Section 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 and 2011, agencies reported widespread use of technology in handling FOIA requests. For 2012, the questions have been further refined and now also address different, more innovative aspects of technology use.
Electronic receipt of FOIA requests:
- Can FOIA requests be made electronically to your agency?
Yes; requests can be made electronically through the HHS FOIA website, at: http://wcdapps.hhs.gov/FoiaRequest/.
- If your agency is decentralized, can FOIA requests be made electronically to all components of your agency?
Online tracking of FOIA requests:
- Can a FOIA requester track the status of his/her request electronically?
Currently, only CDC and CMS provide an online method for FOIA requesters to check the status of their requests.
- If so, describe the information that is provided to the requester through the tracking system. For example, some tracking systems might tell the requester whether the request is "open" or "closed," while others will provide further details to the requester throughout the course of the processing, such as "search commenced" or "documents currently in review.”
List the specific types of information that are available through your agency's tracking system.
The CDC’s tracking system reflects the status of a request as “received,” “pending search,” “pending review,” or “closed.”
The CMS’s tracking system displays these status fields: Control Number, Date Received, Subject, Projected Date of Response, and Date of Response.
- In particular, does your agency tracking system provide the requester with an estimated date of completion for his or her request?
The CMS’s online status mechanism provides an estimated completion date, but due to the large volume and varying complexity of incoming requests, CMS cannot calculate the estimated completion date with accuracy for all requests. The tracking systems used by CDC and other HHS components do not automatically provide requesters to obtain an estimated date of completion online, but capture an estimated date of completion, which is provided to the requester upon request by phone, mail or email.
- If your agency does not provide online tracking of requests, is your agency taking steps to establish this capability?
Additional HHS components are implementing, or considering implementing, mechanisms that would allow requesters to check the status of their requests online. The OIG currently is revamping its databases to allow electronic status checks. The HRSA hopes to implement online tracking within the next two years. Now that FDA’s online submission system has gone live, FDA is evaluating whether the system could be used for additional functions, including online status checking, in the future. The SAMHSA are also assessing whether they can provide the capability in the future.
Use of technology to facilitate processing of requests:
- Beyond using technology to redact documents, is your agency taking steps to utilize more advanced technology to facilitate overall FOIA efficiency, such as improving record search capabilities, utilizing document sharing platforms for consultations and referrals, or employing software that can sort and de-duplicate documents?
- If so, describe the technological improvements being made.
The OS and IHS FOIA offices are encouraging program offices to provide more responsive records in electronic form at the outset, to avoid the need for FOIA staff to scan paper records (convert them to electronic form) in order to redact them electronically.
The OMHA is transitioning from paper to electronic business processes, and as part of that transformation is proposing to store all records subject to FOIA requests on a shared network. The OMHA is examining whether it can leverage its tracking system for its own program appeals (the Medicare Appeals System (MAS)) to store more documents that may in turn be used as a platform for obtaining documents from the different OMHA field offices.
The OIG is considering using a consolidated document sharing platform.
The CDC is investigating methods of secure electronic submission to expedite document transfers instead of using CDC’s e-mail system, which limits the size of files that may be transmitted. The CDC is encouraging its program offices to develop systems of records that are searchable and allow for easy retrieval.
The FDA is using e-mail and PDF technology to conduct referrals and consultations with other agencies electronically; and, uses its electronic database to both track FOIA requests and store released records. The FDA uses its electronic redaction software not only to redact records but to make internal comments, and releases records via e-mail when appropriate. The FDA evaluates other technologies for the FOIA program, as they become available, subject to cost and budget.
Certain NIH components are now electronically sharing documents for consultation purposes, and others are implementing the capability over the next several months. However, because FOIA processing at NIH is decentralized, the demand or need for the ability to share documents across organizations is minimal.
The SAMHSA’s Grants Management Division is making Grant Applications available electronically to SAMHSA’s FOIA office; previously, the applications were provided only in hard copy. The electronic copy will make transferring of records more efficient and allow the electronic redaction of these documents much faster.