2017-2018 AGENCY SUCCESS STORIES
Department of Agriculture (USDA): Processing requests at a high level, reducing backlogs, and providing the public with access to food survey data
- In Fiscal Year (FY) 2017, USDA processed approximately 94% of the 25,461 FOIA requests it received. Of these received requests, about 84% were processed in less than twenty working days. Additionally, many of USDA’s components made substantial progress on reducing their request backlog. For example, the Agricultural Marketing Service (20% reduction), the Forest Service (32% reduction), Food Safety & Inspection Service (53.9% reduction), the Natural Resource Conservation Service (8% reduction), the Office of the Inspector General (12% reduction), Rural Development (41.4% reduction), the Research, Education and Economics (25% reduction), and the Risk Management Agency (12.5% reduction), all achieved significant reductions in backlog.
- USDA’s Economic Research Service developed a unique database from a nationally representative survey on food purchases and acquisitions by U.S. households – USDA’s National Household Food Acquisition and Purchase Survey (FoodAPS). Originally, to protect individual survey respondents’ privacy, access to the data had been restricted to researchers from academic institutions and government agencies. Now, a public version of FoodAPS enables access by all interested parties to the valuable data for research and planning. The data are being used to address a range of questions such as where households acquire food in a typical week, which foods they acquire, how much they pay for the food and how the acquired foods match recommendations for a healthy diet.
Department of Commerce (DOC): Continuing to engage in quality outreach and co-hosting successful FOIA events
- The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) hosted its first FOIA Roundtable in a public outreach meeting, where an open dialogue between NOAA’s information experts and the requester community was created to foster improved transparency and increased public outreach in NOAA disclosures. NOAA intends to host additional FOIA Roundtable events with other members of the requester community during the year to continue to gain feedback on how to improve transparency and FOIA compliance.
- The Sunshine Week event co-hosted by DOC and the Census Bureau in June 2017 brought together individuals from DOC FOIA Offices, the Federal government, and the requester community to discuss the FOIA, transparency, open data, and records management. The event received high accolades from both government personnel and the public.
- DOC established a formal FOIA Council to ensure that it has an effective system in place for responding to requests and that it remains in compliance with applicable laws, regulations, and policies. The FOIA Council develops and implements FOIA policy and guidance, FOIA training, best business practices, better collaboration across the DOC, and increased outreach and dialogue with the requester community.
Department of Defense (DoD): Reducing its backlog, focusing on quality customer service, and providing excellent FOIA training
- The 32 DoD Components continue showcasing their commitment to the principles of openness as over 53,000 FOIA requests were processed during FY17. Despite the often complex nature of requests directed to DoD and the extraordinary mission of protecting American assets at home and abroad, DOD processed over 90% of all received requests in less than 100 days.
- Many DoD components made substantial progress on reducing their request backlogs, such as the National Reconnaissance Office (25% reduction) and the U.S. Southern Command (25% reduction).
- DoD remains steadfast in its commitment to sustainable training and outstanding customer service. The Chief Management Officer continues leading the way by offering online training modules and low cost compliance workshops in areas with significant DoD active-duty and civilian personnel concentrations.
- DoD components such as the U.S. Strategic Command and the U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) have worked to streamline their programs, resulting in a quicker turn-around time and quality customer service. NORTHCOM, in particular, received compliments for its service and proactive release program.
- The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) established a “Road Show” program to educate its non-FOIA professionals on the FOIA. This effort has resulted in NGA staff better understanding FOIA obligations and turning requests around in a timelier manner.
Department of Education (ED): Creating a new FOIA Tiger Team and achieving substantial progress in reducing the age of its backlog
- ED created a central FOIA Tiger Team made up of representatives from program offices across the Department, and including involvement from the Assistant Secretary for Management, to close its oldest requests. This allowed ED to close 310 of the 381 backlogged requests pending from fiscal years 2010 through 2016 by September 30, 2017, which equals a total backlog reduction for the oldest cases of more than 80%. Significantly, the Tiger Team effort helped push ED to close a greater number of FOIA requests in FY 2017 than in the prior year, despite substantially depleted resources and an increasing FOIA volume.
- Many ED components made substantial progress on reducing their oldest request backlogs, such as the Office of the Secretary (63% reduction), Federal Student Aid (76% reduction), and the Office for Civil Rights and their regional offices (83% reduction).
Department of Energy (DOE): Maintaining low backlogs and providing training to over 250 personnel
- DOE continues to address its backlogged cases by engaging senior leadership and other agencies, as necessary. Although DOE did not reduce its backlog this year, DOE’s vigorous efforts to process cases enabled it to keep the backlog from increasing at the same rate as the increase of received requests. DOE still maintains a low backlog of only 287 requests as compared to the over 2,000 requests it received this past year.
- DOE’s Golden Office taught multiple classes entitled, “Best Practices – Ensuring Adequacy of a FOIA Search” to over 250 Golden personnel. The classes were designed to educate employees on how to conduct an adequate search for records responsive to FOIA requests.
Department of Health & Human Services (HHS): Publishing FOIA logs, reducing backlogs, and simplifying requests forms
- The Office of the Secretary’s FOIA Office began publishing a log of the open/pending FOIA requests from all of HHS agencies to the HHS FOIA website at the end of January 2017.
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reduced its backlog by 87% in 18 months by implementing best practices and emphasizing customer service with internal (CDC program offices) and external (general public) stakeholders. Some of these best practices included revamping office workflows to improve efficiency, working with requesters to keep their requests specific and precise, providing requesters with estimated response times, setting performance goals for processing staff and maintaining accountability, providing agency leadership with monthly metrics on late requests, and obtaining CDC leadership support for FOIA. Additionally, CDC revamped its FOIA website to be more efficient and user‐friendly, and has expanded the use of its established electronic reading room.
- The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) continued to reduce its backlog achieving a 15% reduction this past fiscal year. In accomplishing this goal, CMS has implemented process changes and technological improvements to both its FOIA and correspondence tracking software systems. CMS’s enhanced system now provides a more streamlined, automated approach to pulling together large groups of correspondence records, which has improved CMS’s overall efficiency in administering the FOIA.
- The Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) simplified its request form to a single page form, streamlined its strategies for complex requests, and updated its document management system. Collectively these and several other minor adjustments resulted in an unexpectedly major improvement in HRSA’s case turnaround time. In FY 2017, the average processing time for FOIA requests dropped 40%, from 112 days in FY 2016 to 67 days, and the request backlog decreased by 14%.
Department of Homeland Security (DHS): Achieving significant backlog reduction and using technology to efficiently search for records
- DHS made notable achievements in its efforts to reduce backlogs. The DHS Privacy Office partnered with the National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD) and Office of Biometric Identity Management (OBIM) leadership in April 2017 to execute an aggressive Backlog Reduction Project that resulted in a reduction of OBIM’s backlog by over 99% by the end of FY 2017. This reduced the Department’s backlog by 30%. The OBIM backlog started at roughly 11,000 requests in the beginning of the project in April 2017, and increased to over 13,000 requests by the time the DHS Privacy Office expanded its role in July 2017. At the end of FY 2017, the OBIM backlog stood at less than 40 cases.
- Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) created a workflow in its eDiscovery tool, which allowed the staff to ingest thousands of electronic files into the tool and then use analytics to seek responsive records. The process now takes minutes rather than months. ICE shared this workflow with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and NPPD for use in their FOIA litigation cases. The workflow eliminated a combined 81,820 non-responsive files, which would have previously required a manual search.
- FEMA decreased its backlog by 79% by responding to 115% more requests in FY 2017 than in FY 2016. Notably, FEMA accomplished this despite the absence of 60% of its staff who were deployed in September 2017 to assist survivors impacted by Hurricane Irma.
Department of Justice (DOJ): Launching the National FOIA Portal on FOIA.gov, releasing a FOIA Self-Assessment Toolkit, and processing a record high number of requests
- DOJ met the high demand of increasing numbers of incoming requests in FY 2017 by breaking its record of processed requests and responding to nearly 80,000 FOIA requests. Further, while processing a record high number of requests, DOJ maintained a high release rate of 93.5%, and closed its ten 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. In addition to issuing new guidance to agencies on topics such as “Defining a ‘Record’ Under the FOIA” and “Agency FOIA Websites 2.0,” DOJ released a new, comprehensive FOIA Self-Assessment Toolkit to help all agencies improve every aspect of their FOIA administration.
- Finally, in March 2018, DOJ established the new National FOIA Portal called for by the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016. The Portal provides customized forms for each agency to help requesters understand and submit requests more easily. It also provides insight into the FOIA process including what to do before submitting a FOIA request, how to submit a request, and what happens after submitting a request. Finally, the site centralizes and provides a wealth of agency specific resources that are helpful to requesters, such as a description of each agency and links to their FOIA website, FOIA Reference Guide, FOIA regulations, and the FOIA Library.
Department of Labor (DOL): Creating a new system for handling similar complex requests to improve consistency and response times
- After identifying that similar complex FOIA requests were pending in different DOL regions , the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Administration and Management’s FOIA coordinator helped establish a best practice to reply to these requests. Under the new system, one office will be designated as responsible for preparing the responses to these type requests for all of the regions. This new procedure will avoid redundancy, ensure consistency, and improve timeliness.
Department of State (State): Reducing backlogs, increasing collaboration, and improving FOIA processing, governance, and technology
- The Department of State conducted a comprehensive review of its FOIA process, governance, technology, and staffing in 2017, making process changes that resulted in the closure of 57% of its backlog at the start of Fiscal Year 2017. The concurrent FOIA Surge effort that was launched in late 2017. That initiative complemented these FOIA reviews and has resulted in the closure of thousands of additional cases.
- A new governance model put in place through a Department-wide FOIA Working Group raised awareness of issues, upcoming trainings, and initiatives. This work allowed for increased collaboration among various Department employees working on FOIA cases. This work also allowed State to develop Department-wide programmatic and technical requirements that were later used by the working group to review potential IT solutions.
Department of Treasury (Treasury): Continuing to proactively disclose more information online
- The Treasury Office of Inspector General (OIG), the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA), and the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (SIGTARP) posted copies of more than 164 Inspector General Reports online. These reports are available on Treasury’s websites and are searchable at www.oversight.gov. Since 2009, OIG, TIGTA, and SIGTARP have posted more than 582 reports online.
- Treasury posted former Secretary Lew’s remaining calendars and began posting Secretary Mnuchin’s calendars. In an effort to increase transparency and openness in government, Treasury publicly releases the calendars of the Secretary of the Treasury by posting them in its FOIA Library. The release is intended to provide the public with detailed information regarding the day-to-day activities of the Treasury Department and the Secretary.
Department of Transportation (DOT): Updating its website to provide information to air travelers about their rights as consumers
- DOT redesigned its Aviation Consumer Protection Division website to make it easier for air travelers to understand their rights. The updated, user-friendly website provides clear, useful information about passenger rights, as well as DOT’s rules, guidance, and orders on key consumer issues. The launch of the new website coincided with the busy holiday traveling season, so that the traveling public had access to the most up-to-date consumer information. The redesigned website highlights content on topics of greatest concern to consumers, such as bumping, tarmac delays, flight delays and cancellations, flying with a disability, passengers’ right to fly free from discrimination, and how to file a consumer complaint.
Department of Veterans Affairs (VA): Significantly increasing it review rate for processing records
- The VA Office of Acquisition, Logistics, and Construction (OALC) FOIA Office successfully increased its capacity to review records responsive to FOIA requests over the past 3 years. The VA OALC FOIA office went from reviewing 120,000 pages in FY 2014, to 132,000 pages in FY 2015, to 135,000 pages in FY 2016, and to 186,000 pages in FY 2017. The VA OALC FOIA office went from reviewing 200 pages/day per FOIA Officer in FY 2013, to 300 pages/day in FY 2014, to 370 pages/day in FY 2015, to 380 pages/day in FY 2016, and to 390 pages/day in FY 2017.