education:  Teaming up to Reduce Backlog and Tracking Progress on Key Milestones

  • In order to reduce its FOIA backlog, the Department of Education created a new unit called the "Red Team" which was charged with closing all open FOIA cases dated between Fiscal Years 2009 and 2010 by September 30, 2012.  The new Red Team worked closely with Department of Education Program Offices to target eighty-nine open cases, seventy of which were closed by the September deadline.

  • In addition to closing the Department's older requests, the Red Team also developed scorecards to help Program Offices track their progress on key milestones.  Senior leadership and Program Office staff used these scorecards in weekly meetings to help illustrate areas where progress is being made and to identify any issues relating to closing cases.


Seal of Department of Energy

Department of Energy (DOE):  Processing More FOIA Requests, Posting Records Online, and Closing Old Requests

  • Continuing a five year trend of increasing its processing efforts, DOE processed 2,258 requests during Fiscal Year 2012.

  • DOE regularly updated its FOIA portal, providing the public a full online resource for previously released documents which are fully text and keyword searchable.

  • Engaging its most senior leadership and working with other agencies to address its oldest FOIA requests, DOE was able to close it oldest pending request from Fiscal Year 2011, which dated back to 2003.


Seal of Department of Health and Human Services

Department of Health and Human Services (HHS):  Continuing to Process More Requests and Reduce Backlogs, Soliciting Feedback from Requesters, and Improving Access to Significant Releases

  • For the fifth year in a row, HHS processed more FOIA requests than it received and reduced its overall backlog of pending requests.

  • HHS overall reduced its backlog of pending requests by 12%.  While the Indian Health Service’s (IHS) FOIA program represents a relatively small number of FOIA requests within HHS, its success this year is indicative of the efforts of many HHS FOIA and program staff.  During Fiscal Year 2012, IHS reduced its backlog of FOIA requests by 83%.  This was accomplished by working directly with program offices, providing training to program staff who conduct FOIA searches, engaging in monthly conference calls with Area FOIA Coordinators, and conducting regular consultations with other operating divisions.

  • The Office of the Inspector General conducted biweekly reviews of all pending requests and periodically surveyed frequent requesters in order to solicit feedback on how to improve its administration of the FOIA.

  • The FDA implemented an online FOIA request form and continued to improve the public's access to information by creating webpages for specific issues that are of heightened consumer or media interest such as the multistate fungal meningitis outbreak, the Nut Butter recall, and egg farm inspections.


Seal of Department of Homeland Security

Department of Homeland Security (DHS):  Employing New Technology to Streamline FOIA Processing, Working across Agency Lines, and Significantly Reducing Backlog

  • Utilizing new electronic tracking and redaction software, the Privacy Office and several other FOIA offices were able to streamline the processing of FOIA and Privacy Act requests and appeals, increase productivity, enhance the accuracy of reporting statistics, and standardize the administration of the FOIA across the DHS.

  • As a founding member of the Office of Inspector General (OIG) Working Group, officials from DHS's OIG engaged in quarterly meetings to discuss common FOIA issues and best practices with FOIA professionals from other OIGs across the government.

  • In order to address a backlog that had reached 35,125 requests by March 2012, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) took multiple approaches to identify efficiencies in their FOIA process, including chartering a Six Sigma study and taking advantage of a process improvement review conducted by the National Records Center Program Management Office.  Additionally, USCIS increased the number of multi-skilled personnel and supervisors within its FOIA office, added a new career position titled Public Information Specialist, obtained additional funding for overtime work, and established a monthly awards program to recognize top FOIA performers.  Through the dedicated work of its FOIA staff, USCIS was able to reduce its backlog from 35,126 in March 2012 to 1,262 in February 2013, a 96% reduction in twelve months.

  • In an effort to streamline document searches and reduce FOIA response times, DHS's Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) took measures to ensure that program managers upload relevant project and program documentation to internal collaborative sites.  Since S&T's FOIA Office has been using this resource, the estimated time to locate and receive records from program offices has decreased by 3-5 working days and S&T has improved its ability to respond to many of its requests within twenty working days.


Seal of Department of Housing and Urban Development

Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD):  Establishing a FOIA Committee, Upgrading Technology, and Tackling Complex Requests

  • HUD established a committee to assess FOIA administration in its field offices and to recommend greater efficiencies that can be achieved through improved FOIA guidance and streamlined standard operating procedures.

  • HUD upgraded its FOIA tracking and management system, which has provided for greater productivity and efficiency.  HUD also improved its search capabilities, posted updated standard operating procedures online, and its Philadelphia Regional Office solicits feedback from the public through customer service surveys.

  • In response to a complex request which required an expedited response, HUD's New York Office and its Offices of General Counsel and Field Policy and Management coordinated an on-site inspection of the requested records.  This joint effort resulted in the rapid processing and closure of the request, to the benefit of both the Department and the requester.


Seal of Department of the Interior

Department of the Interior (DOI):  Revising FOIA Regulations, Tracking Key FOIA Metrics for Greater Accountability, and Developing a New Database for Geologic Maps

  • DOI revised and issued new FOIA regulations that update procedures for making requests, include new cost figures for calculating fees, and incorporate improvements to the Department's overall FOIA process such as the use of a more nuanced multi-track processing system.  The new regulations issued on January 30, 2013 were drafted with a focus on plain language principles.

  • At the direction of DOI's FOIA Policy Staff, each quarter all Department Bureaus began reporting on key performance areas such as steps taken to improve their FOIA program, instances of meaningful proactive and discretionary disclosures, and improvements to DOI’s online presence.

  • The U.S Geological Survey's (USGS) new National Geologic Map Database improves the integration of publication citations, stratigraphic nomenclature, downloadable content, and unpublished source information, thereby greatly enhancing public access to the Nation’s geologic knowledge.  The new database includes a significant feature that uses the latest technology to seamlessly portray geologic maps published by the USGS, state geological surveys, and many others.


Seal of Department of Justice

Department of Justice (DOJ):  Leading by Example through Increased FOIA Processing, High Release Rates and Improved Response Times, Promoting FOIA Transparency through New Quarterly Reporting, and Making Proactive Disclosures

  • For the fourth straight year, DOJ increased its FOIA processing despite receiving more than 61,000 requests in each of those years, and receiving nearly 70,000 in Fiscal Year 2012 alone. In processing these requests, DOJ released records in full or in part in response to over 94% of requests processed for disclosure, and for over 70% of these requests, records were released in full with no exemption applied.

  • Answering the Attorney General’s call to “respond to requests promptly,” DOJ improved its average processing time for both simple and complex FOIA requests.  For simple requests in particular, the Department reduced its average processing time to 18.93 days, a significant decrease from the 24.94 reported in the prior fiscal year.  With 75% of all requests processed by the Department falling within the simple track, this means that DOJ FOIA professionals were able to promptly respond to over 51,000 requests within an average of less than twenty working days.

  • Striving to bring greater transparency and increased accountability to the FOIA process, DOJ instituted a new quarterly FOIA reporting requirement for all agencies, allowing for a more real-time assessment of the administration of the FOIA throughout the year.  Beginning with the first quarter of Fiscal Year 2013, agencies’ quarterly FOIA metrics are displayed on FOIA.gov, allowing both agency personnel and the public to easily access this new information alongside agency Annual FOIA Report data.

  • DOJ continues to proactively make more information available online, allowing easy access to records that are of public interest without the need for a FOIA request.  For example, The Vault, established as the FBI’s primary source for posting records, received an average of over 160,000 weekly page views in 2012, and has been recognized as one of the outstanding free reference websites by the American Library Association.  In 2012, The Vault provided access to records on nearly 500 different subjects.


Seal of Department of Labor

Department of Labor (DOL):  Processing More Requests for the Fourth Straight Year, Reducing Backlogs, Making Discretionary Releases, and Taking a Customer Service Centered Approach to FOIA

  • Receiving an increasing number of FOIA requests for the fourth straight year, DOL responded by continuing to process more requests than it received, which resulted in a nearly 50% reduction in backlog.

  • Embracing the Attorney General’s call for agencies to make discretionary releases of information, during 2012 DOL released material in over 840 cases where records could have been protected either in full or in part pursuant to Exemption 5 of the FOIA.

  • In response to a request for ten years of the Department’s No Fear Act Annual Reports to Congress, DOL’s Office of the Assistant Secretary for Administration and Management engaged the requesting organization and worked collaboratively with it to refine the specific information sought and to focus the scope of the request.  This customer service focused approach, which was well received by the requester, allowed the Office to issue a timely response to the request.


Seal of Department of State

Department of State:  Greater FOIA Training, Enhancing FOIA Website, and Upgrading Technology to Improve FOIA Tracking and Processing

  • The Department of State engaged in a robust training initiative aimed at improving FOIA customer service and ensuring that there is an effective system in place for responding to requests.  Since September 2012, FOIA professionals at the Department of State received monthly training sessions on various topics such as procedural issues, the use of FOIA exemptions, and better communication with requesters.  Quarterly training on the recent developments in FOIA is also provided for the FOIA contacts at the Department's different bureaus.  Additionally, the Department of State created a new internal website for agency personnel to access useful training material and FOIA resources at any time.  These resources were also distributed to agency personnel through a new FOIA newsletter and by e-mail.

  • Embracing the Attorney General's call for agencies to post information online, the Department of State provided more information about its services and activities on its FOIA website. The Department is also improving the search capabilities of its FOIA website and is creating targeted content to help the public understand the types of records the Department of State maintains.

  • After years of planning, developing and working with its FOIA community, the Department of State launched the much anticipated upgrade to its FOIA case processing and tracking system, which provides many enhancements including better data quality, automated customized reports and letters, correspondence scanning and tracking, the generating of annual report statistics, and improved case management functions.


Seal of Department of Transportation

Department of Transportation (DOT):  Unveiling a Re-Energized Website and Using Digital Tools to Provide FOIA Training

  • The Department of Transportation redesigned DOT.gov with the goal of making it easier for the public to locate information that is already available online.  The new, re-energized website, as well as the recently launched mobile device version, were designed using public feedback and usability testing, allowing DOT to build a site around the needs of its visitors.  For example, the site organizes information around topical categories, instead of Department offices, making retrieval of information much more intuitive.

  • Utilizing digital tools and embracing the Attorney General’s call that "effective FOIA administration belongs to all of us,” the Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration developed a mandatory online training session on FOIA, which was completed by all of its employees.  The Federal Aviation Administration is similarly developing an online training module that will reinforce basic FOIA principles and the presumption of openness.


Seal of Department of the Treasury

Department of the Treasury:  Using New Technology to Create a Collaborative FOIA Workflow, Providing Tax Information through New Media, and Consistently Reducing Backlog

  • The Departmental Office of the Department of the Treasury implemented the use of a new document management tool which, in addition to tracking FOIA requests, provides a work flow environment for document processing and collaboration.

  • The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) continued its agency-wide FOIA and OPEN awareness campaign by developing, publishing and marketing a web-based video presentation that emphasizes each employee's responsibilities under the FOIA.

  • Launched in February 2012, version 2 of the IRS2go mobile application has been an important resource for the public.  With nearly 500,000 downloads, this Smartphone application allows taxpayers to view the IRS's YouTube videos on their English, American Sign Language, and Multilingual Channels.

  • Since 2008, the Department of the Treasury continues to reduce its backlog of pending FOIA requests by over 10% every year, dropping to below 300 backlogged requests at the end of Fiscal Year 2012.


Seal of Department of Veterans Affairs

Department of Veterans Affairs (VA):  Implementing Rapid Response Procedures to Reduce Backlog, Improving FOIA Website, and Providing Information Promptly through Interim Responses

  • Realizing that certain complex requests were contributing to the majority of the Office of Information Technology's (OIT) backlog, a formal process and subject matter expert point of contact were established for these requests to facilitate more rapid responses.  These new procedures resulted in OIT successfully reducing its request backlog, which also contributed to the VA's overall backlog reduction of 22.5%.

  • The VA is in the process of redesigning its FOIA website so that users can navigate through it more intuitively.  The new site will include quarterly posting of FOIA logs and the VA's recently updated FOIA Requester Guide.

  • In an effort to promptly provide information to requesters, between March 1, 2012 and March 1, 2013, the VA provided substantive interim responses to over 2,800 complex or voluminous requests.