2013-2014 Agency FOIA Success Stories
Department of Agriculture (USDA): Improving Response Times, Launching Online FOIA Training, and Making Online Information More Useful
- USDA made substantial strides in decreasing its overall average number of days to process both simple and complex requests. The overall average number of days to process simple requests in Fiscal Year 2013 was 15.52 days, which constitutes a 53.14% decrease from the previous fiscal year. The overall average number of days to process complex requests was 43.38 days, which marks a 43.22% decrease from the previous fiscal year.
- USDA launched its first FOIA module in its online training repository, AgLearn. The product is the result of collaboration between the FOIA Service Center, the Office of the General Counsel, and the FOIA Training Subcommittee. The FOIA module is intended for all USDA personnel as it addresses common concerns among USDA's FOIA community.
- The Agricultural Research Service (ARS) led the effort to easily identify USDA research and researchers through the USDA VIVO system. VIVO, a semantic, open source system, enables scientists to network and find each other’s research, grants, patents, publications and more, ultimately making USDA research more accessible to the public.
- In Fiscal Year 2013, ERS released several new tools designed to help consumers more easily access critical programs and simulate further innovation.
Department of Commerce: Saving Resources and Improving Efficiency by Going Paperless, Restructuring FOIA Operations, and Reducing the Age of Requests
- The Department's Census Bureau implemented a project to transition FOIA and Privacy Act cases from maintenance in both paper and electronic formats, which requires duplication of effort and unnecessary use of resources, to maintenance in only electronic format. Moving to electronic record-keeping has freed up storage space and resources for other tasks, reduced the costs related to printing case files, and increased the efficiency of case management. This project also enabled increased communication with requesters via email or the FOIAonline system rather than by standard mail. Reducing mail has saved time and money and increased customer responsiveness.
- The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) FOIA Office moved to the Department of Commerce's Office of the Chief Information Officer in November 2013. This change allows for better alignment with the Department's Open Government Program. The NOAA FOIA Officer will share information about the move, FOIAonline, and the FOIA with NOAA’s workgroup, which consists of Chief Information Officers and their staff from the different program offices. The move also provides management support for increased use of technology in processing FOIA requests.
- The National Telecommunication and Information Administration (NTIA) trained all personnel in its Office of the Chief Counsel to process FOIA requests in order to tackle large complex cases that were among its ten oldest pending requests. Through this focused effort, NTIA was able to close nine of its ten oldest requests by the end of Fiscal Year 2013.
- The United States Patent and Trademark Office updated its FOIA search and response process, streamlining the duties for records custodians into a clear four-step process.
Department of Defense (DOD): Utilizing Virtual and Online FOIA Training
- Recognizing that quality training is essential to success in any FOIA program, DOD increased its efforts to train its FOIA professionals via the virtual environment within Defense Connect Online (DCO). The advantages of DCO training were as follows:
- Ability to reach the DOD FOIA community in great numbers, saving thousands of dollars in travel and conference fees, and minimizing time away from duty stations;
- An online chat capability where participants can ask the briefer questions in real time;
- Allows participants to gain valuable information right at their desks; and
- Training sessions are recorded, giving DOD personnel the opportunity for quality FOIA training twenty-four hours a day, 365 days per year.
- DOD conducted a variety of training sessions via DCO. These sessions were open to questions throughout and included the following:
- FOIA 101, a 3-hour training session on the basics of FOIA processing, addressing almost all aspects of the FOIA, with the exception of exemptions;
- Exemption 4, a 1.5 hour training session;
- Exemption 5, a 1.5 hour training session;
- Exemptions 6 & 7(C), a 1.5 hour training session; and
- FOIA Chat sessions, where the topics were varied and often driven by participant questions.
Department of Education: Increasing Accountability and Efficiency
- Since submitting last year’s Chief FOIA Officer Report, the Department of Education made it a priority to continue to improve the efficiency of its FOIA program. To increase transparency, participation, and collaboration, the Department established an internal dashboard that is intended to quickly convey high-level information about its FOIA administration (amongst other data metrics used to score other Departmental programs) to its most senior officials responsible for overseeing these functions in their respective components. These officials are easily able to grasp the meaning of the data at a glance. By establishing this type of senior-level reporting, the Department is likely to achieve greater efficiency in FOIA processing, particularly with regard to improving timeliness.
Department of Energy (DOE): Addressing Backlogs, Exploring Technology to Improve Timeliness, and Embracing Open Data
- DOE has continued to address requests that have been pending for over a year by engaging senior leadership at DOE and other agencies, as necessary. As a result, DOE closed nine of the ten oldest backlogged requests and appeals from Fiscal Year 2012.
- DOE strives to improve processing times and in this effort is testing software that electronically redacts classified documents and resources that transmit large volumes of classified documents electronically. These efforts will improve processing times for cases involving certain types of classified records. DOE expects its success at addressing older and complicated requests to continue through these and other efforts.
- DOE’s mission focuses on using transformative science and technology solutions to ensure America’s security and prosperity. Data is a key ingredient to this mission, which is why DOE is excited about the Open Data movement. Providing open access to energy data can accelerate the pace of scientific discovery and empower entrepreneurs to build new products and services. DOE has several exciting ongoing initiatives to increase access to, and use of, its data.
- Energy.gov/data provides a central location for information about data released by the DOE. In addition, DOE posted a department-wide data index in .json format that provides metadata and URLs to all public datasets.
Department of Health and Human Services (HHS): Utilizing Technology, Improving Timeliness, and Reducing Backlogs
- The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) implemented the Strategic Work Information Folder Transfer (SWIFT) system in 2009 to monitor CMS FOIA requests. This system has hundreds of users and was deployed to every component in the agency, including the ten regional offices, and in 2013, the system was expanded and deployed to the Medicare Administrative Contractors (MACs).
- CMS now has a global system to log and track more than 50,000 FOIA requests received and processed annually. The global SWIFT system captures all the complex data necessary to produce the monthly and annual reports required by CMS and the Department of Justice, including all costs and invoiced fees involved in FOIA implementation. Additionally, this system has a feature to create and edit template letters so that regular correspondence, such as the acknowledgement letter, can be produced automatically and with greater efficiency.
- The updated SWIFT FOIA system supports all aspects of the FOIA program, including redaction, exemption tracking, letter generation, fee tracking, invoice generation, and appeals tracking. As a result, CMS has improved FOIA processing times and reduced the backlog of open requests from 10,312 in Fiscal Year 2009 to 1,426 in Fiscal Year 2013. The SWIFT FOIA technology facilitates an electronic workflow process that reduces human error for CMS, which administers approximately 80% of the FOIA requests received by HHS.
Department of Homeland Security (DHS): Tackling Backlogs, Promoting Transparency, and Finding Efficiencies
- The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) reduced its backlog by 68% in Fiscal Year 2013, to a total of 3,394 requests, achieving the lowest backlog in over five years. USCIS achieved this by adding additional resources, implementing process improvements identified by several outside reviews, authorizing additional overtime work, recognizing top performers through an awards program, and further expanding its telework program to take advantage of opportunities for increased productivity.
- The Transportation Security Administration's (TSA) FOIA Branch hosted its first Sunshine Week event, which included a brochure and handouts, guest speaker sessions, a FOIA Awareness Day in the Café, FOIA tip-of-the-day announcements in building lobbies, and an article featured on the Internal (I-Share) website about the FOIA Operations Manager titled “What I do Matters.”
- To promote efficiency, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) implemented a new procedure for handling misdirected FOIA requests for the content of an individual’s A-File. Instead of logging every request into ICE’s system and then referring the request to USCIS individually, ICE now reroutes those requests to USCIS daily in bulk and sends a postcard to the requester indicating the request has been rerouted. For requesters that continually send ICE misdirected A-File requests, ICE contacts them personally and informs them of the fastest way to get the records.
- DHS and the components using its new commercial off-the-shelf FOIA-processing web application experienced a significant cost savings compared to what they were spending for their own internal legacy software. The DHS Privacy Office and ICE reaped mutual benefits.
Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD): Improving Consistency Among Regional Offices and Providing Faster, More Efficient Processing
- In 2013 the HUD Headquarters FOIA Office established a goal of improving consistency in its FOIA processing between Headquarters and the regional offices. To accomplish this, the FOIA Headquarters staff developed a training workshop in conjunction with the Office of General Counsel, and presented it to all of the regional offices via webcast. The HUD Headquarters FOIA Office also increased the frequency of teleconferences with the regional liaisons. As a result of these actions, the Department achieved several improvements, including greater consistency in the types of documents disclosed and the way the exemptions are applied between Headquarters and regional offices.
- HUD improved its overall response time, answering simple requests within seventeen days in Fiscal Year 2013 compared to twenty days in Fiscal Year 2012. Further, HUD’s overall rate of appeals affirmation improved, going from 47% affirmed in Fiscal Year 2012 to 64% affirmed in Fiscal Year 2013. Despite having fewer employees (seven full-time employees in Fiscal Year 2012 compared to six in Fiscal Year 2013), HUD's FOIA Office made incremental improvements and gained efficiencies. The Headquarters office management expects to continue its enhanced collaboration with the regional offices in 2014 to build upon these improvements.
Department of the Interior (DOI): Reducing Backlogs, Increasing FOIA Training, Making Posted Information More Useful, and Developing New Technology to Improve Searches
- The Department reduced its backlog and closed its ten oldest requests.
- The Department created new quarterly training sessions involving the Department’s entire FOIA community, in which the Departmental FOIA Policy Staff and members of the Office of the Solicitor answer FOIA-related questions that are raised by the participants. At these sessions, the participants share best practices to enable the Department as a whole to benefit from FOIA practices found by Department employees to improve FOIA-processing efforts.
- The Department increased transparency by making posted information more useful to the public, expanding social media outreach on various platforms, and making important updates to Departmental and bureau websites (including proactive disclosures).
- The Department collaborated with the Document Management Unit and IT staff to brainstorm, test, create, document, distribute, and conduct training for a new processing application that will supplement existing methods for extracting e-mail data.
Department of Justice (DOJ): Taking the Lead on Modernizing FOIA, Maintaining a High Release Rate and Quick Processing Times, Closing the Oldest Pending Requests, Appeals, and Consultations, Developing New e-Learning FOIA Training, and Utilizing Advanced Technology to Improve FOIA
- During this past year the Department was heavily engaged in working with the Administration on efforts to modernize FOIA through the five specific commitments made in the Second Open Government National Action Plan for the United States. The Office of Information Policy (OIP) is taking the lead on four of these five commitments, which include: (1) improving the customer experience through a consolidated online FOIA service, (2) developing common FOIA regulations and practices for federal agencies, (3) improving internal agency FOIA processes, and (4) improving FOIA training by making standard e-learning resources available for all federal employees. The Department is also participating in the fifth commitment, a newly formed FOIA Modernization Advisory Committee.
- During Fiscal Year 2013, the Department continued to process requests at a high rate (over 68,000) while also increasing the number of full releases made and maintaining a release rate of over 93%. The Department also closed its ten oldest requests, appeals, and consultations from the prior fiscal year, and responded to 85% of the requests it processed within an average of under twenty-two days.
- The Department also continued to expand on its robust training program in an effort to provide quality FOIA training to FOIA professionals both within the Department and across all agencies. OIP trained thousands of FOIA professionals this past year on a wide range of issues.
- OIP continues to lead the effort to explore the use of advanced technologies that assist with the core functions of document processing.
Department of Labor (DOL): Increasing Proactive Disclosures and Reducing Backlogs
- The Mining Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) posted nearly 37,000 pages of documents related to the Crandall Canyon mine accident to its public facing webpage. Documents posted include the Fatal Accident Report and the Independent Review interview transcripts. Posting this information online substantially reduced the number of FOIA requests that MSHA anticipated regarding this high profile mine investigation. Statistics show that the agency received approximately 99,427 web page hits and over 1,690 file downloads.
- The Grants Transparency Initiative by the Employment and Training Administration (ETA) mandated disclosure of all abstracts and funded technical proposals (the most common type of FOIA request received within the component). FOIA personnel worked closely with a support contractor to ensure that all proprietary information within the technical proposals was protected or properly waived. Overall, this transparency initiative reduced incoming requests received by ETA from 114 to 77, from Fiscal Year 2013 to Fiscal Year 2014. Excluding improper FOIA requests, the decrease of actionable FOIA requests is actually down to 45 from 86, a reduction of nearly 50%.
- At the Department level, DOL was able to achieve a 19% reduction in its backlog of pending FOIA requests. This is attributed to the continued oversight of the Department's FOIA operations by departmental FOIA management, including the consistent monitoring of FOIA-related performance measures, and through the hard work of DOL’s FOIA staff. Overall, DOL engaged in a sustained effort to achieve backlog reduction throughout the Department’s twenty-three FOIA components.
Department of State (State): Launching a New FOIA Website, Improving Proactive Disclosures, Significantly Reducing Backlogs, Engaging with the Requester Community, and Providing FOIA Training Opportunities
- State's greatest achievement for the year was the launch of its new and improved FOIA website. The new FOIA website features more detailed guidance and information on how to obtain access to Department records. The website also features robust search functions and provides access to over 85,000 documents released in response to FOIA requests and as a result of other declassification projects. State’s new website has attracted significant positive attention from other agencies and the FOIA requester community. Since its launch in July 2013, the new and improved website has hosted an average of nearly 15,000 visitors each month, and interest continues to remain high.
- In Fiscal Year 2013 State also achieved a significant milestone in surpassing its backlog reduction goal. By creating a backlog reduction plan, which included cross-training of FOIA analysts and a collaborative “all hands on deck” team effort approach to closing outstanding requests, the Department reduced the backlog of pending FOIA requests by 16.8 percent and pending administrative appeals by 22.7 percent. The Department also closed its ten oldest requests, appeals, and consultations during the fiscal year.
- The Department reached out to the requester community to promote a dialogue for both parties to better understand each other’s needs and to improve the Department's customer service. FOIA professionals worked with the requester community to design the new FOIA public website. The Department also included requesters in a panel on best practices for communicating with requesters at its annual FOIA training program in October.
- The Department provided significant training opportunities for its FOIA professionals throughout the year. The FOIA office provided a monthly FOIA training series and a full day of FOIA training for all FOIA professionals at the Department, as well as written materials and training aides. Training is also provided on the Department's FOIA SharePoint site.
Department of Transportation (DOT): Developing Online FOIA Training and Increasing Proactive Disclosures
- The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) developed an online FOIA training module for FAA employees who process FOIA requests. During the reporting period, over 120 employees completed the training. The FAA also developed a specific subject area within the electronic learning environment to organize FOIA-related courses, which will make it easier for FAA employees who want or need to learn more about various aspects of the FOIA. The FAA also provided hands-on training to various groups throughout the FAA.
- The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has made multiple user-friendly proactive disclosures of information on its website. NHTSA posted many traffic safety focused reports, research notes, Crash*Stats, Traffic Safety Fact Sheets, and Traffic Techs, as well as comprehensive nationwide annual fatality data. Additionally, NHTSA posted a county-by-county breakdown of traffic safety facts and behavioral studies and reports organized by safety topics. NHTSA also frequently updated the breakdown of civil penalty settlement amounts, reports on the percentage of U.S./Canadian parts content for every passenger vehicle sold in the U.S., and a searchable repository of legal interpretation letters.
Department of the Treasury: Increasing FOIA Awareness and Providing Important Training
- The IRS continued its agency‐wide FOIA and OPEN awareness campaign by developing, publishing, and marketing a web‐based video presentation building on the joint Deputy Commissioner memo to all IRS employees. The video emphasizes each employee’s responsibilities with regard to FOIA, including providing timely responses to records requests and providing records directly to taxpayers upon request. The presentation is augmented with companion guides developed to support the major job classifications within IRS as they provide records directly to taxpayers.
Department of Veterans Affairs (VA): Improving Processing Times and Notifying the Public of New Information Posted Online
- The Office of the Secretary for the VA has reduced the number of days a request is backlogged from an average of 313 days to thirty-two days.
- Recognizing the importance of FOIA, the National Cemetery Administration re-organized its FOIA officer position from a collateral duty to a full-time position.
- The Office of Procurement Policy reduced its processing backlog from about sixty days to ten days since last year’s report. The productivity of that Office's FOIA Specialists increased significantly from an average of 200 pages reviewed per day by a FOIA Specialist to an average of 300 pages.
- The Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization uses an RSS feed to notify businesses and citizens of news and information related to Veteran and small business programs.