Section II: Steps Taken to Ensure that Your Agency Has an Effective System in Place for Responding to Requests
As the Attorney General emphasized in his FOIA Guidelines, "[a]pplication of the proper disclosure standard is only one part of ensuring transparency. Open government requires not just a presumption of disclosure, but also an effective system for responding to FOIA requests."
This section should include a discussion of how your agency has addressed the key roles played by the broad spectrum of agency personnel who work with FOIA professionals in responding to requests, including, in particular, steps taken to ensure that FOIA professionals have sufficient IT support.
Describe here the steps your agency has taken to ensure that its system for responding to requests is effective and efficient. To do so, answer the questions below and then include any additional information that you would like to describe how your agency ensures that your FOIA system is efficient and effective.
- Do FOIA professionals within your agency have sufficient IT support?
All HHS major operating FOIA offices reported receiving sufficient IT support, with only limited exceptions (i.e., difficulties posting information in 508-compliant formats; inability to implement certain enhancements due to funding limitations). Because HHS is a very decentralized and diverse agency, each component FOIA office receives IT support from its own organizational and managerial support structure.
The OS FOIA office successfully transitioned to a new electronic tracking system that provides even greater tracking, reporting and storage functionalities than its predecessor system. The OIG’s FOIA office retained its ability to process and respond to all requests electronically; unless paper copies were expressly requested, the OIG’s responsive records were e-mailed, copied to a CD/disk, or sent through a large file Delivery Server.
- Do your FOIA professionals work with your agency’s Open Government Team?
Yes, as necessary. The HHS FOIA professionals play an active role in helping identify and encourage the posting of additional materials and more usable formats on agency Internet sites. Most FOIA professionals do not work directly with the Department’s Open Government Team, but coordinate with program managers and web team staff to propose and facilitate posting of suitable materials that are the subject of multiple FOIA requests, that may be of a continuing interest to the public, and that otherwise are of value to researchers and other broad segments of the public, particularly those that shed light on the operations and activities of the government. A number of such examples are described in SectionIII.
The CMS’s Division of Freedom of Information (DFOI) operates within the CMS Openness, Transparency and Accountability Group (OTAG). The OTAG works with FOIA office and program office representatives to explore the best ways to disseminate CMS data and data products. The CDC’s central FOIA office works under the CDC’s Chief Information Officer, who has a major role in Open Government.
- Has your agency assessed whether adequate staffing is being devoted to FOIA administration?
Each major STAFFDIV and OPDIV (OS, OIG, AHRQ, CDC, CMS, FDA, HRSA, I.H.S., NIH and SAMHSA) reported that it had assessed its FOIA staffing levels during the reporting period.
The OS is currently maintaining its current level of full-time staff, although it added a part-time student to assist in its initial case processing; however, fewer FTEs were available to work on FOIA processing during the reporting period due to one unfilled vacancy halfway through the year, and the detail of a senior staff member to one of the HHS OPDIVs for a significant period, and significant health-related absences.
The OIG’s assessment focused on the number of requests received and backlogged, and overall FOIA performance. Because OIG’s backlog processing time and backlog didn’t significantly increase, OIG maintained its current FOIA staffing level? Workload and backlog trends indicated that additional staffing may be beneficial to CDC, but it maintained current staffing level.
The CMS renewed a contract for a FOIA Task Force comprised of experienced former CMS staff that is helping to process its aged and backlogged requests. The CMS also continued implementing enhancements to bring about greater efficiencies, increased timeliness, and greater accountability among the various CMS components involved in processing FOIA requests.
The FDA reviewed the adequacy of its staffing during preparation of the Annual Report and throughout the year as needed based on changes in the volume of incoming requests, staff turnover, and other factors. Three component FOIA offices within FDA expanded the numbers of staff dedicated to FOIA processing in FY 2012.
The HRSA expects to hire at least one new staff member in 2013. The IHS determined that its FOIA program is adequately staffed, as evidenced by an 83% reduction in the backlog for FY 2012.
The SAMHSA relocated its FOIA function from the Office of Communications to the Executive Correspondence Branch, Office of Policy Planning and Innovation (OPPI). A 120-day detail assignment was used to temporarily increase staffing. The FOIA Officer is receiving much-needed administrative support, and other staff has been made available to support the FOIA request processing work.
- Describe any other steps your agency has undertaken to ensure that your FOIA system operates efficiently and effectively, such as conducting self-assessments to find greater efficiencies, improving search processes, stream-lining consultations, eliminating redundancy, etc.
The OS FOIA office is undergoing an organizational review and is currently considering changes to its organizational structure. The OMHA identified points of contacts for frequently requested records, in order to improve search processes, streamline consultations, and eliminate redundancy. The OMHA began maintaining a new FOIA tracking database and request activities to use for analytical purposes, and to identify possible recurring issues with its FOIA request handling.
The OIG conducted bi-weekly reviews of all open cases, with the goal of having fewer cases pending in the current year than in the prior year. The OIG periodically sent surveys to its frequent requesters, inviting them to comment on OIG’s performance and identify ways that OIG could improve its processes; it also upgraded its computers and software, adding larger hard drives to accommodate electronic processing.
The CDC conducted frequent self-assessments to identify strengths and weaknesses, and made changes to streamline procedures, capitalize FOIA assets, and eliminate duplication of effort. The CDC FOIA Officer assessed the strengths and subject matter interests of each FOIA analyst, and made assignments based on strengths and interests. The CDC found that analysts experienced with certain types of documents were better able to ascertain if packages were complete and were equipped to handle all types of cases related to a specific program. This approach helped CDC handle very complex cases with fewer opportunities for error. The CDC handles very complex and sensitive issues, requiring an emphasis on accuracy. An improper release could seriously damage the reputation of the agency lead to lawsuits and resulting legal fees.
The CDC FOIA office routinely sets goals and monitored the progress of each employee’s caseload through weekly reports. A software package is used to track requests, redact records, and provide reports to management. Processing reports kept management informed and ensured timely program responses. The CDC also provided training to both program staff and FOIA staff on an individual basis, and FOIA staff made themselves available to offer expert advice to program staff regarding FOIA processes and procedures.
The CMS’s automated tracking system streamlined or eliminated many administrative tasks associated with disclosure analysis and request management. Implementation of the system has continued to allow CMS to move documents related to FOIA requests electronically among its headquarters and regional offices, and beginning October 1, 2012, its network of Medicare Administrative Contractors who process a substantial portion of CMS’ FOIA requests. The system provided correspondence templates, automated fee calculations, and electronic transmission of cases throughout the CMS FOIA network, which reduced processing and response times. The system also provided a tool for electronically compiling some of the statistics needed for the Annual FOIA Report. The CMS headquarters FOIA office used automated redaction software to create PDF files and electronically review and redact responsive records. The redaction software also collected metadata which CMS used in preparing the Annual FOIA Report. The expansion of its FOIA tracking system to CMS’ Medicare Administrative Contractors will improve customer service, enhance response times, and better enable CMS to manage its FOIA workloads.
The FDA continued using its electronic FOIA tracking and document storage system to assign requests to components for processing and to store released records. The system eliminated the need to retain copies of responsive records in hard copy, which has shortened the processing time when the same records were requested again, and has enabled records to be transmitted within the FDA electronically instead of through interoffice mail.
In June 2012, FDA’s online FOIA request submission form went live. More than 40% of all FDA FOIA requests are now submitted through the online form, which has reduced time spent on administrative functions such as data entry, sending acknowledgement letters through the mail, and scanning of request letters for assignment to components. The FDA also increased efficiency by centralizing the following functions: administrative tracking, assignment, billing, denials, fee waivers, requests for expedited processing, and appeals.
Components of the FDA triaged requests on receipt into the appropriate queue, and used multi-track processing to capitalize on the efficiencies of responding to simple requests quickly, while answering larger, more complex requests (which require more search and review time) on a “first in-, first-out” basis within each queue and track. Because a request could be in more than one queue, this process enabled FDA to make a partial response for simpler parts of a request. In addition, FDA was able to move a request to a different queue if consultation with a requester indicated that the request was simpler or more complex than first thought.
The FDA posted the contact names and telephone numbers of its FOIA staff, to help requesters more easily contact them. The FDA used software to redact records electronically, used email to release records to requesters electronically, and used CD Rom to release larger records to requesters. The substantial numbers of databases, records, and other resources that FDA made available to the public on the Internet reduced FOIA requests to FDA.
The HRSA completely computerized its FOIA operation so that virtually nothing is done in hard copy; record collection and redaction is done electronically, and responses are emailed in many cases.
The IHS FOIA staff made a request to train other staff in the same division to assist with the FOIA caseload. The IHS used two part-time students/clerks to help with logging in new cases, sending out acknowledgement letters, and sending search requests to the appropriate program offices, which allowed the FOIA staff to focus on the actual processing of each case (i.e., review and redaction of responsive records).
The NIH continued using its very efficient and effective system for responding to requests. Its FOIA processing is decentralized. In addition to the central NIH FOIA office, each NIH Institute and Center (IC) and each relevant NIH Office of the Director component maintained its own FOIA Requester Service Center staffed by a FOIA Coordinator with release authority. Because the processing function was located directly in each IC, the FOIA Coordinators benefited from greater knowledge of the location of requested files, which decreased search time. Because the FOIA Coordinators and the Program Staff are colleagues within the same organizational component, there was greater cooperation in reviewing proposed redactions, which decreased review time.
The NIH FOIA office developed model letters for acknowledging requests and conducting submitter notice, model guidance documents for submitter notice, and model final response letters. These reduced processing time for FOIA Coordinators and ensured consistency across NIH. The NIH FOIA office also developed redaction guides for frequently requested records, such as awarded research grant applications and contract documents. Both the model letters and the redaction guides were made available for download from the NIH FOIA website, where they are accessible by NIH staff. They can also be accessed by a link from NIH’s FOIA Tracking System.
The SAMHSA’s FOIA Officer upgraded its current tracking system to make it more efficient in corresponding with other SAMHSA staff. The new system has already improved the turnaround time for processing a request and is expected to improve the turnaround time even more in 2013.