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Section a of the Open Government Plan




The Department of the Interior's Open Government Plan, Section (a) Transparency

In accordance with Section (a)(vi) of the Open Government Directive issued by the Office of Management and Budget on December 8, 2009 (M-10-06), the Department of the Interior (DOI) provides the following information:

  1. a description of [the Department's] staffing, organizational structure, and process for analyzing and responding to FOIA requests;

  2. an assessment of [the Department's] capacity to analyze, coordinate, and respond to such requests in a timely manner, together with proposed changes, technological resources, or reforms that [the Department] determines are needed to strengthen [its] response processes; and

  3. if [the Department] has a significant backlog, milestones that detail how [the Department] will reduce its pending backlog of outstanding FOIA requests by at least ten percent each year.

Below is a high level description of the Department's current FOIA operations as well as the Department's plans for improvement. The Department will provide more information about these structures and processes in the future to enhance transparency of its FOIA administration.

(1) Staffing, Organizational Structure and Process for Analyzing and Responding to FOIA Requests

The organizational structure of the Department's FOIA Program mirrors the decentralized structure of the Department itself. The structure was designed to ensure an effective and efficient system for compliance with all FOIA requirements, not just those that govern responses to individual requests.

DOI's diverse functions and the sensitive, high profile issues with which it deals, generate a large and increasing number of FOIA requests each year. Both the number and the complexity of the requests the Department receives contribute to its overall FOIA backlog.
   
Department-level:
   
Pursuant to Executive Order 13392 and, subsequently, the OPEN Government Act of 2007, DOI's Chief Information Officer (CIO) has been designated as the Chief FOIA Officer for the Department. The Department-level FOIA Program is comprised of two full-time career employees who serve as the Department's FOIA policy staff. This staff is located within the Office of the CIO and assists the Chief FOIA Officer in fulfilling his responsibilities by:

  • Developing policies, regulations, guidelines, procedures and standards for Departmentwide FOIA implementation;

  • Maintaining the www.doi.gov/foia/ website and its Electronic Reading Room;

  • Providing program oversight, technical assistance, and formal training to DOI FOIA personnel and others;

  • Managing the electronic FOIA tracking system (EFTS) – a centralized, web-based application that provides for standardized tracking and reporting of FOIA requests Department-wide and adherence to DOI FOIA regulations;

  • Monitoring bureau/office backlogs through monthly and quarterly reporting;

  • Preparing the Department's FOIA annual report based on data entered into the EFTS by FOIA personnel in the 11 bureaus and offices; and

  • Helping coordinate high profile or multi-bureau request issues.

Bureau/Office-level:

The Department has decentralized its FOIA operations among 11 bureaus and offices, each of which has a Bureau/Office FOIA Officer leading its separately managed and resourced FOIA Program. By Secretarial Order 3244 (November 12, 2002), all Bureau/Office FOIA Offices, with the exceptions of BIA and OIG, are located within their respective CIOs' Offices. This organizational structure links DOI's FOIA Offices with one another and with the DOI Chief Information/FOIA Officer to whom Bureau/Office CIOs report in accordance with the Clinger-Cohen Act. Bureau/Office FOIA Officers are responsible for tracking, managing and responding to FOIA requests for records in their organization's possession and control, and administering their organization's FOIA programs. Whenever the decision is to withhold information under a FOIA exemption, to release exempt information on a discretionary basis, or to deny a fee waiver, bureaus/offices will consult with their FOIA attorneys on the response. In addition to Bureau/Office FOIA Officers, some bureaus/offices also have Regional FOIA Coordinators and Field Offices that process requests. Some bureaus/offices have their program offices (i.e., the offices whose records are the subject of the requests) prepare the responses to FOIA requests. These responses are reviewed by the FOIA Officer or Regional FOIA Coordinator and the appropriate FOIA attorney (when the decision is to withhold information, make a discretionary release, or deny a fee waiver).

The Office of the Solicitor (SOL)

The Office of the Solicitor (SOL) supports the Department's FOIA Program by providing legal interpretations of the FOIA and guidance to bureaus and offices, as well as the DOI FOIA policy staff. SOL provides legal reviews of FOIA initial determinations and appeals (as necessary), assists in developing DOI's FOIA regulations, and handles FOIA/PA litigation for the Department. Along with the DOI FOIA policy staff and the FOIA Appeals Officer, SOL also assists in training DOI personnel on FOIA implementation.

FOIA/PA Appeals Office

The Department's FOIA/Privacy Act (PA) appeals function is located in and administered by SOL. The Appeals Office receives, tracks, monitors and issues final determinations on all FOIA/PA appeals made to the Department.

(2) DOI's Capacity to Analyze, Coordinate and Respond to FOIA Requests in a Timely Manner, Etc.

The DOI FOIA policy staff administers and manages the DOI FOIA Program to ensure consistent and appropriate handling of all FOIA requests made to the Department, regardless of the bureau/office to which a request is directed. The staff establishes Departmentwide policies and procedures, provides training to employees, and facilitates timely and complete responses to FOIA requests for DOI records. The staff also manages the electronic FOIA tracking system (EFTS), the Department's centralized FOIA request tracking database, which promotes standardized processing and adherence to applicable laws and regulations and aids in preparation of the Department's FOIA Annual Report. To facilitate requests involving complex or cross-cutting issues and ensure a proper and complete Departmental response, the Staff also helps coordinate responses to requests involving multiple bureaus/offices in certain instances. However, in most cases in which the same request is sent to multiple bureaus/offices, the FOIA Officer in the Office of the Secretary assumes this role.

Each DOI bureau/office determines both its structure and process for analyzing, coordinating and responding to FOIA requests and how to staff and otherwise resource its FOIA operations. The manner in which the bureaus'/offices' regional and field offices are organized varies tremendously and this impacts how their FOIA operations are structured.

The decentralized approach to processing FOIA requests has helped keep the Department's backlog lower than that of some other agencies that receive similar numbers of requests. This is generally because FOIA processing occurs in proximity of the location of the requested records and the subject matter experts for those records. In fact, some of DOI's bureaus/offices carry no backlog or very modest backlogs. However, the decentralized nature of the FOIA Program sometimes inhibits the Department's ability to solve problems with a single solution. It can also slow down the process in certain situations. Therefore, the Department's centralized electronic FOIA tracking system was designed to provide enough flexibility to accommodate the varied approaches to FOIA processing among the 11 bureaus'/offices' FOIA programs.

In preparing the Department's Chief FOIA Officer Report (March 2010) and the backlog reduction plans discussed below, bureaus and offices reviewed their FOIA operations to determine what actions needed to be taken to improve timeliness in their response to FOIA requests. They have provided their findings to the Chief FOIA Officer. In general, some bureaus/offices indicated that they had either requested or received approval to hire or detail additional staff to work on FOIA processing or had made recommendations for additional changes or resources to strengthen their responses to FOIA requests. Some of these plans and recommendations are discussed below. However, the Department and some of its bureaus/offices are still in the process of determining what additional changes can or should be made.

(3) Milestones Detailing How DOI Will Reduce Its Backlogs by at Least Ten Percent Annually

As reflected in the Department's FY 2009 FOIA Annual Report, five out of 11 bureaus/offices had significant backlogs, which the Department defines as 50 or more requests.

In some cases, backlogs exist or have increased because of natural disasters or other newsworthy events that have caused sudden unforeseen significant spikes in the number of FOIA requests received (e.g., Exxon Valdez oil spill, Hurricane Katrina, the status of certain endangered/threatened species, and wild horses and burros on public lands). This ebb and flow in processing is difficult to predict and mitigate given the highly decentralized nature of DOI's bureaus and offices. In addition, the number of requests pending in the Department's "simple" processing track decreased from 77 to 6, while the number of requests in its "complex" processing track increased from 196 to 340. This indicates that the work involved in responding to more of DOI's pending requests has increased. Also, the wide geographical areas that DOI programs and services cover as well as the various regional organizational structures within each bureau create additional processing challenges that exacerbate DOI's FOIA backlog.

In FY 2010, Departmental efforts will continue to focus attention on backlog reduction in monthly backlog reports from the bureaus/offices and quarterly E-Government Act scorecards, and on collaboration with bureaus/offices to find appropriate remedial actions. These efforts will also include giving priority to completing the ten oldest FOIA requests within each bureau. In 2007, DOI modified the EFTS to enable bureaus/offices to readily produce real-time "snapshots" of their backlogs, allowing the FOIA Officers to monitor and manage their backlogs more efficiently. Additional modifications to the system are planned in FY 2010 to enhance both the system's reporting capabilities and its user-friendliness.

The DOI FOIA policy staff has also encouraged bureaus/offices to make more information available online in an effort to reduce the need for the public to make FOIA requests. Additionally, the Department plans to enhance its training efforts in FY 2010 to ensure that FOIA personnel receive the training they need to properly and promptly respond to any FOIA requests they receive. This includes development of an online computer-based training (CBT) module which is expected to be deployed by the end of FY 2010. The CBT will provide training to all DOI FOIA personnel on FOIA requirements, DOI procedures, and the Administration's FOIA policy guidance. This will allow DOI FOIA personnel in remote areas and those in organizations with limited training funds to receive the training they need. It will also provide for greater compliance and consistency in the handling of all FOIA requests to DOI.

Some bureaus still experience a high turnover in FOIA personnel and a lack of adequate, experienced staff to process requests, particularly in the field. One reason for this may be the fact that FOIA processing remains a collateral duty in most bureaus/offices (e.g., many FOIA Officers also serve as Privacy Officers, Records Officers, and/or Public Affairs Officers). Thus, FOIA request processing can be overtaken by other urgent priorities that compete for the attention of the same staff. Further, Federal Privacy and Records requirements, like FOIA, are also expanding. From FY 2007 to FY 2009, DOI faced an overall 31 percent decrease in the number of personnel assigned to FOIA. At the same time, the number of requests received increased by six percent. These factors, and the fact that many requests DOI receives are complex in nature, point to the need for more resources for these bureaus/offices. This would allow these bureaus/offices to address and eliminate gaps in knowledge and expertise caused by the high turnover in personnel, and to reduce their FOIA backlogs. As a result, several bureaus have either recently acquired or are in the process of recruiting or detailing additional full-time equivalent personnel (FTEs) and/or contract hires to assist in processing requests and reducing their backlogs. Other bureaus have requested additional resources for the FOIA program which are under consideration.

Other strategies include sending automated ticklers to FOIA coordinators and managers regarding overdue requests, using standard FOIA search forms, and improving communication within the Department as well as with the public. To avoid unnecessary fees and reduce processing time, one bureau/office provides requesters with an index of certain files to give the requester an opportunity to exclude documents he or she has no interest in receiving. That bureau/office also will be conducting weekly quality control checks to ensure that all data is updated and reflected accurately and in a timely manner in the Department's EFTS. Several bureaus have indicated that they plan to continue their efforts to increase proactive postings to their websites as well as to update their frequently requested FOIA documents. DOI has also made a concerted effort to work with requesters to scope or clarify the information being sought to make the request more manageable and reduce processing time.

Milestones for reducing DOI's backlog by 10% or more in FY 2010 are provided below.

 DOI Backlog Reduction Milestones
 
Steps Target Date
Develop Chief FOIA Officer memo to bureaus/offices requesting backlog reduction milestones from bureaus with significant backlogs (50 or more)
 -
Backlog reduction memo sent to bureaus
1/26/2010
Bureau input due
2/12/2010
Deadline for receipt and incorporation
4/6/2010
Five of 11 bureaus/offices have significant backlogs; DOI will achieve an overall reduction of 10 percent or more (backlog reduced to 680 requests)
9/30/2010
Bureaus/offices complete 10 oldest requests as reported in the FY09 FOIA annual report
9/30/2010
Monitor bureau/office backlogs monthly
Ongoing
Assess DOI's progress in meeting targeted backlog figures and develop remedial actions if needed
6/1/2010
Meet with Bureau/Office FOIA Officers and CIOs as necessary on existing deficiencies and recommended remedial actions
TBD
Analyze backlogs at the end of the fiscal year; bureaus/offices with significant backlogs must develop reduction plans for FY11
9/30/2010

You can access the Department's FOIA annual reports here.