• Text Resize A A A
  • Print Print
  • Share Share on facebook Share on twitter Share

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.

Making Material Posted Online More Usable:

  1. Beyond posting new material, is your agency taking steps to make the posted information more useable 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.

Yes. DHHS is continuing its concerted effort to make more information available through mobile applications and to increase access to more useful information and data.

  1. If yes, please provide examples of such improvements.

ACF’s professional web team works with the ACF program offices to ensure that web postings are user-friendly and conform to industry standards for usability and visual impact.

CDC’s Office of Communications and the various CDC communications program offices have a very proactive website and social media communications strategy. CDC’s FOIA Office has significantly enhanced its relationship with the CDC communications community and has actively promoted the importance of proactively posting information related to FOIA request topics. The CDC FOIA public website has been enhanced to include suggestions for finding information on the CDC website and to provide additional information about CDC’s FOIA program and efforts to improve response times and performance statistics.

CMS provides online access to information for researchers. CMS recently created the CMS Virtual Research Data Center (VRDC) which provides researchers with access to the most comprehensive and up-to-date CMS data sets. The VRDC will provide investigators with timelier access to data and a variety of data analysis tools. VRDC also will provide researchers doing approved surveillance and other studies that require that data be refreshed on a regular basis with that current data; something that previously has been unavailable. http://www.resdac.org/cms-data/request/cms-virtual-research-data-center.

FDA has implemented a mobile-friendly website, as illustrated by their Consumer Updates web site at
http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm375062.htm. FDA also makes many of its web pages available through subscriptions. An example is https://service.govdelivery.com/accounts/USFDA/subscriber/new?topic_id=USFDA_63, which allows the public to receive automatic notifications by email when new Warning Letters are posted to the FDA website. The FDA Office of Regulatory Affairs recently updated its Reading Room to enhance the search and viewing experience across mobile devices at
http://www.fda.gov/AboutFDA/CentersOffices/OfficeofGlobalRegulatoryOperationsandPolicy/ORA/ORAElectronicReadingRoom/default.htm.  FDA also has a significant presence in social media (e.g. Facebook) and FDA pushes links to its posted content on its Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/#!/FDA?rf=108255272529974.

SAMHSA revamped its entire website during FY2015 to make it more current and more user-friendly. Each SAMHSA Center/Office provided input as to the most requested and useful information to be included and checked the website content for accuracy.

If your agency is already posting material in its most useful format, please describe these efforts.

NIH re-launched its primary website, http://www.nih.gov, with significant upgrades from previous iterations. The new site was developed using responsive-design, which allows for dramatically improved web browsing with mobile devices. Additional NIH initiatives include the following:

NIH launched a Spanish-language health information website, Portal de Información de Salud de NIH, that offers free, evidence-based health information on topics ranging from child health to aging.  The mobile-friendly site features a monthly column, Ask Carla (Pregunta a Carla), designed as an opportunity for readers to learn about Spanish-language resources available from NIH: http://salud.nih.gov.

  1. 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 frequently solicit assistance from the information technology staff to help facilitate online postings.

Use of Technology to Facilitate Processing of Requests:

  1. Did your agency conduct training for FOIA staff on any new processing tools during the reporting period, such as for new a case management system, or for search, redaction, or other processing tools.
  • Please note that this question is focused on training provided to your FOIA professionals for the use of technology and IT tools that assist them in their day-to-day work of processing requests. Your agency's efforts to provide substantive training on the FOIA itself and the requirements of the law should be addressed in response to Question 1 of Section I of your Chief FOIA Officer Report.

Yes. OS, ACF, CDC, CMS, FDA, HRSA and PSC all conducted training for new or existing FOIA processing systems.

  1. Beyond using technology to redact documents, is your agency taking steps to use 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. The Department is continuing to seek technological advances to process FOIA requests more efficiently. For example, the OS, CDC and PSC offices are now using FOIA Xpress software to help track and process FOIA requests; ACF will be using this software in the near future.

CDC has trained staff on a new CDC-developed system called the FOIA Document Exchange System (FDES) which was developed to support bi-directional exchange of FOIA-responsive records in their native format, annotated version, and redacted product between CDC Program Offices and the CDC FOIA Office. FDES leverages the Microsoft SharePoint platform and enables the program offices to collect responsive documents from a variety of subject matter experts and send them to the CDC FOIA Office as a consolidated set of files for reviewing, redacting and response to the requesters in a very efficient manner. This eliminates the need for program offices to print documents and transport them to the CDC FOIA Office; thereby shortening transit time, reducing manual involvement, and drastically reducing paper usage, storage, and disposition. The system also provides efficient archiving of document sets based on their assigned records retention schedules.

If responsive document sets are likely to include duplicate documents, the CDC FOIA Office can identify any electronic documents using the FOIAXpress Advanced Document Review (ADR) module. the resulting "de-duplicated" set of documents can then be sent back to the CDC program office for review and annotation. This reduces the number of documents CDC program offices have to review, reducing the time to respond to FOIA requesters. CDC has experienced reductions of 30-70% in page volume by employing this de-duplication process.

NIH components also use de-duplication software when appropriate to remove duplicate documents, especially email records.  In addition, NIH FOIA professionals use centralized email searches rather than relying on time-consuming account-holder searches.

  1. Are there additional tools that could be utilized by your agency to create further efficiencies?

Yes. There are certain types of e-discovery software that would be very useful in processing records for large, voluminous FOIA requests. Unfortunately, budget constraints have not allowed these purchases.

Other Initiatives:

  1. Did your agency successfully post all four quarterly reports for Fiscal Year 2015?
  • 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.)


  1. 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 2016.

Not applicable; please see our response above.

  1. 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 that are utilized by your agency to communicate with requesters?
  • If decentralized, please indicate whether all components use email or other electronic means to communicate with requesters.
  • Please note that this includes all types of communications throughout the FOIA process.

Yes. DHHS OpDivs use e-mail to communicate with requesters when feasible and appropriate. However, there are circumstances in which other methods such as telephone communications, facsimile, traditional postal mail, and special delivery carriers are used.

  1. If your agency does not communicate electronically with requests 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.
  • If decentralized, please indicate whether any of your agency's components have specific limitations or restrictions for the use of such means and if those components have informed requesters of such limitations.

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 OpDiv or received by the requester, although a few components use a large file delivery server or secure file transfer system. The OS FOIA Office uses a FOIA web portal with response capability, and frequently sends records to requesters via that system.

Also, if the nature and content of the responsive records or communication include security and/or privacy concerns, another more secure method of delivery than email may be advisable. As an example, CMS receives many requests for beneficiary records, which contain personally identifiable health information. Such records are generally transmitted via postal mail or, in certain cases, by a mail courier company with tracking capacity and delivery confirmation.

DHHS FOIA offices do not routinely advise FOIA requesters of the type of delivery that will be used to respond to their request; however, if a requester specifically requests a certain mode of delivery and the responsible FOIA office cannot accommodate that request, the office will so advise the requester.

Back to HHS Chief FOIA Officers Report >>

Content created by Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Division
Content last reviewed on February 5, 2016