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 2019, 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 2019 Annual FOIA Report.
During FY 2019, HHS reported an agency-wide average of 7.2 days to adjudicate expedited processing requests. The agency-wide median was 5.57 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 program is undergoing a review by Deloitte. A final assessment is expected in the 2021 Chief FOIA Officer reporting period.
- ACL conducts a self-assessment as part of the annual data reporting. ACL FOIA Officer utilizes ACL’s FOIA tracker, annual report data, prior year’s Chief FOIA Officer Report, and information gathered through the year from weekly FOIA staff meetings. As a result, ACL is acquiring a new system to increase efficiency and improve processes for accepting, tracking, closing, and reporting requests. ACL’s 2019 assessment identified training as an area for improvement. Efforts in this area led to 100 percent of staff trained for this reporting period. ACL FOIA staff also reviewed ACL’s internet webpages pertaining to FOIA policies and procedures. Contact information for the new FOIA Officer and Liaison was updated and broken links to resources addressed.
- CMS conducted a Regional FOIA Seminar in Denver to discuss changes in processing, brain storm efficiencies in technology, and share best practices.
- FDA routinely reviews 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 be implementing it as appropriate with respect to certain parts of the agency’s FOIA program. Two components within FDA have recently engaged with an outside contractor to conduct a self-assessment within those components.
- HRSA continues to use the weekly and quarterly reports to monitor and evaluate performance. One simple “reality check” is to compare our current numbers with those on the same date in prior years. The weekly and quarterly reports are collected government-wide to track the progress of Federal agencies in responding to FOIA requests. The responding agencies also post their quarterly reports on their websites.
- IHS reviewed annual report data and planned workflow adjustments and shifts in processing methodologies. All of these practices utilize a database for track management and to review and update processing data as new staff is recruited.
- Under the NIH Optimize initiative, the NIH FOIA program continued its exhaustive self-assessment of its program. 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 adopted a portal designed to funnel incoming requests directly into the enterprise-wide solution, thereby decreasing the amount of data entry by FOIA staff.
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 2019 (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 2019.
Example: NIH maintains a robust process for working with requesters. Where a request appears complicated or unclear, FOIA professionals routinely reach out to those requesters to discuss the request, clarify scope and, if appropriate, suggest ways of revising the request to better meet the requester’s needs. Despite clearly conveying the names and contact information of FOIA Public Liaisons in final letters and the agency’s website, these liaisons received an estimated 10 questions or comments from the requester community.
5. Optional - - 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 2019 through an integrated leadership structure, improved workload allocation, elimination of process redundancies, and utilization of contract resources to bolster activities required by an increase in FOIA litigations.
- ACL has experienced an exponential growth in FOIA requests while maintaining FOIA staffing. Acquiring a new system is one improvement to address the challenge. In the coming year, FOIA staff will be assessing further changes that can improve ACL’s FOIA approach.
- HRSA works closely with a contractor to identify features that could be added or improved in HRSA’s FOIA document management system. Most recently, the category headings were updated to more accurately reflect the content of most requests.
- FOIA processing at NIH is decentralized. Specifically, 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 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.
The NIH FOIA Office manages an industry-leading 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 NIH FOIA community meetings.
- 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