National Archives News

FOIA Ombudsman Helps DHS Improve Process

By James Worsham | National Archives News

WASHINGTON, November 1, 2019 — The Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) helped the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) improve its Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) practices through assessments and recommendations, OGIS Director Alina Semo told a House subcommittee. 

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OGIS Director Alina Semo (National Archives photograph)

Semo testified in Congress before the Subcommittee on Oversight, Management, and Accountability of the House Committee on Homeland Security, during an October 17 hearing on “The Public's Right to Know: FOIA at the Department of Homeland Security.” OGIS, a part of the National Archives, serves as Federal FOIA Ombudsman.
OGIS assessed FOIA activities in seven separate DHS components  as well as a more limited review of the DHS Privacy Office, between September 2015 and February 2018 and made a total of 86 recommendations, of which 84—or 98 percent—were addressed, according to Semo.
“Conducting the seven DHS assessments, we surveyed nearly 500 FOIA professionals and reviewed a sample of more than 1,500 FOIA requests that have been processed in the most recent fiscal year prior to each of our assessments,” Semo said. “For example, we assessed the FOIA program at TSA [Transportation Security Administration], which processed fewer than 1,000 requests in fiscal year 2014, and the government's largest FOIA program at USCIS [U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services], which processed more than 145,000 FOIA requests in fiscal year 2016.”
Semo emphasized that the assessments were "snapshots-in-time" and that findings and recommendations might no longer apply, especially if the components  have already addressed the issues cited by OGIS. Semo noted that  "our recommendations range from short-term and easily implemented to the long-term and ambitious."
The House Subcommittee is reviewing Homeland Security’s administration of FOIA. The seven DHS programs assessed by OGIS were at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Coast Guard, TSA, Customs and Border Protection, the Secret Service, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and USCIS. In an eighth assessment, OGIS examined whether DHS's Privacy Officer, who serves as the DHS Chief FOIA Officer, fulfills several specific statutory responsibilities. Chief FOIA Officers are senior agency officials who are responsible for FOIA monitoring and compliance, and recommend improvements to the FOIA process. 
In assessing the FOIA programs at the seven DHS components, OGIS focused  its recommendations  on three specific categories: management, technology, and communication.
In the management category, OGIS recommended better monitoring of progress on FOIA cases and a reduction in the number of cases in its backlog in one component. A plan for addressing both new and backlogged requests enabled that FOIA program to reduce its backlog by 74 percent in FY 2015.
In the technology category, OGIS recommended that components find ways to avoid duplication in their tracking and processing systems and also to find ways that misdirected FOIA requests can be sent to their correct destination easily.
In the communication category, OGIS called for better and more frequent communication with requesters to keep them better informed as to the status of their requests. Removal of jargon and “legalese” in response letters was also recommended.
In its assessment of the DHS Privacy Office, OGIS found that the office fulfilled its duties and  provided valuable assistance to other component agencies and provided targeted services to other components.
“Our assessment of the DHS Privacy Office was unique in that we assessed whether the DHS Privacy Officer, who serves as the Chief FOIA Officer, fulfills several specific statutory responsibilities,” Semo said.
As for noncompliance with FOIA requirements within DHS, OGIS recommended that the Chief FOIA Officer at DHS raise issues of noncompliance within DHS to higher levels, including the Office of the DHS Secretary.
In addition, Semo explained, “our recommendation was that the DHS Chief FOIA Officer adopt a standard procedure and method for issuing guidance similar to the manner in which the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Information Policy issues government-wide FOIA guidance. This would improve DHS components’ compliance with FOIA and adherence to DHS FOIA policy.”