Section II: Steps Taken to Ensure that Your Agency Has an Effective System in Place for Responding to Requests

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.

Processing Procedures

  1. For Fiscal Year 2016, 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 2016 Annual FOIA Report.

During FY 2016, HHS reported an agency-wide average of 7.74 days to adjudicate expedited processing requests.  The agency-wide median was 6 days.

  1. 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 above to Question 1.

  1. During the reporting period, did your agency conduct a self-assessment of its FOIA program? If so, please describe the methods used, such as reviewing Annual Report data, using active workflows and track management, reviewing and updating processing procedures, etc. 
  • The OS FOIA Officer continued to conduct meetings during 2016 with Departmental FOIA Directors to solicit opinions, encourage and engage the OpDivs’ FOIA directors as a community, and foster discussion of common operational challenges and possible solutions or policy guidance. The major goal of our 2016 meetings was to draft updated departmental FOIA regulations; these efforts resulted in revised and updated HHS FOIA regulations which were published on October 28, 2016 and took effect on November 28, 2016.
  • ACF studied the annual report data for both ACF and other HHS components to determine what additional resources were required to improve the rate of ACF’s FOIA responses.
  • ACL performs ongoing self-assessments, primarily to review quarterly and annual report data and to update its processing procedures.
  • CDC used the following self-assessment tools: analyzing the CDC FOIA analysts’ workflow and performance metrics; reviewing data on program office response time to requests for documents; and, reviewing annual FOIA report data.
  • CMS has implemented new active workflow management weekly and monthly reports to senior leadership to self-assess the FOIA program on an ongoing basis. CMS also continues to review and update standard processing procedures to make the best use of the agency resources available to process requests.  Two specific examples are:
  • the development of new guidelines for staff entering FOIA requests into CMS’ electronic tracking and processing system to improve consistency, which has greatly enhanced the ability to search for requests and identify similar requests and resulted in more efficient records processing and release; and
  • the development of a guidance manual for use by the ten CMS Regional Offices, which clarifies requirements and supports streamlined operations and collaboration between state survey agencies and the CMS Central FOIA Office necessary to process the high volume of facility survey and certification FOIA requests CMS receives annually.
  • HRSA’s FOIA Office utilizes the quarterly report and some features in the FOIA SWIFT program (its case tracking system) as benchmarks which are helpful for measuring HRSA’s current performance against its past performance.
  • The IHS FOIA staff conducted a review of its FOIA processes (tracking, processing times, and procedures) and identified several areas for improvement. As a result of this review, IHS developed an Access database that will assist the FOIA program in streamlining its tracking and reporting. A more detailed description of the improvements implemented by IHS is provided in response to Question 8 of this Section.
  • The NIH FOIA Officer assessed the FOIA program regularly, using a variety of methods, to assess the following: weekly trends in the number of pending and backlogged requests and incoming requests; monthly reviews of backlogged requests to identify FOIA offices with increasing numbers; and post-audits of all closed requests to ensure compliance with the FOIA, and the HHS FOIA Regulations and consistency across the NIH.
  • OIG conducted a full review of all open FOIA requests monthly, to ensure that FOIA professionals are apprised and aware of the current status of open FOIA requests.
  • SAMHSA tracked its processing workflow every week, created spreadsheets to track cases in detail, and compared annual report data from previous years to the current year.
  1. Please provide an estimate of how many requests your agency processed in Fiscal Year 2016 that were from commercial use requesters.  If your agency is decentralized, please identify any components within your agency that received a majority of their requests from commercial use requesters. 

The Department estimates that approximately 25,000 requests out of the 36,190 FOIA requests processed during FY 2016 were submitted by commercial requesters. The three OpDivs that received a majority of their requests (over 50%) from commercial use requesters were the CDC, CMS and FDA. 

Requester Services

  1. Does your agency provide a mechanism for requesters to provide feedback about their experience with the FOIA process at your agency?  If so, please describe the methods used, such as making the FOIA Public Liaison available to receive feedback, using surveys posted on the agency’s website, etc.

The HHS OpDivs provide contact information for their FOIA Public Liaisons online at and many of the OpDivs provide that information in their acknowledgement letters, response letters, or on their FOIA web sites.  In addition, OIG provides the contact information for the FOIA analyst who processed the request in the final response letter and IHS provides contact information for the OpDiv’s FOIA analysts on the OpDiv’s website.

  1. The FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 requires additional notification to requesters about the services provided by the agency’s FOIA Public Liaison. Please provide an estimate of how often requesters sought assistance from your agency’s FOIA Public Liaison. 

Since the Department’s administration of FOIA is decentralized, there is a FOIA Public Liaison at each of the HHS FOIA Service Centers. The number of times a FOIA Public Liaison was contacted varied by Service Center; some liaisons were contacted by 10 or fewer requesters, and others received hundreds of inquiries.  Some of these contacts were actually inquiries which could have been answered by other FOIA staff members and others were requests for assistance.  HHS estimates that approximately 2,000 inquiries or requests for assistance were made to the HHS FOIA Public Liaisons during the past year.

  1. The FOIA Improvement Act of 2016 requires agencies to make their reference material or guide for requesting records or information from the agency electronically available to the public. Please provide a link to your agency’s FOIA reference guide.

HHS has a main FOIA webpage at which includes a menu and links to reference materials, FOIA reports, instructions for submitting a FOIA request, Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs), fees, and other FOIA-related information. Links to the OpDiv-specific FOIA Service Centers and FOIA reference materials also are included on the webpage.

Other Initiatives  

  1. If there are any other steps your agency has undertaken to ensure that your FOIA system operates efficiently and effectively, such as improving search processes, eliminating redundancy, etc., please describe them here.

HHS initiatives to enhance the efficiency of our FOIA operations continue; as described in the following paragraphs.

  • Effective October 1, 2016, HHS consolidated the Program Support Center (PSC) FOIA program with the OS FOIA Division. The PSC successfully supported their FOIA services customers for many years; however, HHS recognized the potential for a more integrated and streamlined service model by combining the two existing FOIA offices and aligning all OS FOIA resources within ASPA; where FOIA is part of ASPA’s core mission. The resulting FOIA organization is positioned to leverage the combined knowledge base and FOIA infrastructure with the goals of an integrated leadership structure, improved workload allocation, and joint resource utilization; i.e., eliminating process redundancies and capitalizing, where possible, on economies of scale.
  • The OS FOIA Office also worked extensively with the CDC FOIA Office to assess FOIA work processes and recommend strategies for immediate and long-term improvements and participated in the selection of a new FOIA Director.
  • The CDC FOIA Office has implemented new workflow processes to improve efficiency and accountability; for example, decreasing the number of forms that must be completed by the CDC program offices from three forms to one. In addition, the CDC FOIA Office tracks program office response times, provides monthly metrics to each program office head and the Chief Operating Officer, and conducts monthly conference calls with the FOIA coordinators who serve as the liaisons between the CDC program offices and the CDC FOIA office. As a result of the realized operational efficiencies, CDC reduced its initial FOIA request backlog by 43% compared to FY 2015.
  • ACF procured contract support to assist in closing backlogged FOIA requests. In addition, ACF implemented a new/ upgraded case tracking system, purchased email de-duplication software, and procured a link to an online portal which will enable requesters to submit requests and track the status of their requests.
  • CMS continued to enhance the use of its FOIA electronic processing system (SWIFT), by aligning features and options within the catalogue database to improve the indexing and tracking of requests and workflow management. One specific enhancement allows the full text of incoming requests to be fully entered into SWIFT; thereby significantly improving the staff’s ability to search all FOIA requests and group similar requests together for faster processing.
  • Improvements implemented by the IHS FOIA office include developing a FOIA SharePoint site, accessible by the FOIA Officer, the FOIA staff, the Privacy Officer, and the Area office FOIA Coordinators, to enable the real-time transmission of responsive documents from IHS area offices to the FOIA staff. This process alleviates the previous wait times that resulted from sending and receiving voluminous records via email, as well as the need to send multiple emails (i.e., multiple attachments). IHS also created a dedicated FOIA mailbox and email address that is accessible/monitored by the FOIA Officer, the Privacy Officer, and the two IHS FOIA staff, and is developing a database to more efficiently log in incoming requests, track response times, request types, numbers of requests received, assignments, and progress reporting. This database is currently in beta testing with a potential FY 2017 roll out.
  • NIH continued to assess and improve its already robust processes, to ensure that its FOIA program operates efficiently and effectively. One major initiative was the launch of an updated, electronic tracking system.
  • SAMHSA has approved a new contract for an improved case management system that will facilitate request tracking and centralize (i.e., maximize the efficiency of) request processing. SAMHSA also is assessing the feasibility of adding one additional full time employee (FTE) to the SAMHSA FOIA function.

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