Cloud gives agencies a leg up in FOIA deluge

Friday - 8/23/2013, 5:53am EDT

Jason Miller speaks with Frank Vance, FOIA officer at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency in the Treasury Department, and Edith Permberton, manager of Information Management and Custom Relations at the Federal Housing Finance Agency.

Download mp3

New technologies and the cloud are making it easier for agencies to deal with the onslaught of Freedom of Information Act requests they've been receiving over the last few years.

FOIA-in-the-cloud is a growing trend among agencies that need to ease the paper and cost burdens.

Edith Pembleton, the manager of Information Management and Customer Relations at the Federal Housing Finance Agency, said the housing crisis over the last few years has had a huge impact in the number of FOIA requests.

She said the Department of Housing and Urban Development moved its FOIA system to the cloud in 2011 using FOIAxpress application from AINS to help deal with the deluge of requests.

"The backlog of the FOIAs have declined because, in part, of our FOIA environment that we have today," she said after speaking Thursday at the AINS users conference in Washington. "When we went to the cloud, the biggest thing we noticed was improved performance in our system so people weren't waiting to get documents loaded and doing searches for documents."

FOIA

FOIA backlog in FY 2008-2012. (FOIA.gov)

Increasing complexity

Frank Vance, a FOIA officer at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency in the Treasury Department, echoed Pemberton's experience.

He said the OCC also has seen a huge increase in FOIA requests, and they've become more complex. The OCC, like HUD, moved its FOIA system to the AINS managed service in 2009.

"We at the OCC are trying to make as much information available proactively as possible via the Web, but that opens the floodgate of things that aren't there," he said. "People say, 'they want everything on x, or they want everything on y.' So we are going through our information systems and scanning them and I'm seeing now requests that encompass 45,000 pieces paper, and it's mind blowing what people are asking for. We are trying to be open. We are trying to be as transparent as possible, but also weighing the need to keep things confidential about banking."

And it's not just these agencies. The Justice Department reported agencies saw a five-year high in the number of FOIA requests in 2012, receiving more than 654,000. That was a 1 percent increase over 2012 — a total of about 34,000 more. DoJ said the governmentwide FOIA backlog dropped by 14 percent as well.

Last year, DoJ said in its September 2012 report that agencies processed 5 percent more FOIA requests in 2011 as compared to 2010. Agencies received more than 631,000 information requests in 2011 and saw the governmentwide backlog grow to more than 83,000 from less than 70,000 in 2010.

Additionally, DoJ found the number of full time FOIA staff across the government dropped by more than 300, meaning fewer people are handling more and more requests.

Double-digit cost savings

HUD, OCC and others also bucked the push to use the governmentwide FOIA system, called FOIAOnline.gov.

The Environmental Protection Agency, the National Archives and Records Administration and the Commerce Department launched the one-stop portal in January 2012. The FOIAOnline tool has been slow to catch on with only the three sponsoring agencies, the Treasury Department, the Federal Labor Relations Authority and the Merit Systems Protections Board using the tool. And Treasury is using the portal only for accepting FOIA requests.

Part of the reason for moving FOIA to the cloud is the cost savings.

Pembleton said HUD saved 22 percent in 2013 and 25 percent in 2012 off of support costs as compared to the agency's former system.

She said those costs include people, document management and keeping the IT system up and running.

"The support savings we are seeing is a result of us being able to take on more work from the federal government perspective as opposed to us having to contract that out," she said. "The environment itself allows the searches to be done much faster."

Another reason to move the cloud is the push by the Obama administration to improve how they manage federal records.

President Barack Obama issued a memo in November 2011 calling on agencies to develop more cost-effective and efficient ways to manage records using technology.

Automating redactions, finding duplicates

Vance said the technology is making his job easier in several ways, including making reviewing thousands of documents almost automatic because he can tell the system which keywords to look for and then decide whether they should be included or not.

"The cloud has allowed us to even go one-step further to not worry so much about records disposition because in our cloud environment we've already set the bar for when things are destroyed," he said. "It's an automatic exercise; therefore, we are not boxing up records, sending them away and destroying them."

Vance added in one request, he uncovered 1,500 responsive documents, but he knew there were duplicates in the group.

One of the tools in the FOIA-in-the-cloud finds all the duplicates based on an algorithm and parameters set by the agency. Vance said he was able to cut the document review process down to 500, which means the requester got their information more quickly.

Pembleton said HUD now can accept FOIA requests electronically and deliver the documents over the Internet should the citizen or business want them that way.

"When the public submits a request through our public facing website, that request is automatically inputted into the FOIA system," she said. "There is no paper and we are able to address the Paperwork Reduction Act, and there are less boxes to ship off to the NARA."

Pembleton added the technology lets HUD automatically redact documents based on a set of rules.

"The hard part for the users was actually getting rid of their Sharpie pens," she said. "You don't have to sit through tons and tons of documents and do the redaction. And when you redaction them, it automatically assigns the codes to them, so that's a huge timesaver."

Vance added OCC can post highly sought after and popular FOIAed documents to a reading room that lets users log in with their username and passwords and download the information.

"I think as a FOIA officer my job is going to get increasingly difficult because people are going to be asking for more, different and nuanced type of records that will challenge me more to balance the public's right to know with my agency's mission," Vance said. "With the use of technology, it should be good thing" to find that needed balance.

RELATED STORIES:

FOIA backlog grows even as agencies process more requests

Agencies demo one-stop FOIA portal

Agencies have 120 days to start getting e-records in shape