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

DOJ's FOIA Guidelines emphasize 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.

1. For Fiscal Year 2018, 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 2018 Annual FOIA Report.

During FY 2018, HHS reported an agency-wide average of 6.8 days to adjudicate expedited processing requests. The agency-wide median was 5.37 days.

2. 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.

3. 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.

Note: In September 2017, OIP released a FOIA Self-Assessment Toolkit as a resource for agencies conducting a self-assessment of their FOIA program. The Toolkit is available on OIP's website for all agencies to use.

  • The OS FOIA Director conducted quarterly meetings with Departmental FOIA Directors to discuss operational data, solicit opinions, encourage and engage the OpDiv's FOIA Directors as a community, and foster discussion of common operational challenges and possible solutions or policy guidance.
  • The ACL conducts a self-assessment annually at the time annual reports are due utilizing annual report data and ACL's FOIA tracker. ACL also updates its intranet and internet webpages pertaining to FOIA policies and procedures at least on an annual basis. ACL has one new FOIA team member, but training for current and new team members has been identified as an area for improvement in FY 2018.
  • The CDC conduct self-assessments regularly throughout the year to ensure processing tools and procedures are up-to-date and inefficiencies are removed. CDC FOIA staff review annual report data regularly throughout the year and use it as a benchmark for progress measurement.
  • The CMS FOIA staff conducted a Regional Office review of the FOIA process regarding Medicare beneficiary record requests and implemented training sessions using Kaizen analysis. The staff identified and made changes in our FOIA software to update the search feature to allow for much easier to better organize and coordinate record searches and responses and update annual reporting fields to include:
  • (1) cases closed with "Records not Reasonably Described" or "Improper FOIA Request for Other Reason" are now excluded from Section VII(C); and,
  • (2) additional adjustments were made in Section VII of the annual report regarding the calculation of expedited cases, based on guidance issued from the Department of Justice.
  • The FDA routinely reviewed its FOIA policies to ensure that requests are being processed in the most efficient and accurate manner. FDA has reviewed the OIP Self-Assessment toolkit and will implement it in a targeted approach to certain parts of the FDA FOIA program based on operational data.
  • The HRSA used the weekly and quarterly FOIA reports to conduct an ongoing assessment of performance by comparing the current statistics with those from previous years. See the Success Story below for further details.
  • The IHS continues to modify and update its Access Database for the FOIA program to create greater efficiencies in the processing of FOIA requests.
  • The NIH FOIA program actively participates in the NIH Optimize Initiative. As a result, NIH FOIA program has conducted an exhaustive self-assessment. Specifically, NIH leveraged internal efficiency experts to process map and quantify FOIA program operations. The analysis led to a number of proposed steps to increase efficiency that NIH is in the process of deploying. For example, NIH will roll out an enterprise-wide FOIA tracking and processing system to standardize FOIA operations and reduce duplicative work across the NIH FOIA community. NIH's internal analysis also indicated the large amount of time dedicated to data entry in relation to incoming requests. Consequently, NIH plans to adopt portal design to funnel incoming requests directly into the enterprise-wide solution, thereby decreasing the amount of data entry by FOIA staff.
  • The OIG FOIA office annually reviews its database and processes to ensure efficiency in processing requests.

4. 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 the number of times requesters sought assistance from your agency's FOIA Public Liaison during FY 2018 (please provide a total number or an estimate of the number).

There is a FOIA Public Liaison at each of the HHS FOIA Service Centers, as the Department's administration of FOIA is decentralized. 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 1,250-1,750 inquiries or requests for assistance were made to the HHS FOIA Public Liaisons during FY 2018.

5. Please describe the best practices used to ensure that your FOIA system operates efficiently and effectively and any challenges your agency faces in this area.

The Department continues to strive to improve its FOIA operations and gain greater efficiencies, as described in the following paragraphs.

  • The OS FOIA Office continued to provide a more integrated and streamlined service model during FY 2018 through an integrated leadership structure, improved workload allocation, elimination of process redundancies, and utilization of contract resources.
  • The ACL invites requesters to provide feedback via email, phone or mail. Also due to an increase in FOIA requests received in the past fiscal year, upgrades to the current tracking system are being explored.
  • The CDC promotes communications with requesters. FOIA staff contact requesters by phone, when possible, to eliminate the lag time in sending correspondence through the mail and memorialize conversations with an emailed letter. Whenever possible, CDC FOIA staff respond to multiple requests using the same set of records to avoid having to review records multiple times. FOIA staff are constantly communicating with requesters to make sure the records are reasonably described so they can focus on only processing records the requester is seeking. CDC uses template letters in order to reduce the amount of time necessary to craft responses to requesters. CDC FOIA staff actively communicates with the offices that provide responsive records for disclosure analysis. Program staffs help the FOIA staff communicate with requesters when addressing request that are overly broad in scope and burdensome to fulfill. Finally, the CDC FOIA staff leverage IT capabilities whenever possible to greatly increase the document search process.
  • The CMS received inaccurate and incomplete third party authorization forms with Medicare beneficiary record requests. To address this issue, the CMS FOIA program initiated the best practices effort from the NY Regional Kaizen project to simplify and streamline the third party authorization form; thereby making it more user friendly for requesters, as well as more efficient for CMS to process the requests. The CMS simplified the form and posted it to the CMS FOIA website. As a result, the CMS received favorable feedback and are now experiencing a reduction in authorization forms being returned to the requestor due to missing information (essentially a FOIA request denial).
  • The HRSA FOIA office identified its single "best practice" as maintaining an "attitude of urgency" in responding to requesters. This "presumption to hustle" particularly pays off when, inevitably, one or more extremely large and complex requests arrive. Because the HRSA FOIA staff are on top of the current caseload, they have both the capacity and capability to respond to the challenge.
  • The IHS continued to modify and update its Access Database to create greater efficiency in the processing of FOIA requests.
  • The NIH FOIA program is decentralized. In addition to the central NIH FOIA Office, each NIH Institute and Center (IC), and several NIH Office of the Director components, have its own FOIA requester Service Center staffed by a FOIA professional with release authority. By processing directly at the IC level, NIH FOIA professionals have greater knowledge of the location of requested files, which decreases search time. Because the FOIA professionals and the Program Staff are colleagues within the same organizational component, there is greater cooperation regarding reviewing any proposed redactions, which decreases review time. To assist with this effort, the NIH FOIA Office has created a number of standard operating procedures for use by NIH FOIA professionals. This ensures consistency across NIH. Redaction guides for frequently requested documents such as awarded research grant applications and contracts also provide quick guidance to the NIH FOIA community. These resources are reviewed quarterly and revised as necessary. Additionally, the NIH FOIA Office manages a custom-designed and built 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. He uses this review to identify frequent requesters, requests seeking material related to high-profile matters, and requests that seek potentially large sets of responsive records, and to keep abreast of the NIH's FOIA case load in general. The NIH FOIA Officer also reviews the list of pending and overdue requests at least monthly. One goal of that review is to identify requests that may be posing concern. In such instances, the FOIA Office contacts the responsible FOIA Coordinator to offer guidance, assistance and encouragement. 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 monthly FOIA community meetings.

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