The Agency Plan
I. Improve Communication with Requesters.
Adequate communication with requesters is central to the success of any FOIA effort. It assures that requesters are able to pursue their rights with maximum effectiveness and minimal costs. It improves requester confidence in the agency and is a sign of the agency's courtesy and the respect to which all requesters are entitled. It improves agency efficiency and effectiveness, because the agency can better tailor FOIA efforts to meeting the actual needs of requesters.
Our review indicates that while good communication now exists, the Department needs to improve its communication with the requester community as a whole and should seek its input on ways to improve our FOIA efforts. Moreover, the Department needs to improve its written communication with individual requesters and ensure that it is more consistent. Although some inconsistency may have developed because of differences in agency mission or the size and scope of the agency FOIA program, our review suggests that many inconsistencies are not compelled by these differences.
The Department of Labor will improve its communication with requesters in the following ways:
Goals and Objectives. The Department of Labor will seek to improve its FOIA programs by encouraging members of the requester community to offer any suggestions that they may have to improve the quality and efficiency of the Department's FOIA efforts.
- By the end of the Third quarter of CY 2006, the Chief FOIA Officer will meet with the FOIA Public Liaison and other agency officials, including the FOIA Service Center contacts, to plan outreach to the requester community. Planning will include a public forum or forums for the presentation of views by the requester community on the DOL FOIA program, and possible establishment of an electronic suggestion box or other means for the requester community to submit written comments and suggestions.
- By the end of CY 2006, at least one public forum will be held, and other identified outreach efforts will be implemented throughout CY 2007.
- The Chief FOIA Officer will prepare for the inclusion in the FOIA Annual Report for CY 2006 a report on the agency's development and implementation of measures to obtain input from the requester community.
- By the end of the first quarter in CY 2007, agencies will assess the information and views received from requesters and take such actions as may be appropriate to improve their programs during CY 2007 or thereafter.
- The Chief FOIA Officer will include in the FOIA Annual Report for CY 2007 a report on the agency's outreach activities and its response to input from the requester community.
Goals and Objectives. All DOL agencies will send written acknowledgement letters to requesters acknowledging receipt of FOIA requests, except when a substantive response is expected to be issued within a week. Acknowledgement letters will include agency contact points and, when feasible and appropriate, information on whether requests must be referred and an estimated response time.
- By the end of CY 2006, the Chief FOIA Officer will prepare template letters containing information for requesters and distribute these templates to all agencies.
- By the end of CY 2006, agencies will assure that all staff involved in FOIA work receives copies of these templates and that they utilize the templates or adapt them to suit the agencies' needs.
Goals and Objectives. DOL and its components will provide clear guidance to potential FOIA requesters on how to obtain information from the Department, including through FOIA requests, and will clearly communicate responses to FOIA requests.
- By the end of the second quarter of CY 2007, the Chief FOIA Officer, together with the FOIA Public Liaison, will review agency communication practices with requesters, including the use of agency Web sites to communicate information about agency procedures, to determine whether further steps are needed to improve communications related to requests. The Chief FOIA Officer will communicate any such recommendations to appropriate agency officials.
- During the third quarter of CY 2007 and thereafter, agency officials will implement needed improvements in their communication practices.
- By January 1, 2008, agencies will report to the Chief FOIA Officer on their implementation of these new practices.
The Department of Labor's Web site can be used both to provide information on how to file a FOIA request, and to provide access to information that members of the public may want, thus avoiding the need for individual FOIA requests. The posting of frequently requested documents, final opinions and orders, policy and guidance statements, and certain administrative staff manuals is needed to comply with the agency's statutory obligations under FOIA. Moreover, such postings also serve both requester and agency needs. When documents are posted, requesters obtain information more quickly and are spared the effort of using FOIA to obtain the documents directly. Such postings also allow the agency to make the information available, while avoiding the effort, expense, and delays of processing unnecessary FOIA requests. For similar reasons, it may be more efficient for an agency to post information of significant public interest, even though it has not been the subject of frequent FOIA requests. The Department needs a more structured effort to assure that information appropriate for web postings is more effectively identified and posted.
Goals and Objectives. The Department and individual agencies should provide clear and up-to-date information on how and where to submit FOIA requests and appeals to the Department and its various components. Links should be available to current versions of guidance from the Department of Justice on FOIA and other information sources.
- By the end of CY 2006, the Chief FOIA Officer, in consultation with the FOIA Liaison, appropriate agency FOIA staff, and the Department's Director of Enterprise Communications Services in the Office of Public Affairs will evaluate the FOIA web presence of DOL as a whole as well as the web presence of individual agencies and identify areas needing improvement.
- By the end of the second quarter of CY 2007, the Chief FOIA Officer will develop a plan to implement the needed improvements, consistent with available resources and the needs for Departmental approvals, for the remainder of CY 2007 and into the following years.
Goals and Objectives. Agencies will develop and implement a plan to ensure that they will systematically review their FOIA requests to identify frequently requested records, as well as agency decisions, policies, and guidance, and ensure that, where required by law, appropriate documents are posted on the web.
- By the end of CY 2006, agencies will develop and submit to the Chief FOIA Officer a plan describing the internal procedures and appropriate assignments of responsibility that the agency will implement to assure that it systematically reviews FOIA requests to the agency, identifies frequently requested records, agency opinions, orders, policy statements and interpretations and administrative staff manuals and staff instructions that affect a member of the public and assures that these records are posted on the web.
- By the end of the first quarter of CY 2007, agencies will submit for review by the Chief FOIA Officer in conjunction with the FOIA Public Liaison a report on their progress in implementing their plan.
- By the close of CY 2007, agencies will discuss their plans with the Chief FOIA Officer and the FOIA Public Liaison, make such adjustments as may be appropriate, and implement the plan.
- In years following CY 2007, agencies will make further appropriate adjustments to their plans.
Goals and Objectives. In some cases, agencies can avoid FOIA requests and the resulting burdens and administrative costs by increased posting of documents on the web that are likely to be of interest to the public, even though the posting of such documents is not legally required. Under appropriate circumstances, these postings may include, for example, program statistics or other information about enforcement or claims activity, information about Department grantees or contractors, certain portions of existing internal case tracking systems, Departmental budget and audit information, and other releasable information of interest to the public. Agencies should review their posting of such documents and seriously consider increasing their web postings. It is recognized, however, that the posting of these documents raises some difficult issues because of the volume of these materials and their diversity and complexity.
- By the close of CY 2006, agencies should identify those classes of documents not otherwise required to be posted that it would be useful and practicable to post proactively. They should develop a plan for the posting of such documents on a continuing basis and discuss this plan with the Chief FOIA Officer and the FOIA Public Liaison.
- By the close of CY 2007, agencies should implement their plan, discussing their progress with the Chief FOIA Officer and the FOIA Public Liaison.
- In each succeeding year, agencies shall continue to implement their plans, making such adjustments as may be appropriate, after discussions with the Chief FOIA Officer and the FOIA Public Liaison.
An adequate tracking system is crucial to an agency's ability to meet deadlines, identify deficiencies, prepare needed reports, and maintain good customer relationships. Because DOL agencies have diverse needs an effective tracking system must take these needs into account.
Goals and Objectives. The Department needs to examine systematically the special needs of FOIA and the special requirements of DOL agencies to see whether it can improve its methods of tracking FOIA requests and more fully meet the needs of FOIA requesters and DOL agencies.
- By the close of the third quarter of CY 2006, the Chief FOIA Officer will convene a working group that includes the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Administration and Management, the Office of the Solicitor, and stakeholding DOL agencies.
- By the close of CY 2006, the working group will review the need for improvements in agency FOIA tracking systems, including the ability of DOL tracking tools to meet DOL and agency needs, and will identify inadequacies and possible improvements or changes to meet agency needs.
- By the close of the first quarter of CY 2007, the working group will develop a report to the Chief FOIA Officer, which may take the form of one or more software specification documents, outlining a plan to address any inadequacies, improvements or changes identified. Agencies will implement the improvement plan to the extent appropriate.
- In CY 2007, the Chief FOIA Officer will present the plan to the relevant Department officials for action and implementation on a Department-wide basis as appropriate.
- By the close of CY 2007, the Chief FOIA Officer will again convene the workgroup that will review the plan developed in CY 2006, consider the progress made in implementing the plan, and develop and implement a revised plan to correct any persisting inadequacies and institute desired enhancements, within the limits of available resources and Departmental approvals.
The use of electronic tools can potentially improve the efficiency and effectiveness of an agency's response to FOIA requests. These tools include scanning, electronic redaction, and delivery of FOIA responses electronically. While the nature of the requested records in many cases may not be conducive to the efficient use of such tools, agencies need to give more systematic attention to the possibility that their use can improve the operation of the agency's FOIA program.
Goals and Objectives. Each agency, with respect to initial requests, and the Office of the Solicitor, with respect to appeals, should review the principal areas where they may benefit from automation, drawing, in part, upon any information that may be developed in the study under Section III. To the extent that an agency already has resources or equipment for automation (i.e. scanners, redacting software, etc.), it should consider whether these resources can be shared or used more systematically and effectively.
- By the end of CY 2006, each agency will complete their study and implement any improvements it is in a position to make. It shall report the results of its efforts to the Chief FOIA Officer.
- By the end of CY 2007, for those areas identified in its study that could effectively be automated, but not with existing resources, each agency will consider whether available funding and agency priorities permit the acquisition of necessary resources. Should additional resources become available, agencies shall develop and deploy a plan for their effective use, reporting the results to the Chief FOIA Officer.
At times, fairness, courtesy to requesters, and the efficiency of the FOIA process may require that certain requests be handled more expeditiously than others. Such situations may arise when agencies can identify certain classes of requests that should be handled more quickly (multi-tracking). In other cases, a particular requester may ask for and appropriately justify the need for expeditious handling. While many agencies do not employ a multi-track FOIA process, the review does not indicate how deliberately they have studied the potential benefits of such a process. It is also not clear how systematically agencies have reviewed their handling of requests for expedited processing of individual FOIA requests.
Goals and Objectives. Agencies that do not currently multi-track should determine if a multi-track process should be established and what number of tracks would be sufficient. If a multi-track system is in place, the agency should review its functionality, determine if the tracks are sufficient and whether the delineation between tracks is clear, and develop the changes it deems appropriate to maximize fairness and efficiency. Agencies should also review their handling of expedited requests.
- By the end of CY 2006, agencies will complete a review of the multi-tracking issues within their agencies and their handling of requests for expedited FOIA processing. Each agency will develop any appropriate changes in its processes, and report the results of its review and any resulting changes in its processes to the Chief FOIA Officer and the FOIA Public Liaison. It will implement as many of these changes as is practicable by the end of CY 2006.
- By the end of CY 2007 and beyond, agencies should implement the remaining changes that have not been implemented in CY 2006 and establish quality control mechanisms to assure that the changes are evaluated and maintained or modified, as appropriate.
One matter of central concern to requesters is the timeliness of agency responses to FOIA requests and appeals. Increasing timeliness and appeal processing capacity are complex matters, since many factors often contribute to agency performance, including, for example, the variable volume and complexity of incoming initial FOIA requests and appeals, and changing FOIA staff. While our review indicates that backlogs and timeliness within DOL are a more substantial issue at the administrative appeals level, those agencies with satisfactory performance at the initial request level need to continuously monitor their own performance so that they can identify and remedy any problems that arise at the earliest possible stage and before the problems become serious. Vigorous efforts must be made to increase capacity and timeliness at the appeals level.
Goals and Objectives. Agencies will develop and implement a system to monitor backlogs on a real-time basis. They will report to the Chief FOIA Officer the steps they have taken to assure the early detection of growing backlogs and the development of any timeliness issues. They will regularly report their backlogs to the Chief FOIA Officer.
- By the end of the third quarter of CY 2006, the Chief FOIA Officer will provide guidance on the definition of "backlogs" and develop a template for reporting backlogs.
- By the end of CY 2006, agencies will develop and implement a system to monitor backlogs and report to the Chief FOIA Officer on the steps they have taken.
- By the end of the second quarter of CY 2007, and semiannually thereafter, agencies shall report their backlogs to the Chief FOIA Officer.
- These reports will continue through CY 2007 and thereafter.
Goals and Objectives. To increase the number of appeals adjudicated by the Department's FOIA appeals unit (273 appeals pending for more than 30 days as of April 30, 2006 with an average of 17 appeals closed each month for CY 2005), the Department will systematically increase from its 2005 baseline the number of appeals completed and closed.
- By December 31, 2006, the number of appeals completed and closed will increase 61 percent over the 2005 baseline.
- By the end of CY 2006, the Chief FOIA Officer will assess the impact of actions taken to increase output in the appeals unit (discussed in Results of the Review, paragraph 6) and determine whether additional measures are needed. Recommended measures will be implemented, consistent with the availability of resources, by the end of the first quarter of CY 2007 and continuing thereafter, as appropriate. The Department's annual FOIA Report for FY 2006 will report on increased output in the appeals area.
- By December 31, 2007, the number of appeals completed and closed will increase 93 percent over the 2005 baseline.
- It is anticipated that the appeals adjudication capacity will increase and continue into 2008 and beyond.
- By the end of CY 2007, the Chief FOIA Officer again will assess the progress of the appeals unit and determine whether additional measures are needed and can be implemented, consistent with the availability of resources.
A knowledgeable and well-trained staff can greatly enhance an agency's ability to provide prompt, courteous, efficient, and timely service to requesters, and it can help to assure that requesters receive the rights guaranteed by law. The widespread use in DOL of staff that spends only a portion of its time on FOIA matters and is spread across the U.S. presents significant challenges to the development of cost effective staff training efforts. Agencies can improve their efforts by making resource materials readily available to staff and by providing employee training and orientation efforts, commensurate with agency staffing patterns and available resources.
Goals and Objectives. Each agency shall establish a plan to ensure that 100 percent of its identified FOIA staff has the opportunity to receive adequate FOIA training. Where agency resources are limited, the agency will work with the Chief FOIA Officer to identify low-cost options, such as FOIA training DVDs. In addition, regular meetings of DOL FOIA Service Center Staff will be held so that there will be an opportunity to share lessons learned and help identify best FOIA practices.
- Throughout CY 2006, agencies will continue to seek opportunities to provide FOIA training to the agency's FOIA staff, such as attendance at formal training sessions, and distribution of FOIA guidance materials.
- By September 30 of CY 2006 and each 6 months thereafter, the Chief FOIA Officer will convene a meeting of FOIA Service Center Staff to share information about lessons learned and best FOIA practices.
- By the end of CY 2006, the Chief FOIA Officer will research, develop and share with the agencies a catalogue of available training opportunities for agency staff. The Chief FOIA Officer will investigate the availability of low cost options, such as DVDs and online training materials. Consistent with agency resources, the Chief FOIA Officer will arrange for in-house training for DOL FOIA staff.
- By the end of the first quarter of CY 2007, every agency will develop and implement a plan which will ensure that 100 percent of its identified FOIA staff are provided an opportunity to receive appropriate FOIA training by the close of CY 2007. Each agency will transmit its plan to the Chief FOIA Officer by the end of the first quarter of CY 2007.
- Within 15 days of the end of CY 2007, each agency will report to the Chief FOIA Officer concerning the results of its training efforts during the prior calendar year.
Goals and Objectives. Agencies should make resource materials more readily available to staff working on FOIA matters.
- By the end of CY 2006, all agencies, in consultation with the Chief FOIA Officer, will make resource materials such as the Justice Department's FOIA Guide electronically available to employees with FOIA responsibilities.