2011-2012 Agency FOIA Success Stories

Key Agency Highlights

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Department of Agriculture (USDA):  Reducing Backlog, Improving Efficiency, and Providing Assessable Data to the Public

  • USDA received 23,065 FOIA requests in Fiscal Year 2011, an increase of more than 13% from the previous Fiscal Year.  USDA matched this request increase with improved productivity and absorbed the increase in requests, as well as an increase in the complexity of those requests, by processing more efficiently.  As a result, USDA experienced a decline in its FOIA request backlog.  Of particular note is the Animal and Plant Health and Inspection Service (APHIS), which processed over 278,000 pages of records and reduced its backlog by 81%, resulting in an unprecedented and record-low backlog of 40 pending cases.
  • As a result of its focus on posting high-interest records to its FOIA website, APHIS increased views to its FOIA Library by an astonishing 1,350%.
  • The Economic Research Service published its Atlas of Rural and Small-Town America, an innovative online mapping tool that provides county-level statistical data on the people, jobs, agriculture, and characteristics of counties across the United States.  The Atlas is relied upon by policymakers and members of the public with the need for data on population, age structure, race and ethnicity, income, employment, agricultural well-being, and other statistical information.
  • The Food Nutrition Service implemented Lean Six Sigma as part of an initiative to improve the efficiency of its FOIA process.
  • To make information more accessible to the community of individuals who regularly access its website, the National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA) updated its Tribal Institutions Portal, a support center for American Indian-serving educational institutions and tribes that receive NIFA research, educational, or extension funding.  The updated portal provides information on how to apply for and manage grant monies, and provides the pubic with useful NIFA staff points of contact.

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Department of Commerce: Interfacing with the Public on FOIA, Proactively Responding to Public Interest

  • The Office of the Secretary of Commerce and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration partnered in a pilot project with several other agencies with the purpose of developing an automated FOIA processing and tracking system with a web-based public interface.  Once operational, the Department anticipates this system will increase transparency and collaboration by allowing requesters to submit requests and track status over the web, and will also improve efficiency of the Department's internal processes by moving requests electronically through a defined workflow.  Further, by utilizing a web-based shared service environment, the Department anticipates it will achieve considerable cost savings over commercial tools which require expensive licenses and separate maintenance contracts.
  • The United States Patent and Trademark Office evaluated the FOIA requests received over the past two years and discovered that a significant portion of its FOIA requests, somewhere in the range of 30-45%, pertain to procurement contracts.  USPTO now routinely posts procurement contracts in its FOIA Library, which is a fully text-searchable electronic document repository.

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Department of Defense (DoD):  Leveraging Institutional Expertise, Reducing Backlog & Proactively Releasing Contracts

  • DoD’s move to utilize the talent and expertise of its FOIA professionals and host training workshops at its numerous installations throughout the world made it possible for nearly 200 DoD FOIA professionals to obtain the training needed, at a reduced cost, to better perform their FOIA responsibilities and meet the needs of DoD requesters.  During these fiscally constrained times, the DoD recognizes that training workshops such as these are vital and has planned similar training for the remainder of 2012 and the years to come.
  • Concentrated efforts by the Defense Logistics Agency, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency to reduce their FOIA backlogs reaped laudable results.  Backlog numbers decreased by an extraordinary 69%, 38%, and 29% respectively.
  • TRICARE Management Activity (a component of the Military Health System) and the Defense Logistics Agency collaborated with their respective Contracting Offices and General Counsel, and were able to obtain contractor approval to release contractual documents without the prompting of a FOIA request.  DoD foresees this practice as potentially reducing or eliminating the need for FOIA requests for contracts within these Components.

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Department of Education:  Institutionalizing Change Through Training & Outreach; More Proactive Disclosures, Less Backlog

  • Education annually receives hundreds of requests for contracts, grant applications, and information about federally funded programs.  Through efforts to identify these records and post them online proactively, the Department of Education increased the amount of material it proactively disclosed in its FOIA Library by 25%.
  • The Department of Education notified the public of important events and provided information through its blog, electronic newsletters, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.
  • The Department of Education was able to close its ten oldest pending requests, reduce its backlog by 12%, and increase the number of responses where records were released in full and released in part.
  • To ensure that the President’s and Attorney General’s transparency directives are carried out, the Department of Education launched and conducted an electronic “FOIA Overview” training module for all personnel in the Department who are involved in FOIA.
  • The Department’s FOIA Service Center partnered with the Office of General Counsel to develop a Desk Reference pamphlet for its FOIA coordinators.
  • At bi-monthly Quality Assurance meetings with principal FOIA coordinators, the Department of Education ensures that Department of Justice guidance on FOIA is timely and effectively communicated throughout the Department.  These meetings also include the discussion of selected particular FOIA processing issues which the Department has identified for improvement.

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Department of Energy (DOE):  Responding to its Oldest Requests, Streamlining & Upgrading Agency Websites

  • The Department of Energy made a concerted effort to close its oldest pending FOIA requests, and as a result was able to close 42% of the backlogged cases received between 2001 and 2009. The Department intends to continue with this effort until all similarly backlogged cases are closed.
  • The Department of Energy recently consolidated and upgraded several websites into a new department-wide website, which utilizes interactive maps and graphics to display information in a more accessible format and allows users to search for documents and resources using a single search engine.
  • The Department of Energy has created a FOIA portal that is full-text searchable and provides access to documents previously released under the FOIA.

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Department of Health and Human Services (HHS):  Tackling Backlog, Engaging “Live” on FOIA, Posting Popular Data

  • The Department of Health and Human Services made outstanding gains in eliminating its backlog over the past year.  Despite receiving over 3,500 more requests in Fiscal Year 2011, it managed to reduce its backlog by 68%.
  • The Department of Health and Human Services' Administration for Children and Families has installed a live chat feature on its website through which users can engage with an Information Specialist who will assist with questions, concerns, or trouble locating agency information
  • The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) implemented an "Improving Access to Frequently Requested Information" initiative which directed CMS senior staff to take affirmative steps to post information of interest to the public proactively.  As a result of this initiative, over 300 links to data and information were posted to the CMS website last year.
  • CMS launched a more robust and user-friendly FOIA Service Center webpage that contains FOIA contacts, information on how to submit a FOIA request, status of pending FOIA requests, and directs users to useful information about CMS programs and initiatives.
  • The National Institutes of Health created a website dedicated to the agency's 12th Edition of the Report on Carcinogens.  The site conveys to the public in clear, plain language, important information about the risks posed by carcinogens. The new "fact sheets" on carcinogens proved to be very popular, being downloaded approximately 14,500 times within the first month of release.

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Department of Homeland Security (DHS):  Researching the Root of Backlogs, Developing Meaningful Strategies for the Future

  • The Department of Homeland Security established an intra-departmental team charged with investigating the underlying causes of the agency's backlog and developing strategies to eliminate the backlog. Taking lessons learned through collaboration and outreach with other federal agencies, DHS is currently drafting recommendations as to how it can marshal its current resources — both human and economic — to minimize its backlog through better case management on a day-to-day basis.
  • The Department of Homeland Security increased the amount of information it proactively released by 43%, posting 8,903 pages of new information on its website.
  • The U.S. Customs and Border Protection continued using YouTube videos, Twitter and Flickr this past year to proactively release information about seizures and other activities related to its mission.

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Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD):  Changing Course on Discretionary Withholdings and Outdated Practices; Staying the Course on Backlog Reduction

  • The Department of Housing and Urban Development continued to make significant reductions in its backlog:  this year its backlog was reduced by an impressive 30%.
  • Four of HUD's field offices closed Fiscal Year 2011 without denying a single FOIA request in full.
  • In applying the presumption of openness, HUD headquarters and field offices made discretionary releases of drafts, notes, and e-mails that, previously, would customarily have been withheld under FOIA Exemption 5.
  • In Fiscal Year 2011, HUD made valuable additions to its repository of online information, including FOIA log reports and a link to online status for individual FOIA requests; mutual mortgage insurance information; and highest-scoring 2010 funded grant applications.
  • HUD now allows FOIA requesters to submit and track requests online, facilitating overall efficiency by reducing data entry by FOIA staff and expediting communication with the public.

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Department of the Interior (DOI):  Reducing Backlogs, Making Information Easier to Find

  • Despite an increase in the scope and complexity of the requests it received during Fiscal Year 2011, the Department of the Interior achieved an overall reduction in its request backlog of 25.6% – far exceeding the 10% reduction rate mandated by the Open Government Directive of December 2009.  In addition, the Department’s FOIA/PA Appeals Office also succeeded in reducing its backlog by 19% in Fiscal Year 2011.
  • In light of the intense public interest in the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement developed a new search tool for its popular Deepwater Horizon FOIA Library, allowing the public to find information about the event and the agency's response more easily.

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Department of Justice (DOJ):  Leading by Example

  • Despite three straight years of receiving record high numbers of FOIA requests – over 60,000 requests for each of the past three years – DOJ processed a record number of those requests and released records in full or in part for a remarkable 94.5% of requests involving responsive records.  This marks the second straight year the Department has achieved such a high release rate.
  • DOJ significantly reduced both its backlog of pending initial requests and administrative appeals – by 26% and 41%, respectively. The backlog for initial requests was reduced by two and a half times over the targeted reduction of 10% suggested by the Open Government Directive.
  • In addition to closing its ten oldest pending requests from the previous Fiscal Year, DOJ reduced the age of its oldest pending request by 758 days.
  • DOJ has continued to make improvements to FOIA.Gov, its flagship initiative from FY 2010.  FOIA.Gov serves as a vital resource for the public, making available a wide range of information about the activities of the government and the administration of the FOIA.  The Department added a powerful new search tool to FOIA.Gov that allows the public to search for records across all agency websites.  By using this search tool, a member of the public can access all publicly available information on a given topic that is available on any government website and find information they are interested in without the need to make a FOIA request.
  • Yet another improvement made to FOIA.Gov is the inclusion of hyperlinks to agency online request forms. Once an individual has decided to make a FOIA request, for any agency using an online request form, FOIA.Gov now allows the requester to access the agency's request form directly through FOIA.Gov.  As agencies add online request capability, the Department will add new links to FOIA.Gov, increasing its usability for the public.
  • The Department’s Office of Information Policy (OIP) is launching an online portal that not only allows for the making of requests and appeals online, but also allows for the creation of individual user accounts so that requesters can track online the status of any of their requests or appeals made to OIP, at any time of the day or night.  OIP will use the online accounts to provide correspondence and any responsive documents to requesters.  This online request and appeal portal holds the potential to increase efficiency, improve communication, and facilitate disclosure of responsive records, all in keeping with the goals of the President's and Attorney General's FOIA Memoranda.

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Department of Labor (DOL):  Developing Apps & Using New Technologies to Deliver Information

  • DOL has released mobile applications such as the Labor Statistics app, which provides up-to-the minute information about key labor statistics; the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Heat Index app, which provides workers with information about how to stay safe in outdoor working conditions; and the DOL Timesheet app, which assists users in tracking their hours for one employer or across multiple employers.
  • DOL continued to expand its utilization of websites and social media tools to engage stakeholders in the work of the Department.  In addition to publishing additional data sets on http://www.data.gov/ and http://www.dol.gov/open/, DOL is making the data it publishes available through an Application Program Interface, which allows the public to more easily access DOL data.
  • Within a day of issuing the long-awaited accident report for the 2010 Upper Big Branch mining disaster, the Department of Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration posted a substantial amount of supporting data that was considered in the report, including nearly 30,000 pages of interview transcripts.

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Department of State:  Streamlining Processes, Reducing Backlogs, and Declassifying Records

  • The Department of State was able to achieve a significant backlog reduction of 60% by streamlining its process for handling the substantial number of referrals it receives from the Department of Homeland Security each year.
  • The Department of State added 2,263 documents to its online Rwandan Declassification Collection, providing the public with new information concerning the Rwandan Genocide and the international community's response.


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Department of Transportation (DOT):  Launching a New Dashboard, Modernizing Data Available to the Traveling Public

  • DOT has made excellent progress in proactively disclosing a wide variety of information in a wide variety of formats over the course of the last year. For example, the Federal Aviation Administration launched a new, online dashboard, NextGen, which provides the public with information about the agency's efforts to modernize America's air transportation system infrastructure.
  • The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration proactively disclosed a trove of records, datasets, databases, and videos on a number of topics important to the driving public, including the Joint NHTSA-National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) study of unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles; a child car seat inspection locator; special crash investigations; and Vehicle Thefts, Complaints, Recalls, and Defects Investigations databases.

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Department of the Treasury:  Improving Efficiency from the Ground Up, Translating Transparency & Taking Taxes to the Social Network

  • The Departmental Offices of the Department of Treasury conducted a Lean Six Sigma review of its FOIA administration, which evaluated the agency's processes from receipt to response, and implemented many of the findings from that review. The result was the elimination of redundancies, a streamlining of processes, and shortened response times.
  • Internal Revenue Service posted "Tax Tips" videos on YouTube in English, Spanish and sign language, and is in the process of promoting a smart phone application called IRS2Go, which will give users a convenient way of checking their federal refund status and obtaining easy-to-understand tax tips.
  • The IRS focused on providing requesters with timely responses, and was able to respond to 86% of the approximately 12,000 FOIA requests received within the statutory time period.  Furthermore, IRS ended the Fiscal Year with a backlog of less than 1% of total receipts.

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Department of Veterans Affairs (VA):  Customer-Friendly Regulations, Spurring Technological Development

  • The Veterans Administration has undertaken several initiatives to improve transparency and FOIA compliance. For example, VA updated and implemented new FOIA regulations, eliminating outdated requirements and making it less burdensome to submit a FOIA request electronically.
  • To help veterans have access to their heath information regardless of where they get their care, the VA sponsored the Blue Button® for All Americans Prize Contest.  This contest challenged health information technology (HIT) software developers to include a Blue Button data download function in personal health records (PHR) systems and then arrange to install the PHR on patient‐facing websites of 25,000 doctors across America.
  • All 152 VA medical centers are now actively represented on Facebook.  The Department plans to continue expanding its Facebook presence while focusing on bringing Twitter to every VA medical center as well.
  • In an effort to continuously improve transparency initiatives, VA is moving its electronic health record system to the open source community. By doing so, VA is in the process of making available the source code of its Veterans Integrated Systems Technology Architecture (VistA) to allow the public and private sectors to improve the system.
Updated July 24, 2014

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