2016-2017 AGENCY SUCCESS STORIES

Department of Agriculture (USDA): Processing requests at a high level and using unique and educational ways to share information with students and employees

  • In Fiscal Year (FY) 2016, USDA processed approximately 97% of the 23,870 FOIA requests it received. Of these requests, about 86% were processed in less than twenty working days. Additionally, many of USDA’s components made substantial progress on reducing their request backlogs. For example, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) (47.8% reduction), Food Safety and Inspection Service (42% reduction), Departmental Management’s Office of the Secretary and Office of the Chief Information Officer (37.5% reduction), Food Nutrition & Consumer Services (26% reduction), and Risk Management Agency (20% reduction), all achieved significant reductions in backlog. The Office for the Assistant Secretary of Civil Rights and Office of Budget & Program Analysis successfully closed the fiscal year with no backlogged requests.
  • NRCS developed a FOIA cadre, a team of employees from across the country, voluntarily serving to assist in increasing awareness of FOIA among personnel, and improving the speed, quality, and consistency of the agency’s FOIA processing.
  • Forest Service’s Southern Research Station (FS-SRS) partnered with the Natural Inquirer (NI) Program to create NI scientist cards. The NI scientist cards, which are similar to baseball cards, highlight Forest Service scientists and engineers. To date, 160 unique cards have been developed with more than half featuring SRS scientists. During FY 2016, 100,530 scientist cards were distributed. Of those, 65,000 cards represented minorities or women. The cards help students gain a deeper understanding of what it takes to become a scientist and provide a venue for the public to meet the SRS scientists and learn more about their ongoing work.

 

Department of Commerce (DOC): Achieving significant backlog reduction and continuing to engage in quality outreach

  • DOC achieved a 20% decrease in its overall backlog of FOIA requests. The largest contributors to the decrease were the Office of the Secretary (58%), the Bureau of Industry and Statistics (50%), and the International Trade Administration (21%). Additionally, the Economic Development Administration and the Minority Business Development Agency closed all of their backlogged requests for FY 2016.
  • The Sunshine Week event co-hosted by DOC and the Census Bureau in March 2016 brought together individuals from the requester community and the Federal government to hear ideas and share experiences about the FOIA, proactive disclosures, and open government. The event was so successful that it has been expanded for 2017 to include multiple days of keynote presentations open to the public, along with additional workshops on the FOIA and open government.

 

Department of Defense (DoD): Reducing its backlog, focusing on quality customer service, FOIA training, and improved websites

  • The 32 DoD components continue showcasing commitment to the principles of openness as over 52,000 FOIA requests were processed during FY 2016, resulting in a reduction of DoD’s overall request backlog. Given the often complex nature of requests directed at DoD and the extraordinary mission of protecting American assets at home and abroad, it is remarkable that over 90% of all received requests were processed in less than 100 days.
  • DoD remains steadfast in its commitment to provide its personnel sustainable FOIA training. The Deputy Chief Management Officer continues to lead the way by offering online training modules, Defense Connect Online chats, and low cost training workshops in areas with significant DoD active-duty and civilian personnel concentrations.
  • DoD components such as the U.S. Strategic Command, National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and the U.S. Northern Command have been complimented by their FOIA requesters for their efforts to provide accurate and timely responses while going above and beyond in their service to the public. NRO, in particular, received compliments for its requester survey and follow-up that demonstrated its commitment to providing quality customer service.
  • Several components implemented new enhancements to their case tracking systems and websites that facilitate the ability for requesters to search for information more easily. These components include the U.S. Africa, Central, European, and Transportation Commands, as well as the Air Force, Army, Navy, Defense Contract Management Agency, Office of Inspector General, Defense Logistics Agency, Defense Security Service, Defense Technical Information Center, National Security Agency, and Office of the Secretary of Defense and Joint Staff Privacy Office.

 

Department of Education (ED): Responding to requests quickly and streamlining procedures in order to achieve a 44% reduction in its appeal backlog

  • In FY 2015, ED conducted a review of its appeals process, which led to greater efficiencies and a 15% reduction in backlog. ED continued to build on this success in FY 2016 by reducing its appeals backlog by another 44%. Because of the hard work and efforts of the FOIA Service Center, Office of the General Counsel, and various program offices, ED processed double the number of appeals from the prior year leading to this significant reduction in backlog.
  • ED also maintained an average processing time of 7.8 days for simple track requests, which comprise of 42% of the requests processed by ED in FY 2016.

 

Department of Energy (DOE): Continuing its trend of backlog reduction and improving its eFOIA submission forms

  • DOE continues to focus on backlog reduction by engaging senior leadership and other DOE agencies, as necessary. As a result, DOE was able to reduce its backlog by another 17% in FY 2016. This is the third year in a row that DOE been able to decrease its FOIA backlog.
  • Working together with the FOIA requester community, DOE’s Golden Field Office and IT personnel from the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy improved the Field Office’s eFOIA submission forms to enhance the user experience.

 

Department of Health & Human Services (HHS): Achieving enduring backlog reduction, improving electronic processing capabilities, and continuing to make more proactive disclosures

  • HHS continued its enduring trend of backlog reduction in FY 2016 by reducing its backlog of requests by over 20%. Even more notably, since FY 2008, HHS has reduced its backlog by over 75%. As part of this effort, Administration for Children and Families (ACF) aggressively tackled the FOIA backlog by hiring high-quality contract support personnel, approving a long-term increase to current FOIA staffing, and purchasing a new database capable of de-duplicating documents, converting most native formats to 508-compliant formats, and allowing the public to submit requests through an online portal.
  • The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) FOIA Office has continued to expand its electronic processing capabilities. During 2016, the CMS FOIA Office identified an opportunity to improve its electronic records management and FOIA request processing by the Medicare Administrative Contractors (MAC) and Regional Offices. CMS worked with the MAC Contracting Officers to issue a joint Technical Direction Letter requiring that to the fullest extent possible all MACs and Regional Offices provide responsive records to the FOIA office in electronic format only. This initiative has increased FOIA efficiency, improved the timely processing of incoming requests, and has supported CMS efforts to create a robust electronic records management framework.
  • HHS continues to make more proactive disclosures. During the past four years, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has made hundreds of records available on its website related to a fungal meningitis outbreak involving compounded drugs that occurred in the fall of 2012. The issue of pharmacy compounding continues to attract significant attention from the media and other members of the public. FDA’s Office of Regulatory Affairs (ORA) proactively posts all Notice of Inspectional Observations issued to U.S. compounding pharmacies in the ORA Electronic Reading Room. ORA also posts other compounding-related records such as pharmacy response letters, recall letters, and state referral letters, and has recently expanded its proactive posting efforts making available all compounding pharmacy inspection “Close Out” letters.

 

Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD): Conducting self-assessments to improve FOIA processes and working collaboratively with requesters to achieve results

  • Under the leadership of its new Chief FOIA Officer, HUD has undertaken a systemic review of its FOIA program and plans to implement a recruitment plan to hire additional experienced, full-time FOIA professionals to the FOIA Branch. HUD’s continuing investments in technology and experienced FOIA professionals has prepared the agency to meet the challenge of changes in FOIA volume, law, and policy.
  • HUD provided remote guidance and consultation to a program subject matter expert (SME) in the processing of a highly complex FOIA request that involved over 8,000 pages of potentially responsive documents. The SME used HUD’s SharePoint portal to upload voluminous documents for remote review and consultation by the FOIA Public Liaison.

 

Department of Justice (DOJ): Processing a record high number of requests and providing a range of resources to help agencies comply with the new requirements of the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016.

  • DOJ met the high demand of increasing numbers of incoming requests in FY 2016 by processing more requests than in any year since 2002. Further, while processing a record high number of requests, DOJ maintained a high release rate of 93.5% and closed its oldest requests, appeals, and consultations.
  • 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. Signed into law on June 30, 2016, the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 contained several substantive and procedural amendments to the FOIA, as well as new reporting requirements for agencies. In order to assist agencies in understanding all of the new changes to the FOIA, DOJ’s Office of Information Policy (OIP) added new resources to its website immediately after the Act was signed and continued to assist agencies with implementation of the new statutory amendments by providing training, issuing guidance, and leading government-wide efforts in accordance with the various new provisions of the law.

 

Department of Labor (DOL): Hosting its annual FOIA conference and providing training to approximately 400 DOL FOIA contacts nationwide

  • In April 2016, the Office of the Solicitor hosted its 8th Annual FOIA Training Conference in Washington, D.C. The three-day event was themed “Ensuring an Informed Citizenry – FOIA at 50” and was designed to train DOL access professionals on a variety of FOIA topics. The guest speakers included DOL’s Chief FOIA Officer, the Director of the Office of Information Policy, and the Mediation Team Lead from the Office of Government Information Services.
  • The lecture-styled training was presented to a live audience and through webcast production. Through these means, DOL was able to make this training available to approximately 400 FOIA contacts nationwide. Training materials from the FOIA conference are posted on DOL’s intranet site so that they are available as needed by DOL staff.

 

Department of State: Proactively posting over 40% more documents on its FOIA website and enhancing the use of technology to process and maintain records electronically

  • Over the past year, the Department of State used its FOIA website to post more documents than ever before, increasing postings by over 40%. The FOIA website, which now has over 156,000 documents posted, was used to provide the public online access to records released through the Department’s FOIA program.
  • The Department of State improved its FOIA case management system, which now has the ability to electronically ingest documents. This development is part of a broader Department-wide effort to shift away from paper and toward better management of electronic records. The Department is now processing documents electronically instead of in paper through many parts of the FOIA process, significantly reducing the time needed to process documents.

 

Department of Interior (DOI): Improving FOIA technology, updating its FOIA System of Records Notice, and continuing to post more information online

  • DOI has updated its FOIA Document Management Unit to include new tools to assist in its FOIA processing. With this upgrade, DOI FOIA professionals can now select, and save as a PDF, individual emails from email threads. Additionally, most email and most e-mail images can now be included in these PDFs as well. Further, some DOI bureaus are also using collaboration software and shared drives to facilitate the processing of documents involving multiple offices.
  • DOI has taken steps to more effectively work with OGIS when engaging in mediation. DOI’s FOIA Policy Staff worked with the Department’s Privacy Act Officer and the Office of the Solicitor to add a routine use to the Department’s Electronic FOIA Tracking System and FOIA Case Files System of Records Notice (SORN DOI-71). This new routine use allows DOI to share data with OGIS and to proactively initiate dispute resolution discussions. Additionally, the FOIA Policy Staff now regularly coordinates interactions between OGIS and the bureaus.
  • DOI also continued to post more information online proactively, including a wealth of information regarding geological and geophysical permits, renewable energy lease files, well information, renewable energy projects, and recent oil and gas lease sales.

 

Department of Treasury: Providing the public with alternative avenues of access, reducing backlogs and increasing processing

  • The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Disclosure Office worked to better educate IRS employees about their FOIA responsibilities and to increase awareness of the open government principles of transparency, participation, and collaboration. The IRS Deputy Commissioner for Services and Enforcement and the IRS Deputy Commissioner for Operations Support jointly issued a memorandum to all IRS employees affirming IRS’s commitment to transparency and openness, and promoting the “Respond Directly” initiative. Responding directly to requests for tax information, where permissible, promotes transparency, good customer service, and in many cases eliminates the need for an individual to submit a FOIA or Privacy Act request to the IRS.
  • In support of this effort, IRS developed and deployed a suite of standardized training materials. These materials were made available to all IRS employees through IRS’s Electronic Learning Management System (ELMS) and the Disclosure Office intranet site. This IRS implemented technology allows IRS employees to schedule and receive training remotely. As a result of these efforts, more than 3,000 IRS employees received training during the reporting period.
  • Four Department of the Treasury bureaus – Fiscal Service, Mint, Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA), and Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) – ended FY 2016 with no backlogged FOIA requests. Additionally, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Fiscal Service, Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, TIGTA, and TTB closed more requests than they received during FY 2016.

 

Department of Transportation (DOT): Implementing a robust proactive disclosure policy and increasing the use of advanced technology to improve FOIA processing

  • In its third Open Government Plan, DOT committed to systematically increasing the amount of information provided on its web pages by requiring each component to create a plan for doing so. DOT brought together experts from the components representing a variety of disciplines, such as Public Affairs, Open Government, FOIA, Records Management, Web, Communications, and Data. Each component’s cross-functional team developed a component-specific action plan for making “in demand” information publicly available on an ongoing basis and met periodically during the year to monitor progress.
  • The Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) used a de-duplication software and e-discovery database to review records. The tool allows multiple reviewers to work simultaneously on the same review and enhances collaboration among the reviewers. The product also permits sophisticated searches to target responsive records and has served as a customer-friendly negotiation tool. PHMSA has used the e-discovery tool to suggest search terms and immediately report back to requesters on the search results, which has helped narrow the scope of the request and hence reduce the number of documents under review. The tool also automatically categorizes and groups records so that the requester can receive status updates on the types of records under review.
  • PHMSA also used a file share site as needed to facilitate the sharing of records when the records are too large to email. This allows requesters (or other agencies for consultations) to receive records more quickly.

 

Department of Veterans Affairs (VA): Promoting VA’s e-benefits portal that facilitates access to records without the need to file a request and automating processing

  • VA has been active in promoting its e-benefits portal that allows veterans access to claims information. The e-benefits portal allows veterans greater access to the information previously requiring a FOIA/Privacy Act request. The ASPIRE website provides office performance data to the general public on how each of the VA regional offices measure up to quality and other claims-processing goals.
  • Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) migrated from the current decentralized, paper-intensive model to electronic centralization for compensation-related FOIA requests. The VA Records Management Center (RMC) in St. Louis, MO is the centralized electronic FOIA hub for VBA. The purpose of the model is to drastically reduce paper record creation, maintenance, and storage. The process has proven efficient and has reduced the work in the field, thereby freeing up valuable resources to process claims.

 

 

Updated August 21, 2017

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