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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

REE FOIA Improvement Plan
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RESEARCH, EDUCATION, AND ECONOMICS (REE)

A. NATURE OF REE's FOIA OPERATIONS

Two Freedom of Information Act/Privacy Act Officers employed with the Agricultural Research Service process FOIA/PA requests for records maintained by the REE agencies. The FOIA/PA Officers are responsible for all aspects of processing requests, appeals, and litigations, including interpretation, compilation, preparation of documents and final determinations. The REE agencies receive between 200 and 250 FOIA/PA requests a year. FOIA requests processed by the REE agencies include requests for controversial and sensitive records that require multiple consultations and careful handling.

B. AREAS SELECTED FOR REVIEW

REE reviewed the following potential improvement areas:

  • Affirmative disclosure under subsection(a)(2)
  • Improvement of agency's FOIA Reference Guide
  • Customer relations/communications
  • Automated tracking capabilities
  • Electronic FOIA
  • Forms of communication with requesters
  • Recycling of improvement information gleaned from FOIA Requester Service Center
  • Overall FOIA web site improvement
  • Process by which necessary cooperation is obtained from agency program personnel

C. NARRATIVE STATEMENT SUMMARIZING RESULTS OF REVIEW

After an extensive review of the REE FOIA program, we determined that the processing of FOIA requests is working exceptionally well in most of the above areas selected for review.

The FOIA Officers take time to contact requesters by email, telephone, or by letter to clarify requests, which enables the FOIA Officers to accurately describe to program personnel what the requester is seeking. REE allows any form of written request for information under FOIA, which includes letter, email, or facsimile. REE will also accept telephone requests under FOIA when the requests are not extensive. The REE FOIA Program has never had a backlog. We have recently upgraded our electronic FOIA log to make it more efficient. We also recently purchased a new scanner, which allows us to scan documents at a faster rate, as well as scan two-sided pages. We have also purchased Redax software, which allows us to redact information electronically and provide an electronic copy of the records to the requester.

One of the areas we carefully reviewed was the REE FOIA web site. The REE FOIA web site provides a wealth of information about the FOIA, including how to access non-FOIA records and how to make a FOIA request. There are also links to each of the REE agencies' web sites, USDA's FOIA web site (which provides links to the FOIA web sites for each of the USDA agencies), and DOJ's FOIA web site (which provides a wealth of information about the FOIA/PA). The FOIA's affirmative disclosure provisions create an ongoing obligation to make certain records available to the public. We will continue our process for locating and posting reading room records to ensure that we are consistently meeting this obligation and to review the web site on a quarterly basis. We are currently updating the FOIA web site, which includes the FOIA Reference Guide, to make it more user friendly.

We also examined the area of customer relations/communications. Although, we believe REE does an excellent job in this area, and in many cases going beyond the call of duty, there is always room to improve. REE acknowledges its FOIA requests within an average of ten working days of receipt. The letters always include the name and telephone number of a contact person that the requester can call with questions. REE will also call requesters if their requests are not clear to attempt to define and clarify the scope of the request. Politeness and courtesy have always been our standard policy in dealing with even the most difficult requesters. In an effort to improve communications with the requesters, we plan to acknowledge FOIA requests within five working days of receipt, and using follow-up letters, e-mails or telephone calls to keep the requester better informed. We are also in the process of developing an electronic FOIA Request form, which will be uploaded to the REE FOIA web site as another option for requesters to file their requests.

In examining our FOIA Requester Service Center, we do not have a system in place to track FOIA Requester Service Center complaints/concerns/comments. Although we have not had any requests to date, we will establish a process for such requester-provided information to use in making improvements as specified in the Executive Order.

D. AREAS CHOSEN AS IMPROVEMENT AREAS FOR PLAN OF REE

  • Overall FOIA web site improvement
  • Customer relations/communications
  • Recycling of improvement information gleaned from FOIA Requester Service Center

E. IMPROVEMENT AREA PLANS

1. Overall FOIA web site improvement

Goal: To improve REE's FOIA web site in order to provide more information to the public and to make it more user friendly.

Steps

  • Review REE's FOIA web site quarterly to ensure that information is current and relevant documents are posted. To be completed by 9-30-06 (and continuing thereafter).
  • Continue to examine ways to improve REE's FOIA web site to make it more user-friendly. To be completed by 9-30-06 (and continuing thereafter).

2. Customer relations/communications

Goal: To improve customer relations and communications.

Steps

  • Acknowledge FOIA requests within five working days of receipt. To be completed by 9-30-06.
  • Increase communication with requesters, using follow-up letters, e-mails or telephone calls, to keep the requester better informed. To be completed by 9-30-06.
  • Develop and upload REE FOIA Request Form. To be completed by 9-30-06.

3. Recycling of improvement information gleaned from FOIA Requester Service Center

Goal: Establish a formal process to document and make use of requester-provided information regarding improvements to our FOIA process.

Steps

Develop a FOIA Requester Service Center phone log to create a record for inquiries, comments, and follow-up calls. To be completed by 12-29-06.
Implement using a FOIA Requester Service Center phone log to track inquiries, comments, and follow-up calls. To be completed by 12-29-06.

F. IMPROVEMENT TIME PERIODS

Areas anticipated to be completed by 9-30-06:

  • Overall FOIA web site improvement
  • Customer relations/communications

Areas anticipated to be completed by 12-29-06:

  • Recycling of improvement information gleaned from FOIA Requester Service Center

Report date: September 21, 2006


Last Modified: 1/11/2007
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