2014-2015 Agency FOIA Success Stories

Department of Agriculture (USDA):  Closing its Ten Oldest Requests, Continuing to Work on Backlog Reduction, and Improving the Quality of Data Disclosed Online

  • USDA is pleased to report that it closed its ten oldest pending perfected requests from Fiscal Year 2013.

  • USDA is also pleased to report that a number of its components were able to achieve significant decreases in their backlog of FOIA requests.USDA's FOIA Service Center, which processes requests on behalf of ten Department Management Components, decreased its backlog by 69.69%.Similarly, the Natural Resources Conservation Service reduced it is backlog by 86%.Although slight, reductions were also reported by the Agricultural Marketing Service and Rural Development.At the conclusion of the fiscal year, the Farm Service Agency, Grain Inspection, Packers & Stockyards, Office of Budget & Program Analysis, and Research, Education and Economics had no backlogged FOIA requests.

  • As one of the government’s fourteen principal statistical agencies, USDA's Economic Research Service (ERS) provides high quality, objective statistics and data on the food, agricultural, and rural sector.  In Fiscal Year 2014, ERS conducted a comprehensive review of its current data products and dissemination methods in order to develop a forward-looking vision that provides high-quality, objective, timely, and useful statistics, indicators, and research data.  The Data Product Review Committee recently completed a pilot round of data reviews and the resulting policies and framework for data development resulted in greater consistency of procedures across the Agency.   Information about ERS data product quality (including data product quality standards and product quality reviews) can be found here: http://www.ers.usda.gov/about-ers/ers-data-product-quality.aspx

Department of Defense (DOD):  Ensuring that Quality FOIA Training is Available to All, Improving the Timely Processing of Requests, and Reducing Backlogs at the Defense Intelligence Agency

  • As quality training is essential to the success of any FOIA program, DOD has ensured that it has a far-reaching training program in place for its FOIA professionals, attorneys, subject matter experts, document owners and any DOD employee interested in FOIA training,in any section of the world these individuals may find themselves situated.From training conferences occurring at DOD or government owned and operated facilities, to Defense Connect Online live training, to recorded trainings, to chats, to extensive training programs in place at over 50% of its components, DoD has positioned itself to ensure that 100% of its workforce has the knowledge it needs to process FOIA requests, with the goal of getting quality responses into the hands of the requester community.

  • DOD's Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) continued its efforts to reduce the FOIA backlog by at least 10%, annually.This is the fourth straight year that DIA has experienced greater than 10% backlog reduction.

  • Despite the high volume of FOIA requests processed at DOD and the often complex issues that need to be addressed with these requests, DOD closed 93% of its FOIA requests within 100 days of receipt.

Department of Education:  Improving FOIA Resources Within the Agency, Highlighting the Importance of, and Improving, Proactive Disclosures, and Processing Simple Track Requests Within an Average of 13 Days

  • In July 2014, the Department of Education's (ED) FOIA Service Center (FSC) distributed the first edition of ED’s FOIA newsletter, “The FOIA Freedom Flyer.” The bi-annual newsletter is intended to keep the Department’s FOIA community informed regarding FOIA updates, FSC News, and FOIA Training, and to ensure the President’s FOIA Memorandum and the Attorney General’s FOIA Guidelines are fully implemented within the Department.

  • At the Department’s Annual FOIA Awards Ceremony, the FOIA Service Center recognized Federal Student Aid and the Office of Innovation and Improvement for their outstanding efforts in identifying records for proactive disclosure. ED’s goal is to raise awareness throughout the Department on the benefits of proactive disclosures and to encourage other program offices to increase their proactive disclosures.

  • During Fiscal Year 2014, the Department processed the requests in its simple track in an average of 13 days.

Department of Energy (DOE):  Reducing Backlogs, Improving Processing Times, Continuing to Embrace Open Data, and Posting More Information In More Useful Formats

  • Through diligent efforts to engage senior leadership, DOE reduced its backlog by over 22% in FY2014.
  • In an effort to improve processing times, DOE continues to test resources that transmit large volumes of classified documents electronically.
  • DOE's Office of Scientific and Technical Information (OSTI) has developed the Department of Energy Public Access Gateway for Energy and ScienceBeta (DOE PAGESBeta).  DOE PAGESBETA is the DOE portal that makes scholarly scientific publications resulting from DOE research funding publicly accessible and searchable at no charge to users.
  • Energy.gov/data continues to provide a central location for information about data released by the DOE.   In addition, the DOE posted a department-wide data index in .json format that provides metadata and URLS to all public datasets.  The data index is available at http://energy.gov/data/downloads/open-data-catalogue.   

Department of Health and Human Services (HHS):  Improving Proactive Disclosures through Postings on Hot Topics and Greater Collaboration

  • During 2014, the Department fielded many information requests regarding unaccompanied children entering the United States.  HHS's Administration for Children and Families' (ACF) FOIA Office worked with the agency's Office of Public Affairs, its program office, and the web team to ensure that information on this topic was posted and regularly updated.  ACF maintained a web page where it posted regular updates of information such as where children were released to sponsors, a breakdown by country of origin, copies of forms, a factsheet, and FAQs.  The content of this webpage was chosen based on the nature and number of inquiries received by the FOIA Office and the press office.  The result was a 75% drop in FOIA requests for the information posted. 
  • HHS also received many requests on the topic of Ebola and the first confirmation of an Ebola case in the United States.  After the first confirmed Ebola case was diagnosed in the United States in late September of 2014, there was a strong need to provide a substantial amount of information about the Ebola virus on the NIH.gov website (due to health concerns and overall heightened interest from the American public).  At the time, the National Institutes for Health (NIH) did not maintain a significant amount of content focused on Ebola-related research.  Additionally, it was evident that users were coming to the NIH website en masse, in search of public-health information about the disease. 

In order to provide the public with substantial, high-quality web content, NIH partnered with Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which was serving as the Federal Government’s main distributor of Ebola-related information.  Using Content Syndication technology, NIH launched a syndicated “microsite” from CDC on October 2, 2014 (http://www.nih.gov/health/ebola.htm).  This microsite housed dozens of web-pages that were contained within the NIH website framework (graphical user interface); however, all of the content was automatically pulled from CDC’s web servers.  This solution served NIH well for a number of reasons.  First, it allowed the Federal Government to keep a clear and consistent voice for the U.S. response to Ebola.  Additionally, NIH was able to instantly provide significant amounts of content directly on its own website.  Further, since the bulk of the content was pulled from CDC, content changes and updates happened automatically and seamlessly on the NIH website without requiring NIH staff resources.  Finally, the microsite afforded a level of customization, so that NIH could populate the top portion of the microsite with such NIH-specific information as the latest NIH-generated press releases.

Department of Homeland Security (DHS):   Engaging in Outreach to Stakeholders, Achieving Targeted Successes in Reducing CBP's Backlog and Addressing Backlogs at Other Components, Posting More Information Online, and Collaborating on FOIA within the Agency

  • The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) held a nationwide FOIA stakeholder outreach meeting by video teleconference and conference call in coordination with the Office of Government Information Services, which advertised the session on its website.  Participation in this event included FOIA requesters, open government special interest groups, and representatives from other government FOIA programs.  USCIS plans to hold a second nationwide outreach program in 2015.
  • Within DHS, the United States Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) biggest success story during FY 2014 was the closure of 51,056 FOIA requests.  CBP achieved these results while receiving 47,261 requests during FY 2014.  As a result, CBP reduced its backlog of requests from 41,907 at the end of FY 2013, to 38,112 at the end of FY 2014
  • The United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) fully implemented its COTS web application solution, increased its staff by seven full-time federal employees, and awarded a new multi-million dollar contract for backlog reduction.  ICE leadership identified its severe staffing shortage, and allocated funds and resources to correct it, establishing a plan to eliminate the entire backlog by the end of FY 2015.  In this effort, ICE trained over 50 full-time contractors.
  • The United States Secret Service posted over 240,000 pages of materials pertaining to the Aaron Swartz case, and 1,475 pages pertaining to Occupy Wall Street on its website on a rolling basis to increase transparency.  Similarly, FEMA posted over four million pages of spreadsheets consisting of Individual and Public Assistance claims paid for flood disasters from 1998 through 2011. 

Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD):  Improving Communications with Requesters, Reducing Backlogs, and Providing Good Customer Service

  • HUD took a number of steps to improve its communication with requesters, including reviewing and updating standard FOIA correspondence and revising templates to further incorporate plain language.
  • HUD also reduced its backlog of FOIA requests from 266 in Fiscal Year 2013 to 237 at the end of Fiscal Year 2014.  By way of one notable example, the Department worked with a disability advocate group on its request and transmitted voluminous fair housing records and findings electronically, thereby reducing FOIA processing times while furthering the goal of fair housing.

Department of the Interior (DOI):  Improving FOIA Administration through Additional Resources and Guidance

  • During Fiscal Year 2014, DOI issued two important new guidance documents for its bureaus to assist in improving its FOIA administration.
  • On July 15, 2014, DOI issued to is components a new, 63-page FOIA Handbook.The handbook supplements the requirements and guidance of the FOIA itself, the Department's FOIA regulations (which went into effect on January 30, 2013), and the Departmental Manual chapter on FOIA (which went into effect February 13, 2013).
  • On September 24, 2014, as a companion to the handbook, DOI issued a 56-page package of extensive, new sample language.Some of the sample language is in the form of complete letters and some is in the form of discrete provisions that can be combined, as appropriate, to create customized FOIA responses.DOI is especially pleased with this initiative as the sample language is adaptable and can quickly be expanded or edited as needed.
  • Although these documents will provide guidance to Departmental employees, DOI recognized that they may also be informative for FOIA requesters. They are, therefore, available (along with other internal DOI FOIA guidance) at: http://www.doi.gov/foia/news/guidance/index.cfm.

Department of Justice (DOJ):  Taking the Lead on Modernizing FOIA, Expanding FOIA Training with New Government-wide Resources, and Increasing Transparency by Posting More Information Online

  • DOJ continues to lead by example, both in its own administration of the FOIA and in its policy and oversight role for all agencies’ administration of the statute.  During this past year, the Department has led the efforts to further modernize FOIA through a number of commitments made in the United States' Second Open Government National Action Plan.  These initiatives include working on a consolidated online FOIA service, developing common FOIA regulations and practices for federal agencies, improving internal agency FOIA processes across the government by leveraging best practices, improving FOIA training by making standard e-learning resources available for all federal employees, and participating in a FOIA Federal Advisory Committee.
  • DOJ also continued to expand its robust FOIA training program in an effort to provide quality FOIA training and resources to all federal employees.  The Office of Information Policy's (OIP) FOIA instructors provided training on a range of topics to over a thousand federal employees across the government.  OIP also released a new suite of four electronically available FOIA training tools designed for all levels of the federal workforce from the senior executive whose support is key, to agency program personnel, to the FOIA professionals who process records.  This new collection of training tools helps ensure that all agencies have a ready set of targeted resources to make available to all their employees.
  • The Department proactively posted more information to its websites, and continued to post that information in ways that are most useful to the public.  The Department's FOIA.gov website continues to be a central resource for all FOIA data and resources. With Fiscal Year 2014 Annual FOIA Report data now on the website, users can compare agencies' FOIA administration from this past fiscal year across agencies and over time. The other resources on the site, such as videos about the FOIA and how it works, and FOIA contact information for all 100 agencies, continues to also serve as a valuable resources for the public.

Department of Labor (DOL):  Reducing Backlogs, Improving Customer Service, and Making Discretionary Releases

  • DOL is proud to have achieved an overall backlog reduction of 9%. This success is the result of the hard work of DOL's FOIA staff, management attention, consistent monitoring of FOIA related performance measures, and sustained effort toward backlog reduction throughout the Department's twenty-three FOIA components.
  • DOL's Mine Safety and Health Administration worked closely with both FOIA professionals and program offices to significantly improve understanding regarding the presumption of openness and the importance of making proactive disclosures.  As a result of these efforts enhanced guidance has been provided to employees.
  • DOL continues to exceed the goals set forth by the department in responding to 84% of complex requests within 20 days during FY 2014.

By way of one example of providing good customer service, DOL's Office of Labor-Management Standards (OLMS) received a FOIA request asking for information pertaining to a specific investigation.  After reviewing the responsive documents, the FOIA Coordinator determined that the specific investigation was related to multiple other investigations.  The FOIA Coordinator reached out to the requester and then processed the additional documents demonstrating OLMS's commitment to transparency. OLMS also made a discretionary release of an important memorandum from OLMS's Division of Interpretations & Standards, which was deliberative in nature.  OLMS made the decision to release the document so that the requester could better understand the agency's final decision, after carefully and appropriately performing the foreseeable harm analysis.

Department of State (State):  Successfully Tackling the Oldest and Most Complex Requests, Reducing the Backlog of FOIA Appeals, and Improving Agency FOIA Processes through Targeted Training and the Leveraging of Best Practices

  • State's team that focuses on closing its oldest and most complex pending requests once again reached the milestone of closing the ten oldest pending FOIA requests from last fiscal year.  The creation of this team has proved successful each year in reaching the goal of closing the ten oldest FOIA requests and consultations.  Their dedication to working on some of the most complex cases, involving large volumes of records and multiple agency equities is commendable and has allowed for the sharing of best practices in case management.  
  • State's FOIA Appeals Officer, with the help of a dedicated reviewer and the Appeals Review Panel, managed to once again exceed the 10% annual backlog reduction goal.  The Appeals Officer achieved this milestone by communicating with requesters to build rapport and to provide information about the Department's administrative process, by carefully analyzing the facts of each appeal in connection with the FOIA Program's search methods, by coordinating with offices all over the world, and by working within the FOIA office to have cases reviewed in a timely manner.  In addition, the Appeals Officer checked in frequently with bureaus and set deadlines which assisted in exceeding the Department's goal.
  • State’s group of dedicated FOIA professionals handle a very large case load. This fiscal year, to enhance case management skills, the Department's FOIA professionals attended a one-day cross-training program that focused on best practices for efficient case management and conducting adequate searches for records.  The instructors for this cross-training were some of the FOIA Program's most seasoned professionals.  In the afternoon, the FOIA professionals applied the practices discussed in the morning session to review pending cases with the goal of determining how best to move cases to completion.  The training was well-received and FOIA professionals expressed appreciation for having the opportunity to learn from the experts who have a wealth of practice experience in the Department.

Department of Transportation (DOT):  FHWA Achieves Significant Backlog Reduction and DOT Continues to Improve its Proactive Disclosures

  • DOT's Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) achieved significant backlog reduction of both initial requests and appeals during FY 2014. During the reporting period, the FHWA FOIA Office restructured its processes and procedures.  The FOIA Office also reallocated duties of members of the FOIA team for greatest efficiency.  Finally, the FHWA FOIA Office clarified the procedures for coordinating responses to initial FOIA requests when more than one FHWA office needs to search for responsive records.  These initiatives, along with the leadership and hard work of the FOIA Office, and the continued hard work of the program and field offices, have allowed FHWA to achieve success in backlog reduction. 
  • DOT continues to post a wealth of information and data proactively on its websites.  Recognizing the benefits of a collaborative approach to proactive disclosures, DOT’s Chief Data Officer and Departmental FOIA Officer formed a cross-modal, cross-functional group to help inform new proactive disclosure guidance for DOT components.  During this process DOT sought input from a wide spectrum of personnel in the agency. Participants included experts in the areas of Public Affairs, Open Government, FOIA, Records, Web, Communications, and Data.  DOT's goal is to be more systematic in the area of proactive disclosures, and it believes this cross-office collaboration is key.  DOT looks forward to discussing its successes in this area in next year’s Chief FOIA Officer Report.

Department of the Treasury:  Finding Efficiencies, Utilizing Greater Technology for FOIA Processing, Proactively Posting More Information, and Improving Websites

  • Treasury's Departmental Offices (DO) launched its FOIA Transformation initiative, which is designed to improve the quality and efficiency of FOIA processing and customer service within DO.  During the reporting period, certain DO FOIA processing functions were consolidated within the Office of Privacy, Transparency, and Records (OPTR).  OPTR FOIA staff took part in FOIA, customer service, and project management training in support of this new role.  These efforts have resulted in several new efficiencies.  Since Fiscal Year 2014, OPTR has completed the consolidation of FOIA processing for its nine Domestic Finance offices, the Office of Public Affairs, Legislative Affairs, and Management Offices.  Additional offices will be consolidated during Fiscal Year 2015.
  • The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) tested and implemented new de-duplication features in its FOIA case tracking system/document management system.  This de-duplication feature has greatly improved processing efficiency.  In one case alone the de-duplication feature identified and removed more than 90,000 pages of documents.
  • OCC improved its internal FOIA procedures by issuing an update to its Policies and Procedures Manual (PPM).  The PPM clearly defines each employee's role in the FOIA process and instructs them to work quickly and cooperatively with OCC FOIA professionals to complete searches for records. 
  • The Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration completed a complete redesign of its public-facing webpage and made significant enhancements to its FOIA webpage.  The updates have helped requesters and researchers quickly locate publicly available documents on their website and in their FOIA Library and have reduced the number of FOIA requests for such information.
  • The Alcohol, Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) proactively made a significant amount of records publicly available online.  To date, TTB has made more than 2,500 pages of current and historical information available on its website.  Most recently, TTB began posting a list of pending American Viticulture Area (AVA) petitions.  Although copies of the petitions are not included on the list, the list does provide a way for the public to know what AVA petitions have been accepted by TTB before the proposed rule is published.  Prior to the list being posted, the public had no way of knowing what pending AVAs were being processed.  Additionally, TTB also published its second machine-readable dataset - Processing Times for Alcohol Beverage Formulation Applications.

Department of Veterans Affairs (VA):  Improving FOIA Training and Awareness and Maintaining Good Processing Times for Simple Track Requests

  • The Veterans Health Administration (VHA) developed its own online FOIA training sessions available to staff on demand.
  • During the course of Fiscal Year 2014, VHA's FOIA Office provided a total of fifteen training programs for FOIA Officers.  Seven of the trainings offered were in the form of a nation-wide conference call with VHA FOIA Officers in which various training topics were presented and discussed.
  • VA's FOIA Service provides formal training on the FOIA as part of the new employee orientation program, which has a session every two weeks.The purpose of the training is to provide a brief overview of the FOIA with an emphasis on the new employee's role as custodian of certain records.

  • During Fiscal Year 2014, the VA processed its simple track FOIA request within an average of 15.03 days.  The VA also closed its ten oldest requests from last fiscal year.
  • In the late spring of 2014, VA was engulfed in a nationwide controversy concerning wait times for Veterans at VA Medical Centers.  VA's Office of General Counsel developed a spreadsheet on DVD disk covering all claims (over 18,000) filed.  The disk was set up so the requester could target and print out selected information by type of claim, location, or time period he desired.

 

Updated March 23, 2015

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