Skip Navigation
  • Text Size: A A A
  • Print
  • Email
  • Facebook
  • Tweet
  • Share
  • Print
  • Email
  • Facebook
  • Tweet
  • Share

IV. Steps Taken To Greater Utilize Technology

A key component of the President's FOIA Memorandum was the direction to "use modern technology to inform citizens about what is known and done by their Government." In addition to using the internet to make proactive disclosures, agencies should also be exploring ways to utilize technology in responding to requests. In 2010 agencies reported widespread use of technology in handling FOIA requests. For this section of your Chief FOIA Officer Report for 2011, please answer the following more targeted questions:

1. Electronic receipt of FOIA requests:

a. What proportion of the components within your agency which receive FOIA requests have the capability to receive such requests electronically?

Each of the HHS components, or 100%, that receive FOIA requests has the capability to receive them electronically. 

b. To what extent have you increased the number of components doing so since the filing of your last Chief FOIA Officer Report?

As each of the components were capable of receiving them electronically as of the last Chief FOIA Officer Report, there has been no increase; however, several additional of the components are now able to receive requests via their web page rather than only by e-mail or by fax machine.

c. What methods does your agency use to receive requests electronically?

The Department of Health & Human Services (DHHS) headquarters office and five other major operating or staff divisions can accept electronic submission of new requests through their internet website. When the Office of the Secretary’s FOI/Privacy Acts Division receives an e-request for records maintained by another HHS component, that FOIA request is e-mailed for official receipt and logging, and further processing. Each of the major component FOIA offices can accept FOIA requests only by e-mail and by fax.

2. Electronic tracking of FOIA requests: 

a. What proportion of components within your agency which receive FOIA requests have the capability to track such requests electronically?

Each of the HHS components, or 100%, that receive FOIA requests uses, at a minimum, some type of software to track or document actions taken on FOIA requests. As each major component currently uses a different or its own version of various systems, the capability or extent to which those organizations have the capability to more fully track requests varies greatly from component to component. Some have more fully developed systems, while others have more limited electronic methodology. 

b. To what extent have you increased the number of components doing so since the filing of your last Chief FOIA Officer Report?

As each of the components were capable of tracking requests electronically as of the last Chief FOIA Officer Report, there has been no increase; however, several additional of the components are now able to receive requests via their web page rather than only by e-mail or by fax machine.

c. What methods does your agency use to track requests electronically?

Again, as HHS is very decentralized, and each major component tracks its own requests in its own system. Some of the larger organizational components have systems that are very highly developed vendor systems or have been developed by agency IT and FOIA staff, and some are more basic systems primarily used by smaller FOIA offices.

3. Electronic processing of FOIA requests: 

a. What proportion of components within your agency which receive FOIA requests have the capability to process such requests electronically?

Each of the components with HHS which receive FOIA requests, or 100%, has the capability to process such requests, to at least some degree, electronically.

b. To what extent have you increased the number of components doing so since the filing of your last Chief FOIA Officer Report?

As each of the components has continued to have electronic capability, the number remains at 100 percent, although the various components have continued to purchase and implement various electronic tools to assist in increasing the degree of electronic processing. 

c. What methods does your agency use to process requests electronically?

The methods vary considerably, and vary in the degree to which electronic tools are utilized, but steps have continued been taken within the individual FOIA offices to incrementally increase the use of technology. The Office of the Secretary’s FOI/Privacy Acts Division continues to increase its use of an electronic redaction tool, and forwards new requests to the appropriate organizations by e-mail for search; records responsive to FOIA requests are increasingly released electronically. 

Other examples include the NIH, which searches electronic databases for responsive records, retrieves and stores responsive records electronically, redacts responsive records electronically, and releases records via e-mail or posts to a secure web server.

The CDC now utilizes technology via an automated system to expedite the FOIA process by electronically disseminating FOIA requests to program areas within 24 hours of receipt. Tracking reports are generated from the database to assist programs in returning documents to the CDC FOIA Office in a timely manner. Requests are submitted through e-mails, faxes, hard copy, or on-line submissions. The CDC uses software which enables FOIA analysts to redact electronically, thereby reducing the time it takes to prepare redacted responses for release. The software also enables CDC to store a full administrative record as well as redacted and un-redacted response documents. Reports are generated bi-monthly to program coordinators and monthly to CDC management officials. CDC uses a web-based redaction system. The CDC FOIA staff is supported by CDC IT staff as well as contracted technical support staff. The CDC reports that its officials understand the importance of the CDC FOIA database and are quick to resolve issues that may arise. 

CDC/ATSDR FOIA Office routinely sets goals and monitors progress of each employee’s case load through weekly reports. CDC’s software package for tracking and redacting FOIA requests is utilized to track requests and to provide reports to management. This system keeps management informed and ensures timely program responses. The CDC FOIA Officer has assessed the strengths of each employee and has made assignments based on those strengths. We have developed tracking and reporting systems to assist our office and program offices in providing timely and accurate responses. Training has been provided to program staff. Training is also provided to FOIA Office staff on an individual basis. FOIA Office staff are available to offer expert advice to program staff regarding procedures and practices.

4. Electronic preparation of your Annual FOIA Report:

a. What type of technology does your agency use to prepare your agency Annual FOIA Report, i.e., specify whether the technology is FOIA-specific or a generic data-processing system. 

This year the HHS contracted for assistance in the collection and consolidation of the HHS Annual FOIA Report. This included the development, testing, and implementation of an electronic tool to collect the relevant data from the various HHS component FOIA offices which has, heretofore, required a time-consuming and labor-intensive manual process. The contractor also converted the data to the XML format, and further converted the data to the human-readable format, in compliance with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The contractor’s work significantly helped to improve the efficiency of headquarters FOIA staff time spent on development of the Annual Report.
However, each of the HHS FOIA offices continues to handle its own respective data collection and consolidation in order to contribute its portion of the overall HHS report, although a number of them, such as NIH, CDC, FDA, OIG, and CMS have systems that more readily produce the required report information. A few FOIA offices continue to use primarily manual methods to compile FOIA report statistics. Again, each of the electronic systems varies in the degree to which they can produce the relevant data automatically. 

For example, the custom-built NIH-wide Tracking System has a “report” feature that is used to prepare the Annual Report. Preparation of the Annual Report is a simple matter of running a few reports for the applicable fiscal year or time period. The AHRQ FOIA tracking system can generate the Annual FOIA Report. In order to comply with the new FOIA requirements for the annual reports, there are still portions of the report that have to be completed manually. The CDC Annual Report is generated through its database electronically. Some offices, such as the Office of the Secretary, OIG, and PHS/PSC currently use an Access-based database to prepare our Annual Report.

b. If you are not satisfied with your existing system to prepare your Annual FOIA Report, describe the steps you have taken to increase your use of technology for next year.

As HHS does not have an enterprise, Departmentwide system to collect and consolidate data for HHS FOIA reports, the services of a contractor have been utilized this year to develop a tool to help perform this function, convert the data into the XML format, and to ensure the material may be posted in the 508-compliant format. The HHS continues to explore its alternatives insofar as the overall automation and reporting function, for the Department as a whole.