Section 1: Steps Taken to Apply the Presumption of Openness
The guiding principle underlying DOJ's FOIA Guidelines is the presumption of openness.
Please answer the following questions in order to describe the steps your OpDiv has taken to ensure that the presumption of openness is being applied to all decisions involving the FOIA. You may also include any additional information that illustrates how your OpDiv is working to apply the presumption of openness.
A. FOIA Leadership
1. The FOIA requires each agency to designate a Chief FOIA Officer who is a senior official at least at the Assistant Secretary or equivalent level. Is your agency's Chief FOIA Officer at or above this level?
2. Please provide the name and title of your agency's Chief FOIA Officer.
Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
B. FOIA Training
3. Did your FOIA professionals or the personnel at your agency who have FOIA responsibilities attend any substantive FOIA training or conference during the reporting period such as that provided by the Department of Justice?
4. If yes, please provide a brief description of the type of training attended or conducted and the topics covered.
HHS FOIA staff attended FOIA training and seminars provided by the American Society for Access Professionals (ASAP), the Department of Justice (DOJ), National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and others. Some of the HHS OpDivs also provided ongoing in-house training. Examples of the training, educational events and meetings attended are listed below:
- ASAP – 11th National Training Conference, July 2018
- ASAP – Food for Thought Seminar
- Department of Justice (DOJ) – Sunshine Week kick-off meeting
- DOJ – Best Practices Workshop – Reducing Backlogs and Improving Timeliness
- DOJ – Introduction to the Freedom of Information Act
- DOJ – FOIA Litigation Seminar
- DOJ - FOIA for Attorneys and Access Professionals
- DOJ – Continuing Freedom of Information Act Education
- DOJ – Refresher Trainings for the Annual and Chief FOIA Officer Reports
- National Archives and Records Administration, Office of Government Information Services (NARA/OGIS) – Sunshine Week 2018
- Sunshine Week – Meetings, trainings and activities (March 2018)
In-House FOIA Training
- Office of the Secretary (OS) – The OS FOIA Office provided biweekly FOIA training during New Employee Orientation sessions
- OS – Provided approximately 4 FOIA refresher courses for staff division FOIA coordinators and staff
- CDC – The CDC FOIA Office held an in-house FOIA Forum in Atlanta during March 2018, concentrating on exemption (b)(6) training and education
- CMS – The CMS FOIA Office conducted a Kaizen (continuous improvement approach) training in the New York Regional Office to streamline the process for the high volume of FOIA requests received in that region for records related to CMS Medicare beneficiaries
- FDA – FDA Division of Freedom of Information provided Advanced FOIA Training training to an in-person audience with WebEx participation for those staff members not available in person during 2018, which included the following topics: FOIA exemptions, fees, searches, consultations, and referrals
- NIH – NIH hosted the FOIA Compliance Staff in the Office of Information Policy (OIP) at the United States Department of Justice Department of Justice, for a FOIA training available to the entire NIH FOIA Community. The materials covered related to FOIA Exemptions 4, 5, 6 and 7C
- NIH – The NIH FOIA Officer holds monthly meetings with all NIH FOIA professionals to discuss various FOIA related topics. Included in those meetings were: 1) discussions of recent FOIA caselaw, both HHS and government-wide, with a focus on lessons learned and the application of the decision to NIH records; 2) policy discussions on, e.g., the applicability of fee categories, the appropriate Receive date, required content in final letters, strategies for the search of responsive records, negotiating with requesters, etc
5. Provide an estimate of the percentage of your FOIA professionals and staff with FOIA responsibilities who attended substantive FOIA training during this reporting period.
Approximately 85-90 % of the Department's FOIA professionals attended FOIA training during 2017.
6. OIP has directed agencies to "take steps to ensure that all of their FOIA professionals attend substantive FOIA training at least once throughout the year." If your response to the previous question is that less than 80% of your FOIA professionals attended training, please explain your agency's plan to ensure that all FOIA professionals receive or attend substantive FOIA training during the next reporting year.
Not applicable; please see our response to Question 3 above.
7. Did your FOIA professionals engage in any outreach or dialogue with the requester community or open government groups regarding your administration of the FOIA? Please describe any such outreach or dialogue, and, if applicable, any specific examples of how this dialogue has led to improvements in your agency's FOIA administration.
Yes. As stated previously, HHS FOIA offices are decentralized. The Department's OpDivs employed a variety of ways to engage with the requester community, as described below:
- The OS FOIA Office Director and Deputy Director routinely engaged with requesters, including open government groups, regarding "intelligent case management" and the efficiencies inherent in Departmental management of requests and appeals.
- The ACF FOIA Office routinely interacts with the requester community to discuss the scope of records requested.
- The ACL FOIA Office engages with the requestor community and stakeholders ongoing as requested.
- The CDC FOIA Office actively engaged with requesters, including open government groups, to enhance processing efficiencies and significantly reduce the initial request backlog. Additionally, the CDC provides an Annual FOIA Training Forum open to every employee to learn more about the FOIA, its processes, and engagement with requesters.
- The CMS implemented the NY Regional Office Kaizen project, based on FOIA comments received from stakeholders regarding improvements on how to reduce imperfections in FOIA requests. Additionally, a CMS delegate was invited as a speaker at the National Contract Management Association. The topic was processing FOIA requests from the government's perspective for contracts. The main FOIA Exemptions and the pre-disclosure notification process for contractual records were discussed.
- The FDA FOIA Office routinely speaks with requesters, including open government groups, regarding their FOIA requests.
- The HRSA FOIA Office staff regularly engage directly with individual requesters in terms of helping them to better focus or narrow their requests. Occasionally, this leads to discussions regarding the FOIA process and how, from the requesters perspective, it might be improved.
- The IHS FOIA Office reviews all FOIA requests and engages in dialogue with individual requesters. The dialogue may result in better identifying responsive records to reduce unnecessary review/redaction time to process requests.
- The OIG FOIA Office requests input from frequent requesters on ways to improve the processes and make it easier and faster to process requests.
- The NIH engaged in outreach with three advocacy groups that are frequent requesters with the agency. All three organizations agreed to standard amendments to exclude specific materials. The agreements streamlined NIH's processing of multiple requests, ensuring that the organizations did not have to wait additional time for information they did not seek. For example, the NIH routinely receives broad requests for communications relating to numerous broad topics. Often, responsive records include, e.g., meeting minutes that cover a wide array of topics, and the disclosure review of this spectrum of unrelated issues extends review times and research. Instead of engaging in unnecessary research, NIH FOIA staff have engaged requesters to determine whether they are interested in portions of responsive records that do not relate to the topic identified in the requests. Most requesters contacted for this reason quickly agree to forgo non-responsive information embedded in responsive records, decreasing review time and delays in the agency's response.
D. Other Initiatives
8. Describe any efforts your agency has undertaken to inform non-FOIA professionals of their obligations under the FOIA. In 2016, the Department publicized FOIA-related performance standards for employees that have any role in administering the FOIA, including non-FOIA professionals. Please also indicate whether your agency has considered including FOIA-related performance standards in employee work plans for employees who have any role in administering the FOIA.
HHS continues in its efforts to educate and increase awareness by all agency employees of their responsibilities under the FOIA. OS, ACF and FDA include introductory FOIA training as part of their new employee orientation programs. Some examples of actions taken by the Department's OpDivs include:
- The CDC provides annual training during the CDC FOIA Training Forum to give every employee the opportunity to learn more about the FOIA and the implementation processes. The responsibilities and obligations of all staff members to comply with and support FOIA operations is emphasized.
- The CMS conducts monthly webinars/conference calls with both Regional Offices and Central Program Offices to answer questions and update non-FOIA professional staff on FOIA requirements and policy, as well as any changes in regulations, and any updates to the FOIA tracking and processing system (SWIFT).
- The FDA includes a showing of the DOJ-created FOIA video as part of the two-day orientation program provided to all new employees at the FDA. In addition, several FOIA training opportunities have been provided throughout the year for non-FOIA professionals. These trainings cover the history of the FOIA, the FOIA exemptions, and the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016. FOIA Trainings are recorded and maintained on the OpDiv's intranet page for future viewing. There is also an overview of FOIA obligations in the mandatory Records Management training.
- The HRSA conducted personalized training to the new FOIA administrator upon arrival. In addition, training sessions were conducted for several bureau/office directors and other senior staff members along with their respective FOIA "Gatekeepers" (liaisons). All attendees heard the same message emphasizing the need for quick responses and keeping responsive records secure as they are collected and relayed to the FOIA office.
- IHS FOIA staff attended program staff meetings, and provided presentations on the FOIA to Area FOIA Coordinators and other interested agency staff.
- The NIH FOIA Officer led 3 discussions with non-FOIA agency professionals about their obligations under the FOIA. For example, the NIH FOIA Officer presented to the Office of the Director's Records Retention staff to explore the various FOIA exemptions and their applicability in the context of Records Retention. In addition, where appropriate, the NIH FOIA Office reaches out to custodians to facilitate the search and production of records in a timely fashion.
- The SAMHSA FOIA Officer met with SAMHSA personnel to explain the FOIA process and discuss the types of requests their office is likely to receive. One of SAMHSA's goals is to provide this type of briefing to each of its eight centers and offices.
9. If there are any other initiatives undertaken by your agency to ensure that the presumption of openness is being applied, please describe them here.
- HHS continues to provide public access to an expanding number of health related data sets at http://www.healthdata.gov.
- The HRSA FOIA Electronic Reading Room page now lists the HTML links for several of HRSA's most requested databases and programs. These include the HRSA Data Warehouse, the National Practitioner Data Bank, the Office of Pharmacy Affairs 340B Database, and the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program Data and Statistics.
- The IHS FOIA staff have developed FOIA training modules for various audiences.
- The NIH Leadership is dedicated to transparency and communicates that through their actions. NIH FOIA professionals are reminded of the presumption of openness at every monthly meeting and in specific instances when records are referred to the NIH FOIA Office for review.
- Introduction: Agency Chief Freedom of Information Act Officer
- 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 Reducing Backlogs
- Success Stories