Interior calls on ASP to channel incoming flood of FOIA requests

Interior calls on ASP to channel incoming flood of FOIA requests

BY RICHARD W. WALKER | GCN STAFF

The Interior Department's Sue Ellen Sloca knows what it's like to be swamped with documents. They're piled everywhere in her office at the department's headquarters.


Sue Ellen Sloca says handing off document management to an ASP makes sense because she and other Interior FOIA officers have enough of a challenge meeting FOIA deadlines.
'We're behind big time,' said Sloca, the Freedom of Information Act and Privacy Act officer for Interior's Office of the Secretary. 'We usually get about 300 FOIA requests a year. We may end up with 400 by the end of this year.'

The secretary's office has been flooded with FOIA requests from environmental and business groups and citizens seeking information about the Bush administration's environment and energy actions.

'We recently had 10 requests for copies of Interior documents relating to [Vice President Cheney's] energy task force'a very hot topic,' she said.

Since October, the secretary's FOIA office has been piloting a Web management and tracking system that officials expect will make life easier for Interior FOIA officials nationwide.

And instead of trying to manage and scale the system themselves, Interior officials decided to offload it to an application service provider, Emergent OnLine Inc.

Get with the system

The system uses a Microsoft Access database and software developed by Document Systems Inc. of Washington, and runs on commercial off-site servers. Interior's FOIA shops around the country access the system via the Web.

Emergent, an ASP with an 80,000-square-foot data warehouse in Reston, Va., hosts the system using application server software from Citrix Systems Inc. of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Emergent charges Interior $150 a month for each site using it, said Sloca, the project leader for the secretary's office.

Interior officials expect the system to go live across the department by October 2003.

After that, the plan is to pitch it to other government FOIA offices through Interior's National Business Center, which provides administrative and operational support services to federal agencies.

'Once this is successful we hope to sell it to other agencies,' Sloca said. 'The first thing I'd like other agencies to do before they develop their own system is come in and see if they'd like to use our system.'

A tracking system that would let all federal FOIA officers view and track documents would be a big boost, she said. 'It should ultimately work across government because a lot of FOIA issues aren't neatly segmented by department,' she said.

Sloca noted, for instance, that the Energy Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and several other agencies also received FOIA requests for documents relating to Cheney's energy task force.

Can we communicate?

'I spent time this morning with a woman from the Energy Department who got the exact same request we got,' she said. 'She was asking me what we released and what we didn't release. If we had a system that could communicate between government agencies, she could view the documents online.'

For FOIA officers like Sloca, processing requests is a thorny task.

When a FOIA office receives a request for documents, it is required to respond within 20 working days. If it doesn't, the requester can appeal. The clock starts ticking again'for another 20 days. If after that time the office still hasn't responded, the requester can file a lawsuit against the government.

People who request documents under FOIA sometimes also sue if they receive redacted information or if they don't get all the documents they ask for.

'Every step you take has legal ramifications,' Sloca said. 'So good record-keeping is essential.'

Times and systems have changed since 1992, when Sloca, a 30-year Interior veteran who has a doctorate in philosophy, began working in the department's FOIA office.

After more than 20 years in the calmer waters of Interior's library, where she managed the law library and headed technical services, Sloca found it a huge endeavor to keep up with FOIA requests and also put together the annual FOIA report required by the Justice Department.

'We used a little homegrown database program,' she said. 'Then we went out and borrowed a program from the Bureau of Land Management to generate an annual report from all of this.'

In 1998, Interior officials brought in Document Systems Inc. to develop a system using commercial software that could manage documents, perform redactions electronically and generate the annual report.

'We wanted it written in an off-the-shelf program so that, theoretically, it was going to work with what whatever iteration of hardware we were using, and we weren't going to have to rewrite it,' Sloca said.

The database ran on the office's LAN for three years.

'It was a really good thing,' she said. 'Our annual report was basically a matter of calling up the report form and clicking buttons. In some of the bureaus, doing the annual report takes weeks.'

Last summer, Sloca and Interior's IRM Office decided to explore ways to deploy the system departmentwide so that FOIA officers and staff could track and exchange documents and requests.

'We are one of the most decentralized agencies in existence,' Sloca said. 'We used to be called the Department of Everything.'

Interior has FOIA officials scattered among bureaus and offices all over the country. The officers needed quick and easy access to electronic documents from a central location. But the offices also have a mishmash of incompatible computers.

Document Systems suggested outsourcing the application and making it Web-accessible so that any user with a browser could access it.

A pilot success

An initial pilot phase was launched in October and ran through March. All but two of the department's bureaus used it. 'Basically, it was fairly successful,' Sloca said. 'A lot of people liked it.'

The bumps in the road mostly have been organizational. Bureaus and offices have evolved their own ways of handling FOIA documents. 'Each of the bureaus has its own culture, and overcoming that is much harder than dealing with the problem of just sending data,' Sloca said.

Using input from the bureaus, the system will be fine-tuned so that FOIA officials can adapt to a uniform method of managing documents.

The benefits of a fully deployed system are obvious, as FOIA requests continue to emanate from every Interior bureau and operation, as well as related sources.

When the department's National Business Center recently took over an Army procurement shop at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., Sloca knew that FOIA requests relating to Army procurements would soon land on her desk.

'We're going to give them a site on our system so they can just scan in documents instead of doing what they're doing now, which is sending me all this stuff on paper,' she said.

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