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Section V: Steps Taken to Improve Timeliness in Responding to Requests and Reduce Backlogs

The President and the Attorney General have emphasized the importance of improving timeliness in responding to requests.  This section addresses both time limits and backlog reduction.  Backlog reduction is measured both in terms of numbers of backlogged requests or appeals and by looking at whether agencies closed their ten oldest requests and appeals.  For the figures required in this Section, please use those contained in the specified sections of your agency’s 2012 Annual FOIA Report.

  1. Section VII.A of your agency’s Annual FOIA Report, entitled “FOIA Requests – Response Time for All Processed Requests,” includes figures that show your agency's average response times for processed requests. For agencies utilizing a multi-track system to process requests, there is a category for “simple” requests, which are those requests that are placed in the agency’s fastest (non-expedited) track, based on the low volume and/or simplicity of the records requested. If your agency does not utilize a separate track for processing simple requests, answer the question below using the figure provided in your report for your non-expedited requests. 
    1. Does your agency utilize a separate track for simple requests?
      The FOIA offices of the OIG, AHRQ, CDC, CMS, FDA, IHS, and NIH use a separate track for simple FOIA requests.  The OS, HRSA and SAMHSA do not.
    2. If so, for your agency overall, for Fiscal Year 2012, was the average number of days to process simple requests twenty working days or fewer?
      No; the components that track simple requests separately did not process them, on average, within twenty workings days or fewer.
    3. If your agency does not track simple requests separately, was the average number of days to process non-expedited requests twenty working days or fewer?
      Of those components that do not track requests separately, the average number of days to process non-expedited requests was not twenty working days or fewer. 
  2. Sections XII.D.(2) and XII.E.(2) of your agency’s Annual FOIA Report, entitled “Comparison of Numbers of Requests/Appeals from Previous and Current Annual Report – Backlogged Requests/Appeals,” show the numbers of any backlog of pending requests or pending appeals from Fiscal Year 2012 as compared to Fiscal Year 2011. You should refer to those numbers when completing this section of your Chief FOIA Officer Report. In addition, Section VII.E, entitled “Pending Requests – Ten Oldest Pending Requests,” and Section VI.C.(5), entitled “Ten Oldest Pending Administrative Appeals,” from both Fiscal Year 2011 and Fiscal Year 2012 should be used for this section.
    1. If your agency had a backlog of requests at the close of Fiscal Year 2012, did that backlog decrease as compared with Fiscal Year 2011?
      Yes; overall, the backlog of requests decreased by 12%.
    2. If your agency had a backlog of administrative appeals in Fiscal Year 2012, did that backlog decrease as compared to Fiscal Year 2011?
      No, the overall HHS backlog of administrative appeals increased compared to Fiscal Year 2011.
    3. In Fiscal Year 2012, did your agency close the ten oldest requests that were pending as of the end of Fiscal Year 2011?
      Yes.
    4. In Fiscal Year 2012, did your agency close the ten oldest administrative appeals that were pending as of the end of Fiscal Year 2011?
      Yes.
  3. If you answered “no” to any of the above questions, describe why that has occurred. In doing so, answer the following questions then include any additional explanation:
    Request Backlog:
    1. Was the lack of a reduction in the request backlog a result of an increase in the number of incoming requests?
      Not applicable; requests decreased by 12% overall.
    2. Was the lack of a reduction in the request backlog caused by a loss of staff?
      Not applicable.
    3. Was the lack of a reduction in the request backlog caused by an increase in the complexity of the requests received?
      Not applicable.
    4. What other causes, if any, contributed to the lack of a decrease in the request backlog?
      Not applicable.
  4. Administrative Appeal Backlog:

    1. Was the lack of a reduction in the backlog of administrative appeals a result of an increase in the number of incoming appeals?
      One major factor was an administrative error in that 119 appeals were not counted in the previous Annual Report. 
    2. Was the lack of a reduction in the appeal backlog caused by a loss of staff?
      Fewer FOIA appeals were processed this year; this may have been in part caused by a shift in available staff to other priorities, such as processing initial FOIA requests rather than focusing on appeals.
    3. Was the lack of a reduction in the appeal backlog caused by an increase in the complexity of the appeals received?
      In part this may have been because of an increase in complexity.  
    4. What other causes, if any, contributed to the lack of a decrease in the appeal backlog?
      Another factor may have been from the need to focus on the processing of initial FOIA requests, particularly FOIA requests/appeals involving litigation.
  1. OIP has issued guidance encouraging agencies to make interim releases whenever they are working on requests that involve a voluminous amount of material or require searches in multiple locations. By providing rolling releases to requesters agencies facilitate access to the requested information. If your agency had a backlog in Fiscal Year 2012, please provide an estimate of the number of cases in the backlog where a substantive, interim response was provided during the fiscal year, even though the request was not finally closed.

    While only a rough estimate, approximately 600 backlogged FOIA requesters are believed to have received a substantive, interim response during the fiscal year, even though the request was not finally closed.

Use of FOIA’s Law Enforcement “Exclusions”

In order to increase transparency regarding the use of the FOIA’s statutory law enforcement exclusions, which authorize agencies under certain exceptional circumstances to “treat the records as not subject to the requirements of [the FOIA],” 5 U.S.C. § 552(c)(1), (2), (3), please answer the following questions:

  1. Did your agency invoke a statutory exclusion during Fiscal Year 2012?
    No.
  2. If so, what was the total number of times exclusions were invoked?
    Not applicable.

Spotlight on Success

Out of all the activities undertaken by your agency since March 2012 to increase transparency and improve FOIA administration, describe here one success story that you would like to highlight as emblematic of your agency’s efforts. The success story can come from any one of the five key areas.

While the Indian Health Service’s FOIA program represents a relatively small number of FOIA requests within the HHS overall, its success this year is indicative of the efforts of many HHS FOIA and program staff to contribute to HHS’ continuing success. 

The IHS FOIA staff produced an 83% reduction in the backlog for FY2012.  This is the largest reduction in backlog that IHS has seen in years and the staff is very proud of this achievement.  There are many factors that have led to this outcome.  Through direct contact with program offices, including routine monthly conference calls with Area FOIA Coordinators, and regular consultation with other operating divisions, the FOIA staff was able to provide requesters with quicker responses, sometimes more quickly than the 20-day time limit.  In addition to regular interaction and consultation, direct communications and training of program staff who handle FOIA searches in order to ensure the continuing production of responsive records on a regular basis has helped significantly.  An example of this is that there has been an increase in construction contracts and those project records were very complex.  Through our regular interaction with the Office of Environmental Health and Engineering Office (OEHE), the FOIA staff was better able to determine to which Area office to send the request, instead of forwarding a request to several different program offices or employees.  This meant that the FOIA staff members were better able to provide the requester with the results of an adequate search of IHS’ records.  There are several other program offices with which FOIA staff has developed an ongoing successful relationship with in order to train those employees on the FOIA process, and to have them see that our goal of providing the requester with a complete response is of the utmost importance. 

In addition to interaction with program offices and consultation regarding the records being sought, the FOIA staff has also had the use of two clerks to assist with FOIA processing.  With that assistance, the FOIA office has been better able to focus directly on the substantive processing of FOIA requests; and, most importantly, the FOIA staff was able to spend time focusing on any other issues that would arise with those cases.  Further, those clerks were able to take more phone calls and assist with getting back to requesters about the status of their case, which meant more time could be spent on substantively processing the FOIA requests and making the required redactions to records, if needed.

Another factor that IHS reports led to the reduction in the backlog was also the expertise of the FOIA Coordinators at the Area level.  Several of the FOIA coordinators have years of FOIA expertise and are able to differentiate where there may be potential between FOIA and Privacy Act requests because these staff members usually serve as both the FOIA Coordinator and the Privacy Act Liaisons.  Because those coordinators have extensive background in health records, knowledge of the FOIA, Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), records management, and vast knowledge of their area programs; the FOIA office was better able to receive complete records in response to a request for materials.  Not only was the forwarding of program records done more quickly this year, the records received were more complete.  This year more than any other, we did not have to request duplicate sets of records because of documents missing or inappropriate redactions were done by program staff. 

In summary, there are several factors that led to the HHS success this year.  Most importantly, it is based on multiple facets of striving to provide excellent customer service by establishing and maintaining sound working relationships with IHS employees.  This was done with the help of training, continuing consultation, and guidance provided to requesters and IHS staff so that they can ensure that the FOIA program responsibilities are successfully carried out.