II. Steps Taken to Ensure that Your Agency has an Effective System In Place for Responding to Requests
a. Do FOIA professionals within your agency have sufficient IT support?
The HHS FOIA program is decentralized, and individual FOIA office operations are managed on a day-to-day basis by the organization in which it is situated, to which it provides primary support, and to which it reports managerially.
Each office has a unique situation in terms of the records it handles and the nature of the programs with which it deals. Further, each office has the responsibility of planning for, and purchasing and implementing its own automation systems and internet/web support. While technology may be said to be underutilized, many offices report that they have sufficient support from their organizations for their individual needs, but there are concerns about the overall coordination and integration of HHS-wide systems and functionalities.
The FDA reports that its current FOIA processing system has some IT challenges and that FDA is looking at its operating platforms to determine what changes are needed in order to meet processing and posting needs. Additional IT support may be needed to help improve efficiency.
The AHRQ FOIA office installed a new FOIA tracking system in 2007 to replace its 1996 tracking system. The AHRQ IT staff performs updates for the system regularly. Troubleshooting assistance is available immediately from the AHRQ IT support staff as well as system technical support. The tracking system can generate various management reports so that the FOIA Service Center can track the status of all pending FOIA requests. While the new system is an improvement, in order to comply with the new FOIA requirements for the annual reports, there are still portions of the report that have to be performed manually. This takes additional time to produce.
In 2009, CMS implemented an electronic FOIA request management and tracking system (SWIFT) in its headquarters and 10 regional offices to track all incoming FOIA requests from receipt to final disposition. In 2010, CMS linked the SWIFT tracking system to the CMS FOIA Public Web Application server so that a CMS FOIA requester can obtain an up-to-date status of their request received after January 1, 2009, at the following: http://www.cms.gov/FOIA/04b_CheckStatus.asp#TopOfPage).
In FY 2007, CDC began using a new FOIA tracking system to track and assist in responding to FOIA requests. This system has greatly improved the effectiveness for responding to requests. An online tracker function is available for requesters to check the status of his/her request. Before CDC obtained the software, requests were sent through inter-office mail to the appropriate Centers/Institutes/Offices for a search and response. Now, requests are scanned into the system and electronically disseminated to program staff which has increased receipt of requests at program levels by as many as five days.
The OIG reports that each OIG FOIA specialist and FOIA liaison has extensive IT support. The OIG reports that it has monitored its increasing number of FOIA requests and has allocated additional FOIA positions to meet the growing need, and has updated its FOIA tracking system to generate weekly and monthly metrics ensuring any negative trends are addressed immediately.
The ACF completed a review of its current tracking system, and may consider an upgraded system in FY 2011.
In the HRSA, a team has been formed with the HRSA IT staff the process of computerizing its FOIA response system. The shared goal is that of ensuring that the new FOIA system will be completely compatible with the “SWIFT” document management system.
b. Describe how your agency’s FOIA professionals interact with your Open Government Team.
The HHS FOIA professionals have had significant interaction with the Open Government Team. This has been in the form of both providing feedback as to materials that might be released to the public outside of the standard FOIA request process, as well as cooperating and participating with the Departmental review of the FOIA program initiated in early FY 2010.
The various FOIA Officers participated in a conference call announcing the DHHS FOIA Project, which was part of the Open Government Directive, and met with contractors hired as part of the DHHS FOIA Project and participated in interviews and information collection workshops. The work performed by the Project team remains under review and actions will be undertaken as decisions are developed.
Among the various components, the FDA has a Transparency Task Force, which was created in response to the Obama and Holder memoranda. The purpose of the Task Force is to develop recommendations for making useful and understandable information about FDA activities and decision making more readily available to the public in a timely manner and in a user-friendly format. The Task Force has conducted two public meetings, one in FY2009 and one in FY2010. Additional information about the Task Force is available at the agency’s transparency website, at http://www.fda.gov/AboutFDA/Transparency/TransparencyInitiative/default.htm.
In addition, the FDA’s FOIA Officer regularly works with the HHS FOI/Privacy Acts Division, in disclosure related issues, and participated in the first HHS-wide FOIA Conference in November 2010.
c. Describe the steps your agency has taken to assess whether adequate staffing is being devoted to responding to FOIA requests.
Decisions regarding FOIA program staffing are, consistent with HHS’ program operations, largely decentralized, and assessments of workload and funding allocations for staffing purposes are made within the organizations in which the FOIA offices reside. For example, in the Departmental FOI/Privacy Acts Division an increase in FOIA specialists has been recently allocated, which is expected to help develop the Division’s ability to respond to initial FOIA requests and appeals.
Every month the NIH FOIA Office reviews the list of pending requests for each IC and makes an assessment of the backlog and any progress being made to reduce the backlog. Part of that assessment is a review of the staffing at each IC and whether there are sufficient staff members to process the pending requests. In addition, a staff review is conducted as part of process of compiling data for the FOIA Annual Report.
In the FDA, component offices examine current workload demands and shift work and resources as needed in order to meet backlog reduction goals.
The OIG has monitored the increasing FOIA requests received, and has allocated additional FOIA positions to meet the growing need. We have updated our FOIA tracking system to generate weekly and monthly metrics ensuring any negative trends are addressed immediately.
The HRSA FOIA office is in the process of hiring an additional FOIA Specialist to help cope with the rapidly rising number of FOIA requests. This growth is likely due, in part, to the increase in HRSA funding the Affordable Care Act to double the number of community health centers in the next five years.
d. Describe any other steps your agency has undertaken to ensure that your FOIA system operates efficiently and effectively.
Again, HHS has a decentralized FOIA processing program, in which each major operating division, as well as the OIG and Office of the Secretary has its own FOIA processing operations. Each of the offices varies, and considerable work has taken place in the past year to both improve operations as well as to reduce the number of backlogged FOIA requests.
The NIH has a very effective system for responding to requests. As described above, FOIA processing at NIH is decentralized. In addition to the central NIH FOIA Office, each NIH IC and several NIH Office of the Director components have its own FOIA Requester Service Center staffed by a FOIA Coordinator with release authority. By having processing located directly in the IC, the FOIA Coordinators have greater knowledge of the location of requested files, which decreases search time. Because the FOIA Coordinators and the program staff members are colleagues within the same organization, there is greater cooperation regarding reviewing proposed redactions which decreases review time.
To assist with this effort, in addition to processing records that fall within the Office of the Director, the NIH FOIA Officer and her staff have prepared model letters for acknowledging requests and conducting submitter notice, model guidance documents.
A preliminary review of CMS FOIA operations revealed several areas warranting immediate attention. The CMS instituted several quick fixes to bring about greater efficiencies, process transparencies and accountability. These efforts are concentrated on the following areas of improvement: improved responsiveness by filtering out incomplete requests for immediate denial and closure; improved data entry and management notification of incoming high profile requests, appeals and litigation; and, the enhancement of resources with the addition of a newly hired but FOIA-experienced analyst.
The CMS management oversight function was strengthened through: mandated use of the SWIFT information system as management tool of accountability, transparency and workload management; the assignment of responsibility to a senior analyst for workload monitoring and oversight; and, enhanced staff development via more frequent staff meetings, in-service staff training, management coaching, and documented feedback.
A number of general processing enhancements were made. These include the maximum utilization of SWIFT including mandatory use of reports as a tool of accountability and transparency; the creation of an administrative support team to assume clerical and administrative work currently performed by FOIA analysts; the re-delegation of certain, limited authority to Regional Offices to deny records to speed up the execution of final case determinations; and, the updating of the CMS FOIA website with appropriate forms, policies, and procedures to enhance the ability of the public to submit complete and clear requests that can be more speedily processed.
In FY 2007 the CDC began using new software to track and assist in responding to FOIA requests. This system has greatly improved the effectiveness in responding to FOIA requests. An on-line tool is available for requesters to check the status of FOIA requests. Before CDC obtained the software, requests were sent through interoffice mail to the appropriate Centers/Institutes/Offices for a search and response. Now, requests are scanned into the system and electronically disseminated to program staff, which has increased the speed at which program offices by as many as five days.
The OIG has updated its FOIA tracking system to generate weekly and monthly metrics ensuring any negative trends are addressed immediately.
The PHS/PSC FOIA office continues to educate and train agency personnel in conducting adequate and proper searches, and communicates with program offices to ensure complete understanding of the request in an effort to improve the accuracy of records searches.
The ACF completed a review of its current tracking system, and, may consider an upgraded system in FY 2011.
The HRSA FOIA staff now holds brief daily staff meetings to review progress and identify potential problems; its goal is to minimize turnaround time while maintaining optimum quality in providing accurate and complete responses to requestors.