Room for Improvement at DHS

June 30th, 2007 is the self-imposed deadline at the Department of Homeland Security for a broad range of changes designed to improve their performance in handling FOIA requests. As tomorrow is a Saturday, that makes today the de-facto deadline for all DHS components to get their ducks in a line.

As I wrote about here a while ago, DHS is in the midst of a huge, top-down overhaul and rethink of the way they handle and process FOIA (and Privacy Act) requests. Having recognized that their performance in this area was decidedly subpar, they set a huge number of goals with a variety of target dates. For the most part, the “due date” for most of the “real” goals is the end of the year – December 31. However, some first steps towards progress are due to be completed no later than June 30. These include:

“[S]enior component leaders will be encouraged to issue memoranda to employees indicating their expectation of compliance with FOIA obligations.”

“[A]ll components and offices will make available “FOIA 101″ information for all employees detailing FOIA obligations and stressing customer service.”

“[A]ll components and offices will draft and implement the use of letter templates containing standardized language”

“Revise the online DHS FOIA Reference Guide”

“Provide a link to the DOJ FOIA Guide from the DHS FOIA web page”

“Increase proactive disclosure of documents on component and office websites to allow public access to records without submitting a FOIA request”

and, last but not least, “Confirm compliance with 5 U.S.C. 552 (a)(2) requirements for affirmative disclosure of statutorily specified documents.”

In this, and their other targeted areas of improvement, the Department is broadly in line with the recommendations of the National Security Archive, who identified a significant number of shortcomings across the entire government.

But did it work? It’s hard to say.

At this point in time, I can’t say whether DHS, or any components, have complied with some of these requirements. Of the ones that are – or should be – visible to the public, ascertaining compliance depends heavily on whether you follow the letter, or the spirit, of the instructions. In a number of areas, my feeling is that the requirement has technically been met, but not in the best – or necessarily even a good – way. One example is DHS’ own FOIA website, which has been revised, but which has not in any significant way been made better or become more user-friendly. In other areas, I don’t believe any meaningful progress has yet been made – especially the last two, proactive disclosure of records, and the availability of required documents.

Time will, perhaps, eventually tell whether DHS thinks they’ve met their targets on these and other improvements. For now, though, it looks like any optimism about the Department’s intentions to improve their handling of FOIA requests may have been at least partially unwarranted.

Published in: Geekiness, General, Security | on June 29th, 2007| No Comments »

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