V. Steps Taken to Reduce Backlogs and Improve Timeliness in Responding to Requests
1. Backlog Reduction: The overall HHS initial FOIA request backlog drastically improved from 17,511 to 9,552. The overall HHS administrative FOIA appeals also greatly improved from 417 to 242. The agency closed, in FY 2010, each of the ten oldest initial FOIA requests, as well as each of the ten oldest FOIA administrative appeals, from FY 2009.
2. a. Is the backlog increase a result of an increase in the number of incoming requests and appeals?
b. Is the backlog increase caused by a loss of staff?
c. Is the backlog increase caused by an increase in the complexity of the requests received?
d. What other causes, if any, contributed to the increase in backlog?
3. Describe the steps your agency is taking to reduce any backlogs and to improve timeliness in responding to requests and administrative appeals.
Most of HHS’ various FOIA offices undertook have made a major effort to reduce their respective backlogs and improve timeliness, and most have significantly reduced their backlogs. For example, the Office of the Secretary’s FOI/Privacy Acts Division undertook a backlog reduction plan late in the year and by the end of Fiscal Year 2010 reduced its backlog from 722 to 525; larger reductions had been achieved by end of January 2011.
The CMS achieved the greatest success, in terms of magnitude, in reducing its initial FOIA request backlog with its project, from 10,312, to 3,486, a reduction of 6,826 backlogged requests.
As mentioned previously, most of the other FOIA offices also achieved major reductions, especially ACF, PHS/PSC, and CDC.
a. Does your agency routinely set goals and monitor the progress of your FOIA caseload?
While each individual component is responsible for its operations on a day to day basis, HHS does have a goal, consistent with the Office of Management and Budget’s Open Government initiative, of reducing its backlog by at least ten (10) percent each year.
Each major component is now requested to report, on a routine basis, such fundamental FOIA processing statistics as the number of FOI requests received, processed, and the number of backlogged FOIA requests. A number of FOIA offices report that goals and monitoring of FOIA caseload process is done.
For example, the CDC FOIA office reports that it routinely sets goals and monitors progress of each employee’s case load through weekly reports. The PHS/PSC FOIA office sets a goal to close at least 10 appeals and 40 requests per month.
The FDA reports that its FOIA Council meets regularly to discuss, among other things, the backlog. In addition, DFOI sends out weekly and monthly reports to senior management that include various data regarding the FOIA workload. Finally, FOIA is part of the FDA Track program, which tracks various data points regarding the program and makes the data available to the public on our website. DFOI meets each quarter with the Office of the Commissioner to review and discuss the FDA Track metrics. Information regarding FDA Track, and the FOIA dashboard, are available at http://www.fda.gov/AboutFDA/Transparency/track/ucm195011.htm and http://www.fda.gov/AboutFDA/Transparency/track/ucm206323.htm.
b. Has your agency increased its FOIA staffing?
While the overall level of HHS’s FOIA staffing has experienced a slight decrease in staffing from 264 to 257, some components have recently increased staff. For example, the PHS/PSC added one (1) FTE and one contractor staff member, the HRSA added one (1) additional employee, and the Office of the Secretary is increasing its staff similarly. The CDC has increased its staff in recent years from just a few staff members to the point where it now has 12 employees. The primary example of a focused increase in staff this year is CMS, which increased its overall total staff resources size from 67 to 74.
c. Has your agency made IT improvements to increase timeliness?
A number of components have made IT improvements to increase timeliness. For example, as mentioned previously, the implementation of an automated tool to collect annual FOIA report data will help increase the time available to process FOIA requests in the Office of the Secretary. A number of components report continued efforts to implement improvements in electronic processing techniques, the implementation of new software, and the continued development of existing software.
For example, the CDC 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 CMS, in recent years, has built a FOIA database and management tool based on the correspondence control system it already used for managing correspondence. This new tool began operations in early calendar 2009 and has now accumulated over a year of case management information. The implementation of the automated tracking system has been setup to streamline or eliminate the administrative aspect involved in disclosure analysis and request management. Correspondence templates, automated fee calculation and electronic transmission of cases throughout the CMS FOIA network contribute to the reduction in processing time, thereby improving timeliness in responding to requests.
d. Has your agency Chief FOIA Officer been involved in overseeing your agency’s capacity to process requests?
The HHS Chief FOIA Officer has been involved in overseeing the HHS’ capacity to process requests. Considerable attention has been given to efforts to identify improvements in processing techniques, the consideration of new automated systems, and the organizational structure and functions of the overall HHS FOIA program. Changes to the current structure and methodology continue to be considered. One major indication of the interest of the Chief FOIA Officer has been his decision to host HHS’ first Departmentwide FOIA Conference in November 2010.