GAO: Better use of IT could help DHS reduce backlog of FOIA requests

Despite work to improve its handling of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, which has reduced the Homeland Security Department’s backlog by 24 percent, DHS still has the largest number of overdue requests in the government, the Government Accountability Office found in a recent study.

Several DHS agencies have adopted policies and technologies to improve the handling of FOIA requests, but these improvements need to be implemented departmentwide, GAO said in its recent report.

Among the improvements recommended by GAO are:

  • Online-status checking services.
  • Dissemination of records in electronic format.
  • Electronic redaction.

Using these tools in some agencies has contributed to the reduction of backlog at DHS from more than 99,000 requests in September of 2006 to 75,163 two years later. They have improved efficiency, reducing the time, manpower and expense for processing requests.

DHS agreed with the recommendations and plans to implement them across the department.

Departments were directed by a 2005 executive order to develop plans to improve the handling of FOIA requests. The act places of burden of showing that information cannot be released on the agency, which generally has 20 to 30 days to make a determination. DHS, formed from 23 separate agencies, has a decentralized system for handling FOIA requests, with department oversight coming largely from its Privacy Office.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) is the largest offender in timely handling of FOIA requests, with a backlog of 70,000 overdue requests as of October 2008. It has contracted for 74 staff members to eliminate the backlog, and also is using electronic tools to improve efficiency.

“According to officials at USCIS, not only does an online status-check service provide requesters with instant access to information, it also reduces the need to divert staff resources away from request processing to respond to telephone status inquiries,” GAO said.

Requesters enter a unique tracking number into an online form on USCIS’s FOIA Web site, which returns real-time status information from its tracking system. Since starting the service in May 2008, USCIS reported a reduction of customer phone calls over the next three months, from a high of 2,857 received in January 2008 to a low of 2,301 in August.

“By implementing this service more broadly, the department might be able to realize cost savings and customer service benefits,” GAO said.

Three DHS agencies, including USCIS, now release large collections of FOIA data in CD rather than on paper, reducing expenses on paper, printer toner and postage.

“Agency officials report that the cost of copying responsive records onto a CD and mailing the CD to the requester is generally significantly less than printing and mailing the information on paper,” GAO said. USCIS officials reported that they respond to approximately 60 percent of requests by mailing electronic copies of records on CD, accounting for 80 percent of the total number of released pages. The FOIA information system security officer at Immigration and Customs Enforcement estimated that electronic dissemination had reduced the office’s paper consumption by almost 90 percent.

Five of DHS’s seven major components have adopted electronic redaction processes and have reported improvements in efficiency. The other two major components continue to manually redact most records.

“Electronic redaction involves using software to eliminate nonreleasable data from electronic files,” GAO said. “The software allows staff to quickly select text or images to be removed and annotate the text with the reasons (applicable exemptions) for the redactions.”

The use of electronic redaction at the Justice Department showed that it can allow agencies to process requests more efficiently than through manual redaction, which typically involves photocopying or scanning a document after removing nonreleasable information by physically cutting, covering, or marking each page. In DOJ, FBI officials said electronic redaction had enabled the agency to reduce staff members from 630 to 230 employees while doubling productivity and reducing the number of pending requests from 2,500 to 1,800.

GAO also recommended that DHS implement better mechanisms for oversight and monitoring of FOIA processing, and provide more agency-specific training for requests to that workers are better able to address the specific needs of each agency.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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