Freedom of Information Act:

DHS Has Taken Steps to Enhance Its Program, but Opportunities Exist to Improve Efficiency and Cost-Effectiveness

GAO-09-260: Published: Mar 20, 2009. Publicly Released: Mar 20, 2009.

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The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requires federal agencies to generally provide the public with access to government information. In December 2005, the President issued Executive Order 13392, to improve agencies' FOIA processing. The order required each agency to review its operations and develop plans for improvement. Since its establishment, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has accounted for a major and increasing portion of pending FOIA requests governmentwide. While it has reported achieving a notable reduction since 2006, DHS still possesses the largest backlog of overdue requests in the government. GAO was asked to determine (1) what key steps DHS has taken to enhance its FOIA program, and (2) what opportunities exist to improve the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of FOIA operations across the department. To do this, GAO reviewed DHS's improvement plan; examined policies, procedures, and other documentation; and interviewed agency officials.

DHS has taken steps to enhance its FOIA program. DHS developed an improvement plan that focused on eliminating its backlog of overdue requests, implementing enhanced training requirements, and deploying more advanced technology. Further, the DHS Privacy Office has initiated actions to ensure policy compliance and provide oversight of FOIA operations throughout the department's component agencies, including developing a departmentwide handbook, monitoring monthly data processing statistics, and instituting relevant training for employees. As a result, DHS has reported reducing its backlog by about 24 percent since implementing its plan. However, opportunities exist for DHS to improve the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of FOIA processing across the department. Specifically, implementation of the following practices could facilitate the processing of information requests at a number of its major components: (1) Internal monitoring and oversight. Establishing mechanisms for monitoring and oversight of processing efficiency may help reduce the backlog of open requests. (2) Component-specific training. Component-specific training could enhance the efficiency of processing within component agencies. (3) Online status-checking services. Providing requesters with online access to information concerning the status of their requests could contribute to better customer service and higher staff productivity. (4) Electronic dissemination of records. Releasing records in an electronic format could provide cost savings and increase efficiency. (5) Electronic redaction. By adopting electronic redaction more broadly, DHS may be able to reduce the staff time otherwise spent manually redacting records, while also improving the consistency of its responses to requests. By implementing these practices--which are already being used by certain DHS components and other agencies--across major DHS components, the department could further reduce its backlog, increase efficiency, improve customer service, and respond to information requests in a more timely fashion

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To help improve the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of the department's FOIA program, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the FOIA Officers at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Transportation Security Administration, United States Secret Service, and United States Coast Guard to consider establishing a policy of primarily disseminating records to requesters in an electronic format when large numbers of pages are involved.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The department has developed and is implementing a deployment plan and performance work statements that involve the implementation of an electronic FOIA solution (FOIA Xpress) at CBP, FEMA, USCG, and TSA on a pilot basis. The solution will enable the components to provide electronic releases. The department intends to deploy it to all DHS components upon the completion of the pilot. According to the department's Senior Director for FOIA operations, FOIA Xpress has been implemented at USSS.

    Recommendation: To help improve the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of the department's FOIA program, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the FOIA Officers at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Transportation Security Administration, United States Coast Guard, and United States Secret Service to consider providing requesters with an online mechanism to obtain information about the status of their requests.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The department has developed and is implementing a deployment strategy and plan involving the implementation of an electronic FOIA solution (FOIA Xpress) on a pilot basis at CBP, FEMA, USCG, and TSA. The solution is to enable requesters to check the status of their requests for non immigration-related files online. The department intends to deploy it to all DHS components upon the completion of the pilot and according to the department's Senior Director for FOIA operations, FOIA Xpress has been implemented at USSS.

    Recommendation: To help improve the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of the department's FOIA program, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the FOIA Officers at the Federal Emergency Management Agency and United States Secret Service to consider developing and implementing specialized training programs for their staff.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2013, FEMA implemented several training initiatives. Staff attended a 2-day training course entitled "The Freedom of Information Act for Attorneys and Access Professionals" given by the Department of Justice. Additionally, staff received in-house training during bi-weekly staff meetings to address any FOIA related issues or concerns. Topics covered in an August 2013 meeting included a FOIA refresher, a description of FEMA programs, and the roles and responsibilities of the Office of the Chief Counsel. In 2010, USSS held its first agency specific training that covered the processing of information pertaining to the service?s unique mission. The training covered the processing of law enforcement related information, to include the service's protective methodologies and investigative techniques. The training also covered procedures and guidelines for processing and handling of classified information, and third party information. In addition, the specialized training covered the utilization of software in order to process cases electronically. USSS officials stated that the training program is offered annually.

    Recommendation: To help improve the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of the department's FOIA program, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the FOIA Officers at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Transportation Security Administration, and United States Coast Guard to consider establishing monitoring and oversight mechanisms to help reduce the backlog of overdue requests.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The department has taken steps to reduce the backlog of overdue requests. Departmental documentation showed that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has begun to use internal monitoring and oversight mechanisms to eliminate its backlog of appeals. In addition, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has revamped its FOIA process to amend its pending cases by weekly assignment to mitigate delays for responding to requesters. However, the department did not provide any information regarding the status of relevant efforts at Federal Emergency Management Agency or the United States Coast Guard. Nevertheless, the actions underway at CBP and TSA should help them to reduce backlogs.

    Recommendation: To help improve the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of the department's FOIA program, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the FOIA Officers at the Transportation Security Administration and United States Coast Guard to consider expanding the use of electronic redaction when processing requests.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The department has developed and is implementing a deployment plan and performance work statements that involve the implementation of an electronic FOIA solution (FOIA Xpress) at USCG and TSA on a pilot basis. The solution will enable the components to redact records electronically. The department intends to deploy it to all DHS components upon the completion of the pilot.

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