Section II: Steps Taken to Ensure that Your Agency Has an Effective System in Place for Responding to Requests
The Attorney General’s 2009 FOIA Guidelines emphasized that "[a]pplication of the proper disclosure standard is only one part of ensuring transparency. Open government requires not just a presumption of disclosure, but also an effective system for responding to FOIA requests." It is essential that agencies effectively manage their FOIA program.
Please answer the following questions to describe the steps your agency has taken to ensure that the management of your FOIA program is effective and efficient. You should also include any additional information that that describes your agency's efforts in this area.
- For Fiscal Year 2015, what was the average number of days your agency reported for adjudicating requests for expedited processing? Please see Section VIII.A. of your agency's Fiscal Year 2015 Annual FOIA Report.
During FY 2015, DHHS reported an agency-wide average of 9.9 days to adjudicate expedited processing requests. The agency-wide median number of days was 6 days.
- Please note here if your agency did not adjudicate any requests for expedited processing during Fiscal Year 2015.
Not applicable; please see our response above.
- If your agency's average number of days to adjudicate requests for expedited processing was above ten calendar days, please describe the steps your agency will take to ensure that requests for expedited processing are adjudicated within ten calendar days or less.
Not applicable; please see our response to Question 1 above.
- If your agency has a decentralized FOIA process, has your agency taken steps to make the routing of misdirected requests within your agency more efficient? If so, please describe those steps.
Yes. As referenced in the agency’s responses in Section I, DHHS’ FOIA operations are decentralized. OS receives FOIA requests for many of the OpDivs via the request form on its web page and has a system in place for forwarding those requests to the appropriate OpDiv for processing. The DHHS FOIA web site also has direct links to all of the OpDivs FOIA web sites, so that requesters can easily submit their requests to the appropriate DHHS OpDiv.
While DHHS has procedures in place to address misdirected requests, CMS, the departmental OpDiv that receives the largest number of FOIA requests, continues to work on making its process more efficient. Since the majority of FOIA requests received by CMS are beneficiary related, CMS initiated a pilot program with the CMS Atlanta regional office to serve as a “clearinghouse” and to forward all perfected beneficiary requests to the appropriate region. CMS is currently analyzing the results of the pilot to determine if this process should be fully implemented. In addition, CMS is in the processing of modifying the CMS FOIA web page and creating an interactive map to direct the requesters to the appropriate regional location for records.
- If your agency is already handling the routing of misdirected requests in an efficient manner, please note that here and describe your process for these requests.
Since DHHS FOIA operations are decentralized, a variety of checks and balances are in place to ensure that misdirected requests are re-routed in a timely manner to the appropriate program area, office, or component. These include electronically transmitting FOIA requests to the program areas, using automated tracking systems to support the prompt return of misdirected requests, and a network of program and contractor staff who function as FOIA coordinators\liaisons and also assist in routing requests to the correct location. The instructions and guidance provided to these FOIA coordinators, liaisons, and gatekeepers request a prompt notification when a request should be routed to a different office or an additional office for records search.
- On July 2, 2015, OIP issued new guidance to agencies on the proper procedures to be used in the event an agency has a reason to inquire whether a requester is still interested in the processing of his or her request. Please confirm here that to the extent your agency may have had occasion to send a "still interested" inquiry, it has done so in accordance with the new guidelines for doing so, including affording requesters thirty working days to respond.
All DHHS OpDivs have confirmed that they are aware of the new guidelines for sending “still interested” or “continued interest” letters, and have complied with the guidelines if or when these types of letters are sent. Several of the OpDivs have advised that, rather than sending a “still interested” letter, they have contacted requesters by telephone and, if a requester is no longer interested in pursuing that FOIA request, the OpDiv confirms the decision with the requester by email or other written correspondence.
- Agency FOIA Requester Service Centers and FOIA Public Liaisons serve as the face and voice of an agency. In this capacity they provide a very important service for requesters, informing them about how the FOIA process works and providing specific details on the handling of their individual requests. The FOIA also calls on agency FOIA Requester Service Centers and FOIA Public Liaisons to assist requesters in resolving disputes. Please explain here any steps your agency has taken to strengthen these services to better inform requesters about their requests and to prevent or resolve FOIA disputes.
DHHS continually strives to improve efficiencies and processes to better serve our constituents. Examples of how the individual OpDivs have improved their centers and services follow.
ACF FOIA has increased the number of individuals providing FOIA processing and responding to FOIA requests and inquiries.
CDC is increasing this function to improve customer service and reduce the FOIA case backlog through more focused records searches in response to requester’s interests.
CMS has begun reaching out to requesters with appeals pending with the agency, offering to work with the requesters to come up with a response that will meet the requesters’ needs within the original request process. Should the requestor agree, CMS will provide a response or a supplemental response to the original FOIA request, as opposed to going through the lengthier appeal process. The requesters are provided with full appeal rights, should they be dissatisfied with CMS’ additional response.
FDA recently enhanced their telephone tree for incoming calls, so that requesters can more easily obtain the information they are seeking by either a pre-set recording (such as instructions for submitting a request) or speaking with a live agent.
PSC is a small office with a small staff; however, everyone on the PSC staff is trained and available to help a requester. If the PSC is not able to assist a requester, the requester is advised how to contact OGIS for assistance. In addition, PSC recently invested in FOIA software to assist with FOIA tracking and processing, to reduce duplicative efforts, and increase processing efficiency.
- If your agency has not taken any steps recently to strengthen these services, either because there has been no need to due to low demand or because these services are already robust, please briefly explain that here.
Two of the DHHS OpDivs (ACL and HRSA) advised that they have a low demand for these services and that their current structures address this need. Other DHHS OpDivs, as described below, already have strong structures in place to assist and inform the public.
IHS’ current processes and FOIA staff have been able to efficiently respond to requester inquiries and resolve FOIA disputes. IHS FOIA staff make follow up calls and respond to FOIA requesters in a timely manner. The FOIA staff members are knowledgeable in resolving disputes, responding to any questions regarding FOIA, and contact FOIA requesters for clarification or to ask if a requester wishes to narrow the scope of their request, in order to receive a quicker response. IHS FOIA Staff work closely with the IHS Office of Information Technology to have the IHS FOIA website updated each quarter, and ensure documents are easily accessible and downloadable. The FOIA Coordinator listing is updated when staff changes are made and other changes are posted in a timely manner.
NIH has a robust process for working with requesters. The majority of requests NIH receives are straightforward and are processed quickly. Of the 1,268 requests processed in FY 2015, 1,014 were processed on the simple track and 770 of those were processed within 20 days. For requests that appear to be more complicated, FOIA professionals routinely reach out to those requesters within one week of receipt to discuss the request, clarify scope, and, if appropriate, suggest ways of revising the request to better meet the requester’s needs. In addition, because of the decentralized NIH FOIA system, each NIH Institute and Center (IC) and several Office of the Director (OD) components have a dedicated FOIA Coordinator and a dedicated FOIA Public Liaison who are available to work with requesters, as well as program officials.
OIG’s backlog and turnaround timelines are in line with FOIA guidance; however, OIG annually reviews its database and processes for additional possible efficiencies in processing FOIA requests.
SAMHSA is a small agency, and the FOIA Office has only one FTE, who is the agency’s FOIA Officer. The SAMHSA FOIA Officer has been able to interact directly with any requesters who have had questions or concerns regarding their requests.
- If there are any other steps your agency has undertaken to ensure that your FOIA system operates efficiently and effectively, such as conducting self-assessments to find greater efficiencies, improving search processes, eliminating redundancy, etc., please describe them here.
The OS FOIA Office now accepts incoming requests through an online Public Access Link (PAL), which allows requesters to create a unique account, submit requests electronically, check the status of their requests electronically and receive their responses directly through the PAL.
ACF has obtained additional funding to hire contractors to assist in reducing the FOIA backlog. ACF also is utilizing new FOIA software to improve processing, has moved non-FOIA responsibilities out of the FOIA office, and has recruited an additional, permanent FOIA staff member.
CDC conducted a self-assessment and partnered with the DHHS FOIA Office to perform a CDC FOIA program review initiative which identified process improvement opportunities and best practice recommendations which have been implemented or are underway. CDC’s Chief Operating Officer also convened a Tiger Team to identify challenges and opportunities in the program offices to improve timeliness and accuracy in the delivery of responsive records to CDC FOIA for review.
Specific information technology improvements include the following:
- Upgrading the FOIA processing system to the most recent commercial version.
- Deploying additional other supporting hardware and software.
- Acquiring and implementing automated electronic de-duplication technology.
- Using enterprise-wide email searching to locate responsive records.
- Developing a custom Microsoft SharePoint system to enable the electronic transmission of responsive records between CDC program offices and the CDC FOIA Office in native format and to electronically manage annotated and redacted versions of these case records. The system includes various record management features.
CMS conducted a significant assessment of existing systems during 2015 to determine where process improvements could be implemented and redundancies eliminated. CMS re-evaluated the SWIFT FOIA Tracking system, better aligning features and options within the catalogue database to better improve labelling and eliminate duplicative and obsolete nomenclatures; directed fundamental changes to enhance indexing and tracking of requests in order to improve system search capabilities; and issued clarifying guidance to its regions and components on a uniform process for identifying and labelling specific metadata which has enabled CMS to conduct more refined and accurate searches, appropriately assign assignments disposition, and create more accurate reports to track adjudication of requests.
- CMS continues to explore new options and processes to reduce the number of hard copies received in response to records searches. Considerations include using collaboration software and or a cloud base system to more securely transfer large amounts of information in an efficient and expeditious manner.
- CMS is procuring e-discovery software, through an interagency agreement with the Department of Justice, which should realize efficiencies and reduce the staff time required to review and complete disclosure analysis for complex and voluminous requests.
NIH has a very efficient and effective system for responding to requests. FOIA processing at NIH is decentralized. In addition to the central NIH FOIA Office, each NIH Institute and Center (IC) and several NIH Office of the Director components has its own FOIA requester service center staffed by a FOIA professional with release authority. By locating processing directly at the IC level, the FOIA professionals are better positioned to know where requested files may be located, which decreases search time.
Because the FOIA professionals and the program staff are colleagues within the same organizational component, there is greater cooperation regarding the review of any proposed redactions, resulting in decreased review time.
To further expedite the response process, the NIH FOIA Office has created a number of model letters for use by NIH FOIA professionals. These models reduce processing time for FOIA professionals and ensure consistency across NIH. Redaction guides for frequently requested documents such as awarded research grant applications and contract documents also have been developed and distributed by the NIH FOIA Office. Both the model letters and the processing guides are available for download from the NIH FOIA website which is accessible by NIH staff and can be linked to from the NIH FOIA Tracking System, also maintained by the NIH FOIA Office. These resources are reviewed quarterly and revised as necessary. In addition, best practices and successful strategies for processing requests, working with requesters, and working with program officials are shared by the NIH FOIA professionals at the quarterly meetings
The NIH FOIA Office manages a custom tracking system that provides the NIH FOIA Officer with a wealth of data. Each week, the NIH FOIA Officer reviews the FOIA log of requests received the prior week to identify frequent requesters, requests seeking material related to high-profile matters, requests that seek potentially large sets of responsive records, and to generally keep abreast of the NIH’s FOIA case load. The NIH FOIA Officer also reviews the list of pending and overdue requests at least monthly to identify requests that may be posing processing challenges. In such instances, the FOIA Office contacts the responsible FOIA Coordinator to offer guidance, assistance, and encouragement. These lists also are shared with the IC FOIA Coordinators so they can more efficiently manage their individual caseload of pending requests.
- 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