2015-2016 Agency Success Stories

Department of Agriculture (USDA): Reducing Backlogs and Deploying New Training Resources for FOIA Professionals

  • USDA decreased its overall backlog of requests by 12.6%. USDA's Rural Development (RD) mission area contributed significantly to this decrease with a 91% reduction.  
     
  • USDA also highlights other notable backlog reductions in the Department, including reductions at the Agricultural Marketing Service, Farm Service Agency, Food Safety and Inspection Service, and the FOIA Service Center. The Office for the Assistant Secretary of Civil Rights, Office of Budget & Program Analysis and the Research, Education and Economics mission area successfully closed the fiscal year with no backlogged requests.
     
  • Recognizing that the foundation of any successful FOIA program requires trained analysts, USDA has advanced a number of new training initiatives. The largest of these initiatives is the completion of the first six lessons in USDA's online module, FOIA for FOIA Professionals. While USDA anticipates publishing the online module in AgLearn soon, several of USDA's FOIA offices have already committed to making this a mandatory requirement for their FOIA professionals. Some of USDA's other training initiatives include the Department’s "Ask a FOIA Officer" column to address commonly asked FOIA procedural questions and a series of FOIA training workshops covering a range of topics across the Department.

Department of Commerce: Reducing Backlogs and Hosting Public Outreach Events on FOIA and Open Government

  • Facing a 17.6% increase in incoming requests, the Department of Commerce's FOIA workforce managed to reduce its overall backlog of requests by 5%. The largest contributors to the decrease were the Office of the Secretary and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), with 30% and 49% decreases, respectively.

NOAA engaged in a multifaceted effort to reduce its backlog, which included monthly "FOIA Legal Expert calls" and discussions with all FOIA Liaisons, regular interactions with FOIA leadership to encourage enhanced FOIA processing, and significant guidance on FOIA best practices. 

  • The Census Bureau hosted its annual Sunshine Week event in March which brought together individuals from the requester community and the federal government to hear ideas and share experiences about the FOIA, proactive disclosures, and other open government topics.  The event has been so successful that it was expanded for 2016 to include multiple days of keynote presentations open to the public, along with other workshops on the FOIA and open government.

Department of Defense (DOD): Embracing the Presumption of Openness through Improved FOIA Processes, Robust FOIA Trainings, and Increased Proactive Disclosures

  • During FY2015, DOD processed over 50,000 FOIA requests.  The Army and the Navy enhanced their case tracking systems facilitating the ability of requesters to monitor case progress at two of the components at DOD receiving the most requests per year.  The U.S. Africa Command, Central Command, Northern Command, Southern Command, and Defense Contract Management Agency made improvements to their records management systems, which help facilitate their FOIA searches.  Significantly, the Air Force achieved a 15% backlog reduction and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency achieved a 44% reduction in its backlog.
     
  • DOD continues its focus on training by ensuring the use and availability of online training modules, Defense Connect Online Chats, and low cost training workshops in areas with significant DOD personnel concentration. These training opportunities afford personnel around the globe opportunities to expand their FOIA knowledge. 
     
  • Several DOD Components participated in the DOJ proactive disclosure pilot.  These components are finding that they are better able to serve the public through providing information of greatest interest online. 

Department of Education (ED):  Improving Processing Times, Reducing Backlogs, and Updating its FOIA Website to Assist the Public in Finding More Information Online

  • ED reduced both its request and appeals backlogs.  ED reduced its request backlog by over 6%. Through the hard work and efforts of its FOIA Service Center, Office of the General Counsel, and various program offices, ED was also able to reduce its appeals backlog by 15%.
     
  • ED also improved its average processing time for simple track request to 11.27 days.
     
  • ED updated and enhanced its FOIA website to encourage interested parties to search ED’s website for information and data resources.

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

  • DOE continues to address its backlogs by engaging senior leadership, and as a result, has achieved a significant 17% reduction in FY2015. This is the third year in a row that DOE has been able to reduce its request backlog.  As a result of its continued success in achieving backlog reduction, DOE's FOIA Officer served as a panelist for DOJ's Best Practices Workshop on Reducing Backlogs and Improving Timeliness.
     
  • DOE continues to test resources that transmit large volumes of classified documents electronically, which in turn will lead to improved processing times for cases involving certain types of classified records.
     
  • Data is a key element of DOE's focus of using transformative science and technology solutions to ensure America's security and prosperity.  DOE strongly believes that opening up this data can accelerate the pace of scientific discovery and innovation.  Energy.gov/data continues to provide a central location for information about data released by DOE. Additionally, DOE has several exciting ongoing initiatives to increase access and use of its data in the years ahead.

Department of Health and Human Services (HHS): Improving Efficiencies and Processing Times through Intelligent Case Management and Proactively Posting Records of Significant Public Interest

  • HHS supports, and is advancing, department-wide implementation of an “intelligent case management” philosophy for FOIA administration.  As part of this philosophy, HHS's Office of the Secretary (OS) developed a quarterly report produced with data submitted by HHS Operating Divisions that provides a glimpse of the future performance of the HHS FOIA offices.  This report is perhaps the most important report generated on a routine basis by the HHS OS FOIA Office to ensure an efficient and effective FOIA administration. 
     
  • Having found great success at OS, beginning with data at the end of quarter 1 of FY2016, HHS senior leadership and the OS FOIA Office will work with HHS FOIA directors in the Operating Divisions to implement the tenets of active and “intelligent case management” to support Department-wide processing efforts to significantly improve future response times.
     
  • Through the Tracking Accountability in Government Grants System (TAGGS) website, the Administration for Children and Families is able to provide an instantaneous, full response to certain requests for grant information. The TAGGS website provides a wealth of information about HHS grants and is searchable by numerous criteria, including by fiscal year, state, program, and name of grantee.
     
  • In response to public interest, the FDA processed and posted online all records concerning a listeria outbreak related to ice cream.  By proactively posting the records, the public and the media were able to readily obtain information about the outbreak and the contaminated products involved.

Department of Homeland Security (DHS):  Achieving Remarkable Reductions in Backlog and Launching a New eFOIA Mobile Application to Improve the Requester Experience

  • DHS made remarkable achievements with its efforts to reduce backlogs.  Overall, DHS reduced its backlog of request by over 65% from 103,480 requests to 35,374.
     
  • Largely contributing to DHS's overall backlog success, the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) nearly eliminated its FY2014 backlog of 56,863 requests, reducing it to just 555 requests.  ICE attributes its success to the implementation of a multi-million dollar contract and the following efforts: (1) training over 40 contractors who in turn trained 45 more contractors, resulting in a workforce surge; (2) hiring 12 new full-time federal employees over the past two years; (3) detailing several employees from its program offices to FOIA; and (4) using individuals in the Operation Warfighter program and other volunteers to process requests.
     
  • Achieving similar noteworthy success, in the face of 52,990 incoming requests, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) closed 77,746 FOIA requests during FY2015.  As a result, CBP reduced its backlog of requests by 73% from 34,307 at the end of FY2014 to 9,280 at the end of FY2015.  CBP attributes its success to: (1) negotiated agreements with the Office of Field Operations and the Office of Border Patrol to assist with the searches of the TECS and ENFORCE databases, respectively; (2) the efforts of 12 individuals from headquarters offices detailed to FOIA for 90 days to review records and ensure searches were conducted properly; (3) the use of interns to triage requests, conduct searches, and assist with simple redactions; and (4) continuing the terms of the ongoing Service-Level Agreement with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
     
  • Partnering with its Office of the Chief Information Officer, the DHS Privacy Office created and released an eFOIA mobile application to simplify and enhance the submission process for FOIA requesters.  Key features of the application allow users to: (1) submit a FOIA request to any DHS component; (2) check the status of their request; (3) access all of the content on the DHS FOIA website and library; and (4) view updates, changes to events such as stakeholder meetings/conference calls, and recently published documents.

Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD): Updating its FOIA Regulations, Improving its FOIA Website, and Streamlining FOIA Processes

  • HUD updated its FOIA regulations to ensure openness and consistency.  The revised regulations also provide a foundation for training liaisons across the Department.  
     
  • HUD maintains a very popular FOIA webpage that is user friendly and contains a plethora of information, such as the highest scoring grants, which serves as a guide to future applicants applying for HUD funding.  The number of requests for this type of information has declined tremendously over the past 3-4 years as a result of these online resources.  Additionally, HUD posts FHA approved lenders to assist potential home buyers searching for qualified lenders.
     
  • HUD streamlined its internal FOIA search and processing workflows through collaborations between its FOIA professionals and program specialists.   

Department of Justice (DOJ): Processing More Requests While Reducing Processing Times, Leading by Example with New FOIA Guidance and Training Opportunities, and Issuing New FOIA Regulations that Embrace the President's and DOJ's FOIA Directives.  

  • DOJ met the high demand of increasing numbers of incoming requests in FY2015 by processing even more requests. The nearly 68,000 requests processed this past year by DOJ were not only more than were received, but were also an increase of over 7% from the number of requests processed in the prior fiscal year. Further, DOJ improved its processing times, closed its oldest requests, appeals and consultations, and maintained a high release rate of 94.8%.
     
  • DOJ also 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.  DOJ's Office of Information Policy (OIP) issued new guidance to agencies on the proactive disclosure provisions of the FOIA, which focuses on a variety of topics, including methods of disclosures, strategies for identifying "frequently requested records," and ensuring that posted information is useable. OIP also issued guidance on best practices observed in agencies' 2015 Chief FOIA Officer Reports and new standards for making "still interested" inquires. In addition to issuing guidance, OIP trained nearly 2,000 employees on a range of FOIA topics such as utilizing proper administrative procedures, understanding exemptions, achieving transparency through proactive disclosures, improving customer service, and ensuring an effective FOIA administration. To further support agencies' FOIA training needs, in March of 2015 OIP released a suite of electronic FOIA training resources designed for every type of agency personnel from new employees, to senior executives, to FOIA professionals, to all other employees who may be called upon to assist their agency in administering the law.
     
  • In April 2015, DOJ published new FOIA regulations, which streamline language and reflect a range of practices that embrace the President's FOIA Memorandum and the Department's 2009 FOIA Guidelines. The new regulations incorporate best practices that improve the FOIA process for both the Department and requesters. For example, the regulations focus on the roles of the Department's FOIA Contacts and FOIA Public Liaisons, and they emphasize good communication practices such as corresponding with requesters electronically as a default.

Department of Labor (DOL): Improving Agency Websites, Making More Proactive Disclosures, and Providing Multi-Day FOIA Training

  • DOL's Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) launched a new Class Member Locator (CML) video and website. The new site is designed to help OFCCP locate affected class members and also provide an opportunity for individuals who may be part of a class to learn about cases by reading a brief summary, a redacted Conciliation Agreement, and any press releases.  In addition, the website provides regional email accounts and 1-800 numbers so that individuals can directly contact OFCCP if they have questions or need assistance. A key element of this new enforcement tool is proactively disclosing Conciliation Agreements.  OFCCP now routinely posts discrimination settlement agreements in its FOIA Library and links to them on the locator website.  
     
  • DOL hosted its 7th Annual FOIA Training Conference in Washington, D.C.  The lecture style training was presented to a live audience and via webcast production to approximately 400 DOL FOIA professionals nationwide. The three day event was themed “Improving Collaboration and Transparency through Effective FOIA Administration,” and was designed to train DOL access professionals on a variety of topics.

Department of State (State):  Streamlining FOIA Processes and Maintaining a Robust FOIA Website

  • State's Statutory Compliance and Research Division improved its FOIA processes by: (1) revising its case-processing worksheets to standardize processing methods across the division and build efficiencies; and, (2) instituting standardized status reports to assist in tracking cases, analyzing pending cases, and increasing the use of statistics to manage workloads.
     
  • State continues to maintain a robust FOIA website which now has over 100,000 documents and an average of over 1,000 visitors a day.  Through an unprecedented effort, State's FOIA Office has contributed additional records of high demand on its website by simultaneously processing and posting approximately 55,000 pages of former Secretary Clinton’s emails.
     
  • Through a collaborated effort with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS), State revised its procedures for processing I-590 forms, which serve as registration for classification as a refugee. The new procedures allow for a streamlined review of the form by State, which in turn has reduced the time needed to respond to the requester.

Department of the Interior (DOI):  Reducing Backlogs and Posting More Information Online

  • Despite marked increases in the number of incoming requests and appeals, DOI rallied and with a concerted effort:
    • Closed all ten of its oldest requests;
    • Closed nine of its ten oldest appeals; and
    • Reduced the overall number of backlogged requests at the end of the year.
       
  • DOI also continued to post more information online proactively, including decisions on Indian Gaming, Conservation Plans and Agreements, Wild Horse and Burro Removal and Fertility Control Treatment Schedules, publications related to archaeological sites in the Gulf of Mexico, and the administrative history of Joshua Tree National Park.

Department of the Treasury (Treasury): Finding Efficiencies, Embracing New Approaches to FOIA Training, and Proactively Posting More Information Online

  • Treasury completed the third stage of its FOIA Transformation Initiative, which focuses on improving the quality and efficiency of FOIA processing and customer service through the consolidation of resources into a single office.
     
  • In an effort to effectuate improvements in timeliness, accuracy and completeness of FOIA casework, the IRS Disclosure Office initiated a “New Hire Training Program” that embraces a cost-effective approach for providing personnel with the foundational knowledge necessary for a successful FOIA program. As part of this initiative, the IRS selected a group of experienced and highly qualified disclosure professionals to join a training taskforce referred to as the “Blended Training Team” to convert the existing classroom training for new hires into a blended format. The blended format includes three primary training components: (1) self-study training, (2) instructor led virtual training, and (3) face-to-face training. The new format enables participants to set their own pace during the self-study portion and allows for remedial or refresher training by reviewing the recorded virtual sessions while still providing the important elements of traditional face-to-face training.
     
  • In response to a significant increase in requests, the Alcohol, Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) proactively created and posted a list of “Bonded Wine Producers by State.”  To meet the public's demand for this information, TTB worked with information technology professionals and program staff to create and publish this information online for the first time. TTB plans to publish similar information for breweries in the future.

Department of Transportation (DOT):  Instituting New Proactive Disclosure Plans and Reducing Backlogs

  • DOT launched an ambitious  proactive disclosures initiative. The Chief Information Officer and the General Counsel co-signed a memorandum to the Department’s Operating Administrations (OAs) entitled Developing a Systemic Approach for Increasing the Public Availability of Information about Agency Operations. The memorandum directed each OA to develop a systemic approach to sustained proactive disclosures of valuable Departmental information – based largely on indications from the public on what information is sought. The OAs brought together cross-functional teams with representatives from program offices, public affairs, FOIA, data, information technology, etc. to develop their respective plans. The various OA plans under this initiative are posted at https://www.transportation.gov/mission/open/plans-increasing-public-availability-information-about-agency-operations. The OAs will monitor their plans throughout the year in various ways. In the Office of the Secretary (OST), for example, the Executive Sponsor will hold quarterly meetings with the program offices and support offices that formed the OST Team. DOT anticipates that the plans will be updated and refined as it learns and shares best practices throughout the implementation process.
     
  • For the sixth consecutive year, DOT reduced the number of appeals in its backlog.  Since FY2009, DOT has reduced its appeals backlog by 77%.

Department of Veterans Affairs (VA):  Reducing Backlogs, Ramping up Training Efforts, and Opening up Data

  • The VA processed more requests than it received in FY2015 and reduced its backlog by over 30%.  Notably, VA's backlog of requests amounts to only about 3% of its incoming requests.
     
  • During the course of FY2015, the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) FOIA Office provided a total of 17 training programs for FOIA Officers.  Ten of the trainings offered were in the form of nation-wide conference calls covering topics such as best practices in developing a FOIA program in a VA Medical Center, FOIA fees, fee waivers, expedited processing, Exemption 4, use of the VA’s electronic FOIA tracking system, and FOIA resources available for FOIA Officers.  The remaining 7 presentations were conducted in VHA’s MyVeHU Campus, which is a live training presentation that is streamed on the Internet.
     
  • VA's FOIA program continues to participate in the agency's Open Data Initiative, which has placed over 640 data sets on Data.gov
Updated May 2, 2016

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