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Highlights

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.

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Recommendations

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Homeland Security 1. 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.
Closed - Implemented
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.
Department of Homeland Security 2. 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.
Closed - Implemented
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.
Department of Homeland Security 3. 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.
Closed - Implemented
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.
Department of Homeland Security 4. 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.
Closed - Implemented
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.
Department of Homeland Security 5. 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.
Closed - Implemented
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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