Freedom of Information Act:

DHS Should Take Steps to Improve Cost Reporting and Eliminate Duplicate Processing

GAO-15-82: Published: Nov 19, 2014. Publicly Released: Nov 19, 2014.

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Valerie C. Melvin
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What GAO Found

The Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) processing responsibilities are split between the department's Privacy Office, which acts as its central FOIA office, and FOIA offices in its component agencies. The Privacy Office has a number of oversight and coordination functions, including developing policies to implement FOIA initiatives, providing training, and preparing annual reports. Meanwhile, components' FOIA offices are responsible for processing the vast majority of the requests received by the department, subject to regulations and policies issued by the Privacy Office. While components report FOIA processing costs to the Privacy Office, which then aggregates and reports them to the Department of Justice, reported costs are incomplete (for example, the costs do not reflect employee benefits or the salaries of staff outside the components' FOIA offices who retrieve requested documents), thus hindering accountability for total costs. Regarding duplication, GAO determined that certain immigration-related requests are processed twice by two different DHS components. The duplicate processing of such requests by the two components contributes to an increase in the time needed to respond to the requests.

In 2011, DHS established a goal of reducing backlogged FOIA requests by 15 percent each year, and its component agencies have taken actions toward this goal, including increasing staff, reporting and monitoring backlog information, providing training, and offering incentives to staff for increased productivity. Although there was initial progress by the end of fiscal year 2012, backlog numbers do not account for an estimated 11,000 improperly closed requests, and the number of backlogged requests increased in fiscal year 2013 to a level higher than 2011 (see figure).

Department of Homeland Security Reported FOIA Backlogged Requests, Fiscal Years 2011 – 2013

Department of Homeland Security Reported FOIA Backlogged Requests, Fiscal Years 2011 – 2013

DHS and its components have implemented or are planning to implement various technology capabilities to support FOIA processing based on best practices and federal requirements. However, not all of these systems possess all capabilities recommended by federal guidance, such as online tracking and electronic redaction, or the required capabilities to accommodate individuals with disabilities. Adopting such system capabilities departmentwide could help DHS increase the efficiency of its FOIA processing.

Why GAO Did This Study

FOIA requires federal agencies to provide the public with access to government information. In fiscal year 2013, DHS and its component agencies reported processing more than 200,000 FOIA requests, the most of any federal agency. At the end of fiscal year 2013, about half of all reported backlogged federal FOIA requests (about 50,000 of 95,000) belonged to DHS.

GAO was asked to review DHS's processing of FOIA requests. GAO's objectives were to determine (1) the responsibilities of and total costs incurred by DHS and selected components in managing and processing FOIA requests, and whether duplication exists; (2) actions DHS and selected components have taken to reduce FOIA backlogs and the results; and (3) the status of DHS's and selected components' efforts to acquire and implement automated systems for processing requests. GAO evaluated DHS's and five selected components' FOIA-related procedures, fiscal year 2013 cost data, and other documentation. The five components together received more than 90 percent of DHS's FOIA requests during fiscal year 2013. GAO also interviewed department and component agency officials.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is recommending, among other things, that DHS improve the reporting of FOIA costs, eliminate duplicative processing, and direct components to implement recommended and required FOIA system capabilities. In written comments on a draft of the report, DHS agreed with the recommendations.

For more information, contact Valerie C. Melvin at or

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to our recommendation, we verified in September 2017, that the Department of Homeland Security published its updated FOIA regulation. The updated regulation provides information regarding how the department addresses its public liaison role, the fee limitations for requests made by the news media, and its acceptance of electronic requests. As a result of these actions, DHS is better able to facilitate public interaction with its handling of FOIA requests and enables their Privacy Office to consistently guide their FOIA components' efforts in effectively responding to the requests

    Recommendation: To improve the management of DHS FOIA requests, the Secretary of DHS should direct the Chief FOIA Officer to finalize and issue an updated DHS FOIA regulation.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: In August 2018, DHS reported that its Office of the Chief Financial Officer and its components have been successful in obtaining a separate line of authority for FOIA operations at the headquarters level. The goal for fiscal year 2019 is to work with each component head and their respective offices of administration in order to gain additional transparency and input to appropriate resource levels for their FOIA Officers and programs, which will allow more accurate reporting of program costs for both internal and external audiences. We plan to verify these actions during fiscal year 2019 once the line of authority has been fully implemented.

    Recommendation: To improve the management of DHS FOIA requests, the Secretary of DHS should direct the Chief FOIA Officer to improve reporting of FOIA costs by including salaries, employee benefits, non-personnel direct costs, indirect costs, and costs for other offices.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: In August 2018, DHS stated that while it concurs with the recommendation and supports the goal of improving access to publicly released documents, it does not currently have the resources to remediate records that have been proactively released to the public or records that are being released in response to FOIA requests. It also stated that the USCG and USCIS FOIA Libraries have a notice on their internet sites stating that not all of the documents are fully Section 508 compliant and provides a phone number to the FOIA offices for assistance.

    Recommendation: To improve the management of DHS FOIA requests, the Secretary of DHS should direct the Chief FOIA Officer to direct USCIS and Coast Guard to fully implement the recommended FOIA processing system capabilities and the section 508 requirement.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: In August 2018, DHS has stated that it commenced a working group, in collaboration with the Office of the Chief Information Officer, to develop requirements for a single information technology solution for processing incoming FOIA requests to replace the three disparate systems are used by DHS components to track, manage and process FOIA requests. In moving USCIS and ICE to one processing solution, DHS stated it should yield processing benefits, lower overall administrative costs, and eliminate duplicate processing of FOIA requests for immigration-related records. We will update the status of this recommendation when DHS has implemented the single solution for processing FOIA requests.

    Recommendation: To improve the management of DHS FOIA requests, the Secretary of DHS should direct the Chief FOIA Officer to determine the viability of re-establishing the service-level agreement between the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to eliminate duplication in the processing of immigration files. If the benefits of doing so would exceed the costs, re-establish the agreement.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security


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