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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Highlights

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.

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Recommendations

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.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Homeland Security 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.
Closed - Implemented
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
Department of Homeland Security 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.
Closed - Implemented
In February 2022, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) provided evidence that it had improved the reporting of FOIA costs. Specifically, DHS provided its Annual Reporting template and guidance that it sends to components for reporting FOIA costs, to include salaries, employee benefits, non-personnel direct costs, indirect costs, and costs for other offices. By improving its reporting costs for FOIA, the department is taking steps to gain critical information for effectively managing its FOIA operations, and that is needed to inform Congress' oversight of the department's efforts.
Department of Homeland Security 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.
Closed - Implemented
In January 2022, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) provided evidence that USCIS and Coast Guard updated their FOIA processing systems capabilities and are section 508 compliant. Specifically, the Coast Guard provided its memorandum of agreement, dated February 2021, for using FOIAXpress as its current FOIA processing system. FOIAXpress implements the recommended and required capabilities for processing FOIA, such as tracking appeals electronically and routing requests to the responsible office. In addition, USCIS provided its contract, dated September 2019, for using the FIRST FOIA processing system. FIRST implements the recommended and required capabilities for processing FOIA, such as 508 compliance and generating email correspondence with requesters. By improving the efficiency with which the Coast Guard and USCIS process FOIA requests, the department is ensuring that FOIA processing systems incorporate recommended best practice capabilities.
Department of Homeland Security 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.
Closed - Implemented
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agreed with GAO's November 2014 recommendation and has addressed it by establishing an Intra-Agency Memoranda of Agreement (MOA) with USCIS for the processing of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests relating to ICE records for fiscal years 2020 and 2021. Under the terms of the agreement USCIS will process all ICE records and respond to requester inquiries in response to FOIA requests involving immigration files. The agreement stipulates that, once processing has been completed, ICE will have 48 hours to review, incorporate any additional withholdings, as appropriate, and approve the release of ICE records. ICE is to conduct its review in USCIS' FOIA tracking and processing solution-called FIRST-thus eliminating the duplication of efforts. The agreement was first established on June 1, 2020 and renewed on October 1, 2020. The current agreement expires on September 30, 2021. Further renewing an agreement that allows USCIS to process ICE-generated documents included in requests for immigration files eliminates duplication in the processes and helps reduce the time needed by these components in responding to the request.

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