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.
Please answer the following questions to describe how your agency is utilizing technology to improve its FOIA administration and the public's access to information. You should also include any additional information that that describes your agency's efforts in this area.
Online Tracking of FOIA Requests and Appeals:
- Can a member of the public track the status of his or her request or appeal electronically?
Since the Department’s FOIA operations are decentralized, the HHS OpDivs use different types of FOIA tracking systems. At this time, CDC and CMS have systems in place that allow requesters to see the status of their requests online. OS will be implementing FOIA Xpress in 2015, which also will enable a requester to access request status information. The remaining OpDivs encourage FOIA requesters to contact them by telephone or email to obtain status information about requests.
If yes, how is this tracking feature provided to the public? For example, is it being done through the regular posting of status logs, an online portal, or through another medium?
The use of FOIA Xpress software by OS will allow access to request status information through a system-enabled portal. CDC FOIA requesters can access the information through the CDC FOIA website, which provides information from the agency’s database. The CMS system has an online portal as the access point for requesters to obtain status information for their requests.
If your agency does provide online tracking, please describe the information that is provided to the requester through this feature. For example, some online tracking features may tell the requester whether the request is "open" or "closed," while others will provide further details throughout the course of the processing, such as "search commenced" or "documents currently in review."
FOIA Xpress allows requesters to open an online account through a Public Access Link (PAL), which will enable them to manage their request from submission to finish. PAL accounts also will enable requesters to track where their requests are in the FOIA process. In addition, requesters may opt to receive e-mail updates whenever the status of their request changes. For example, a requester will be able to track when the request is received, assigned to an analyst, sent for search, and ready for response.
The status indicators provided on the CDC web site include perfected/not perfected; pending program search; pending final review; closed. An explanation of each term is provided. CMS also describes the phases of the request life cycle, as follows: new request; search; pending review; document review; and closed.
If your agency does provide online tracking for requesters, does this feature also provide an estimated date of completion?
CMS is the only OpDiv which provides an estimated date of completion when the original FOIA request is entered into the system. However, subsequent circumstances and delays which may alter the estimated completion date are not automatically updated in the system.
If your agency does not provide online tracking of requests or appeals, is your agency taking steps to establish this capability? If not, please explain why?
Budget restrictions continue to challenge the ability of the Department’s OpDivs to obtain electronic systems with online tracking. In addition, for some of the smaller volume OpDivs, adding this feature does not appear to be cost effective. Other OpDivs believe that their FOIA requester service centers provide a more personal, detailed response to status requests from the public than the brief descriptions customarily available through online access.
Making Material Posted Online More Useful:
Beyond posting new material, is your agency taking steps to make the posted information more useful to the public, especially to the community of individuals who regularly access your agency’s website?
- Steps can include soliciting feedback on the content and presentation of posted material, improving search capabilities on your agency website, posting material in open formats, making information available through mobile applications, providing explanatory material, etc.
If yes, please provide examples of such improvements.
- If your agency is already posting material in its most useful format, please describe these efforts.
The Department has made a concerted effort to make more information available through mobile applications and to increase access to more useful information and data. Some examples of these improvements are described below.
The ACF web team has launched an initiative to work with all program offices to bring their web postings to state-of-the-art standards for usability. The initiative includes user testing and other tools to gauge success. ACF also has conducted training and provided monthly tips to content authors and managers to improve web writing and plain language and has implemented a FAQ system that many offices use to address routine questions about their programs and grants.
CMS has been providing large data sets on data.gov for access by the public. The web sites below provide explanatory information to enable users to better utilize this data:
http://www.cms.gov/OpenPayments/Explore-the-Data/Explore-the-Data.html (a guide on open payments data explains the sources, files, and fields of the data)
FDA has a mobile-friendly website, as evidenced by: http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm375062.htm
Many NIH components have implemented new responsive web designs to ensure that content is accessible on any mobile device. Additionally, NIH has begun using search results from visitors to the NIH’s health information page, to feature topics of current interest to the site’s visitors.
Have your agency’s FOIA professionals interacted with other agency staff (such as technology specialists or public affairs or communications professionals) in order to identify if there are any new ways to post agency information online?
Yes. FOIA staff interact with information technology (IT) staff, web teams, and communications and public affairs staff to discuss ways to post information online.
As an example, OS established working relationships with HHS’ Open Government team and 508 compliance staff, which resulted in an agreement that will expedite the posting of large, non-accessible (508) files to the FOIA Reading Room.
Did your agency use any means to publicize or highlight important proactive disclosures for public awareness? If yes, please describe those efforts. (Describe HHS web site, twitter, etc. )
- For example, this can be done through social media or with the offering of e-mail subscription services.
Yes. The Department has actively pursued a policy of informing the public of important information through its website and social media. Some descriptions of those efforts and accomplishment are described below.
ACF highlights posted information via its Twitter handle @ACFHHS and leverages other ACF, HHS, or USA.gov social media accounts to expand the OpDiv’s reach.
CMS strives to inform the public through press releases, bulletins, and postings to the CMS web site and http://www.data.gov. In addition there are RSS feeds, specific web sites for the public, and apps for specific health care purposes. Examples include the following:
FDA has a significant presence in social media (e.g., Facebook) and makes many of its web pages available through subscriptions. For example, https://service.govdelivery.com/accounts/USFDA/subscriber/new?topic_id=USFDA_63 allows the public to receive automatic notifications by email when new Warning Letters are posted to the FDA website. FDA also uses Facebook and Flickr to disseminate information to the public, at www.facebook.com/fda and www.flickr.com/photos/fdaphotos/ and has increased its Twitter feeds, with each center having its own Twitter feed.
In addition, FDA hosts monthly webinars for the public via the FDA website (recent topics have included temporary tattoos, packing healthy lunches, and taking over-the-counter medication while driving http://www.fda.gov/aboutfda/transparency/basics/ucm197102.htm) and provides the public with the ability to subscribe to RSS feed notices or sign up to receive automated emails for updates to over 100 different web pages/databases at: http://www.fda.gov/AboutFDA/ContactFDA/StayInformed/GetEmailUpdates/default.htm. As an example of the available email updates, over 67,000 users have subscribed to FDA’s Warning Letter webpage. When the Warning Letter page is updated (at least weekly), these subscribers receive an automated email, confirming that the web pages have been updated and including a link to the page.
NIH programs have a number of email lists that distribute information and materials to subscribers. In addition, all NIH components use social media (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Pinterest, Google+, LinkedIn).
Has your agency encountered challenges that make it difficult to post records you otherwise would like to post?
If so, please briefly explain what those challenges are.
Compliance with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act is a common issue for the Department’s OpDivs, when trying to post records online. Frequently requested records are often not 508 compliant and making older, paper-copy records compliant with Section 508 of the ADA can be cost prohibitive.
On a different level, the agency faces restrictions and barriers in posting types of healthcare data, due to privacy and proprietary commercial information concerns.
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 yes, describe the technological improvements being made.
Yes. ACF is exploring several document sharing platforms for use in streamlining the referral and document consultation process. CMS obtained the temporary use of e-discovery software through an agreement with DOJ, which has assisted the review of records which are the subject of FOIA litigation. HRSA has transformed into a virtually paperless office and has obtained a dedicated shared drive to receive and store responsive records more reliably and securely.
Are there additional tools that could be utilized by your agency to create further efficiencies?
Yes. Certain components within the FDA are piloting a new Adobe product, which is supposed to make the review of emails with attachments more efficient. Since emails with attachments are frequently reviewed records for FOIA requests, and can be quite cumbersome to separate, review and redact, this type of software would be very useful. In addition, de-duplication software which would be available to HHS OpDivs would be a valuable addition to the Department’s FOIA processing tools. Unfortunately, at this time, such software is prohibitively expensive and beyond the scope of current OpDiv budget constraints.
Did your agency successfully post all four quarterly reports for Fiscal Year 2014?
- Please see OIP’s guidance for posting of quarterly reports to ensure that your agency is following all required steps (including using the correct file type and URL structure) so that your quarterly reports are properly appearing on FOIA.gov. (If your reports are posted to your website, but not appearing of FOIA.gov, please contact OIP in order to resolve the issue.)
If your agency did not successfully post all quarterly reports, with information appearing on FOIA.gov, please explain why and provide your agency’s plan for ensuring that such reporting is successful in Fiscal Year 2015.
Not applicable – the Department posted its quarterly reports for FY 2014.
Do your agency's FOIA professionals use e-mail or other electronic means to communicate with requesters whenever feasible? See OIP Guidance, “The Importance of Good Communication with FOIA Requesters 2.0: Improving Both the Means and the Content of Requester Communications.” (Nov. 22, 2013) If yes, what are the different types of electronic means are utilized by your agency to communicate with requesters?
Yes. The Department uses e-mail to communicate with requesters when feasible and appropriate.
If your agency does not communicate electronically with requesters as a default, are there any limitations or restrictions for the use of such means? If yes, does your agency inform requesters about such limitations? See id.
Certain circumstances may affect whether email is the appropriate vehicle for communications and responses to FOIA requests. In some cases, the responsive records may be too voluminous to allow for an email attachment to be sent by the agency or received by the requester. Also, if the nature and content of the responsive records include security and/or privacy concerns, another more secure method of delivery may be advisable.
- Section I: Steps Taken to Apply the Presumption of Openness
- Section II: Steps Taken to Ensure that Your Agency Has an Effective System in Place for Responding to Requests
- Section III: Steps Taken to Increase Proactive Disclosures
- Section IV: Steps Taken to Greater Utilize Technology
- Section V: Steps Taken to Improve Timeliness in Responding to Requests and Reduce Backlogs