Agencies adapt FOIA ops to new requirements

Technology is replacing manual operations at many agencies

Nostalgia for the past isn’t common in Freedom of Information Act circles.

Jeffrey Ovall, a 14-year veteran of the government’s FOIA activities, recalled a time when felt-tip markers were the main method for redacting documents slated for release. Ovall, who now supervises the FOIA Service Center at the Agriculture Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), said the task was rather unpleasant.

The markers were strong-smelling, he said, and FOIA specialists used them in a small room with little ventilation and "would leave at the end of the day feeling a bit woozy.”

Although markers persist at some agencies, others have cleared the air. For example, FOIA staff members at FSIS have exchanged manual redacting for electronic methods and now review documents on computer monitors.

But agencies have reasons to adopt technology beyond avoiding fume-filled rooms. Open Government Act provisions that went into effect late last year contain two new FOIA requirements for agencies: They must assign tracking numbers to requests that will take longer than 10 days to handle, and they must establish a telephone or Internet service to let the public check on the status of information requests.

The new requirements add responsibilities at a time when many agencies are cutting the number of employees dedicated to FOIA duties and the backlog of unfilled requests is growing, according to a recent analysis of 25 agencies by the Sunshine in Government Initiative, a coalition of media groups.

Agencies automate

Directives aside, complying with FOIA generally falls in the unfunded mandate category. Agencies must find the money where they can. NASA, for one, latched onto the Open Government Act’s provisions as an opportunity to obtain money to automate its process.

“The new law gave us a little bit of leverage to get some funding and update our system,” said Stephen McConnell, NASA’s deputy director of public services and protocol and the agency’s principal FOIA officer.

NASA had been tracking FOIA requests with an internally developed database system built on FileMaker Pro. McConnell described the system as antiquated and fragmented.

Each of NASA’s 13 FOIA Requester Service Centers had its own database. Centers could assign numbers to incoming FOIA requests and track them, but that tracking occurred in isolation at each facility. As a result, centers couldn’t readily determine whether they were working on duplicate requests.

NASA officials wanted to consolidate the databases so requests could be tracked agencywide. They also sought a Web-based solution that would let information seekers check the status of their requests online — in keeping with the Open Government Act.

NASA began its initiative last summer when it tapped software vendor AINS for a new FOIA system. The agency is now in the process of centralizing the tracking of requests around AINS’ FOIAXpress software. NASA is also installing AINS’ Public Access Link, an Internet interface for submitting FOIA inquiries and checking their status.

NASA is in the process of switching the 13 centers to FOIAXpress, a task slated for completion this summer. McConnell cited the resulting consolidation as a key benefit of the updated system.

“We wanted to have one collective database that all requests come into,” he said.

The centralized system will let NASA officials identify duplicate requests and coordinate responses when a requester seeks information from more than one center, McConnell said. The cross-agency view of public inquiries will also help NASA identify hot topics so officials can move in-demand information to its electronic reading room, which makes the agency more responsive to the public while easing the FOIA workload, he added.

FOIAXpress is also expected to help NASA reduce its request backlog. The impact won’t be immediate, however. McConnell said old requests will continue to reside in the FileMaker Pro database until they are closed out. Furthermore, some centers will have zero carryovers from previous years, while others will have a large backlog. Meanwhile, NASA plans to have all 13 processing centers on FOIAXpress before the next fiscal year.

Here’s how the system will work: A staff member at a FOIA center receives a request and enters it into the system. A copy of the request is transmitted from the center to the appropriate NASA program office, which searches for the relevant records. Once located, the documents are scanned or uploaded into the system. The collected information travels back to the center, where staff members redact the documents and make sure they are appropriate for release.

The system will have 25 users from the FOIA, legal and program offices. FOIAXpress will reside on a mainframe computer, and users will access the system through NASA’s intranet.

Goodbye to tape

FSIS already has an automated FOIA system in production. In September 2007, the organization upgraded from manual redaction processes to Privasoft’s FOIA case management software. FOIA staff members use that system to manage requests and redact documents. FSIS relies on the USDA-wide Enterprise Content Management system to route documents for clearance through the FOIA office. The agency also uses Adobe’s Acrobat 9 Pro as part of its FOIA process.

That approach marks quite a departure from using correction tape to mask words in documents. Ovall said the system shrinks FOIA processing from days to a matter of hours.

“It’s like night and day,” he said. “It’s so much quicker and easier.”

The FSIS automation program came in the nick of time. The agency’s FOIA workload expanded considerably in fiscal 2008 because of a sharp rise in meat recalls. FSIS issued 58 recalls in 2007 and 53 in 2008, compared with 34 in 2006. In a report dated September 2008, FSIS cited a 39 percent increase in FOIA requests compared with the previous fiscal year.

Ovall said the recalls served as the driving force behind the uptick in FOIA activity. The agency’s backlog has increased accordingly, but without automation, FSIS would have had an even bigger problem.

“Our backlog would be higher today if we did not have the technology,” said Jonathan Theodule, director of the Executive Correspondence and Issues Management Staff at FSIS.

Improved automation also lets FSIS keep a lid on head count. Theodule said the number of agency FOIA staff members has remained constant despite the rise in inquiries. FSIS employs four FOIA specialists and a supervisor.

The limits of automation

Although automation speeds FOIA processing, it has limitations. Software can manage requests for information and redact material for release, but it can’t speed the task of finding the appropriate documents.

FSIS doesn’t maintain records centrally. So when the FOIA office requests documents, searches might take place anywhere FSIS has personnel. The agency’s operations include 15 district offices and six compliance and investigation offices nationwide, and searching across all of them can be time-consuming, Theodule said.

Some agencies have found that e-discovery tools used to conduct document searches for legal cases and e-mail archiving systems can help them track down electronic messages as part of FOIA-related searches. For example, the Palm Beach County, Fla., government started using Mimosa Systems’ NearPoint product for e-mail archiving about two years ago, in part to comply with the state’s Sunshine Law requirements regarding public access to government records.

E-mail archiving typically exists separately from other forms of content or records management, but some products attempt to provide broader coverage. Santhosh Samuel, server manager at Palm Beach County’s Information Support Services, said officials recently installed a new version of NearPoint that lets users go beyond e-mail systems to search general-purpose file servers for relevant information.

McConnell said NASA’s FOIA software deployment has resulted in a period of adjustment and a few growing pains. The agency has started deploying FOIAXpress at a couple of processing centers, and users at those facilities are “getting used to the program and the steps it takes to go through the whole process,” he said.

Adjusting to any new technology will challenge users and affect productivity. But learning a new system is surely better than breathing marker fumes.

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