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Identifying Efficiencies When Leveraging Digital Tools for FOIA Processing

As a part of the Department of Justice’s Open Government Plan version 2.0 (PDF), the Office of Information Policy (OIP) announced that it would be partnering with the Civil Division, with the support of the Justice Management Division, on a digital-FOIA pilot program.  Last month, OIP hosted a seminar to discuss the findings of this pilot program.  With specific goals in mind, from streamlining conventional processes to improve efficiency and accuracy, to increasing timeliness for responding to requests, the pilot was designed to compare and contrast the processing of requests using both digital tools and conventional methods.  Multiple FOIA requests of similar size and scope were selected by OIP for inclusion in this pilot, with some processed using OIP’s standard procedures, and others leveraging the Civil Division’s existing architecture of digital resources.  The digital approach used automated and electronic procedures to process all aspects of a request, including the document search and collection, de-duplication, and initial review. At the conclusion of the pilot, the data was analyzed with extremely positive results.  Most impressive was the speed and accuracy with which the digital approach collected, searched, and de-duplicated records.  For the cases using the digital approach, 4.7 million documents were initially collected.  Automatic de-duplication removed 1.1 million documents from this collection.  Once date ranges and search terms were applied, 3,859 documents remained to be reviewed by OIP FOIA professionals for these requests. Two of the requests used in the pilot, one for each approach, had a similar number of individuals identified whose records needed to be searched.  Using these two requests as a comparison, the pilot had the following findings:    
  • Decreased number of times that a search term had to be run – Using conventional methods, each search term had to be individually run for each custodian; using the digital approach, the records of multiple custodians could be searched with multiple terms at one time.
  • Improved search time – The digital approach was able to complete a search for records in less than an hour, compared with conventional methods that required multiple work days to complete the search.
  • Decreased time spent on de-duplication – Conventional methods required FOIA specialists to sort through records to locate multiple copies of the same record by hand, whereas digital tools allowed for this process to be automated which drastically reduced the time required on this necessary aspect of FOIA processing.
The use of digital tools to automate and execute searches for, and de-duplication, of located records significantly improved the speed of these procedures.  When compared with conventional methods, the use of these tools will allow FOIA professionals to spend more time on the substantive review of records located for release, as well as allow more time to work on more cases overall.   Both the President and the Attorney General have called on agencies to implement the use of advanced technologies in the administration of the FOIA and to disclose information in timely manner.  This pilot program illustrates the fundamental benefits that using digital tools in the processing of FOIA requests provides, through gains in efficiency, accuracy, and timeliness.  OIP’s FOIA IT Working Group is available as a platform and a forum for agency personnel to learn about programs such as this pilot and best practices in how to leverage existing agency digital resources for FOIA processing.  We will also continue to share our experiences in future seminars to assist other agencies in their efforts to leverage technology for the overall benefit of FOIA administration across the government.
Updated August 6, 2014