Man examining electronic EPA documents

As FOIA requests surge, EPA readies e-discovery toolkit

The Environmental Protection Agency is testing and piloting a suite of e-discovery tools to both bolster its litigation support and to help the agency respond to an upsurge of Freedom of Information Act requests.  EPA and its regional offices receive about 10,000 FOIA requests annually, according to the agency’s FY 2013 - 2015 Information Resources Management Strategic Plan.

The electronically stored information subject to information requests includes not only the electronic files themselves – which can be images, videos, audio, email and any other unstructured or semi-structured electronic information –  but also the metadata that usually accompanies them.

To handle this growing workload, the agency began developing an e-discovery service in fiscal year 2012 to find specific types of off-the-shelf tools. The agency’s requirements included a cybersecurity and e-discovery tool to collect information from computers of agency people identified as having information relevant to a litigation case, a FOIA request or a congressional inquiry.

EPA also wanted a user-friendly interface for collaborative review and processing of retrieved information, tagging and processing it to be submitted as evidence. A tool supporting advanced de-duplication, threading and analysis of data was also on the agency’s wish list.

EPA  has since been working with a handful of software products. They include Guidance Software’s EnCase enterprise suite, which allows back-end searches across large repositories; kCura’s Relativity, document-management system originally developed for law firms; and Equivio’s Zoom, an integrated Web platform for analytics and predictive coding.

The tool rollout coincides with an EPA initiative to create a consistent set of e-discovery practices across the agency. To support the plan, the EPA assembled an e-discovery workgroup, which focuses on agencywide policies and procedures for handling confidential business information and establishing “roles and responsibilities for issuing litigation holds,” according to the EPA’s Report on Managing Government Records.

The EPA report anticipates a number of benefits from the agency’s enterprisewide e-discovery approach, including lower costs, consistent and repeatable processes, reduced risk of data loss and accelerated processing.

Now it’s a matter of getting the tools into the hands of users.  “Regions and headquarter offices ...  are in the process of training individuals on the use of these tools,” an EPA spokesperson said. “Once the training is complete, the eDiscovery tools will be available to trained individuals to conduct searches and review records in responding to FOIA requests.”

Tool roster

Software is a key part of EPA’s plans for modernizing its e-discovery program. The tools EPA is considering all fit within the Electronic Discovery Reference Model framework. EDRM, a standards organization for the e-discovery market, developed the model to provide a conceptual view of the e-discovery process.

Electronic Discovery Reference Model framework provides a conceptual view of the e-discovery process.

EnCase maps to the first part of the process, what EDRM refers to as the identification, preservation and collection components, while Equivio and Relativity map to the framework’s processing, review and analysis components, according to a 2013 presentation at the Electronic Discovery Symposium for Government Agencies.

Today, e-discovery processes extend to the cloud, as more data and documents are housed offsite. EPA runs email in the cloud, having contracted with Lockheed Martin in 2012 to migrate the agency to Microsoft’s Office 365 cloud-based collaboration and communications offering. EPA previously used IBM Lotus Notes. 

EPA’s e-discovery tools will be able to tap its cloud email system for information. “The agency’s email system is a cloud-based application, and our current suite of tools does collect relevant data from email,” the EPA spokesperson said.

Policy support

In evaluating and testing tools for its e-discovery service, EPA found that technology also needs a solid policy counterpart.

“The greatest lesson learned has been the need for consistent policies and procedures surrounding any line of business,” the spokesperson said. “[The] e-discovery tools are powerful and complex but are only as good as the procedures governing their uses.”

In general, EPA believes its e-discovery service will boost its productivity in handing information queries. 

“These services will help us more efficiently identify, collect, preserve, process, review, analyze and produce electronically stored information required to be disclosed as a result of a discovery request,” according to EPA’s Report of Managing Government Records.

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