State Dept FOIA Requests: Agency Ranks Second in Highest Backlog and Here’s Why

State/OIG recently published its inspection of the Office of Information Programs and Services (IPS) located in the Bureau of Administration.   IPS is responsible for the Department’s records management and related technologies, including public access to information under Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, privacy information and protection and classification management and review, including declassification. The IPS office according to the OIG inspectors has no overseas locations. A director leads a staff of 358 employees, including 152 Civil Service employees, 184 when actually employed (WAE) staff members, and 22 student interns.

The OIG notes that IPS plays a critical role in the Department’s communication with the public:

“By providing citizens access to the Department’s records, the office is instrumental in maintaining openness and transparency in the conduct of foreign affairs.”

Openness and transparency okay but nothing about promptness

“The Department’s FOIA process is inefficient and ineffective. IPS’s backlog of 6,950 cases continues to grow. A relatively small staff is processing the heavy volume of requests and dealing with new software. Delays in responses from other bureaus, offices, and agencies contribute to the problem. The Department receives among the highest number of FOIA requests in the U.S. Government. In FY 2011, IPS reported that it received 14,262 requests, in addition to the 21,252 requests already pending at the beginning of the year. IPS employees processed 26,802 requests during the year, leaving 8,712 pending. IPS reported that in FY 2011, the average number of days to process simple cases was 156; for complex cases, 342. Some cases have been pending for 5 or 6 years.”

According to http://www.foia.gov/ the State Department is second only to DHS in its ranking of federal agencies with the highest FOIA request backlog.  State/IPS average response time to a simple FOIA request in FY2011 is 156 days, its highest number of days to respond is 1,603.  The highest response time for complex cases is 2,460 days and for expedited cases is 1,802 days.

POGO points out that it takes State and USAID “on average seven times longer to process a simple FOIA request than the 20-day legal limit for simple requests” because as “they have to gather records from “hundreds of posts throughout the world” and “missions in over 80 countries.”

If it would make you feel better, click here for the Department of State FOIA Backlog Reduction Plan way back in 2008 with colorful graphics.

Below are some of the OIG report’s key judgments:

  • Leadership and management practices contribute to problematic morale and poor communication across the Bureau of Administration, Global Information Services, Office of Information Programs and Services (IPS). Management controls in IPS are insufficient, indicating leadership and management deficiencies in many parts of the organization.
  • The main responsibilities of IPS include managing the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and declassification programs, administering the Privacy Act, and conducting records management. Lack of cooperation from the Department of State (Department) and internal weakness hamper IPS’s performance of these duties.
  • IPS handles one of the largest FOIA workloads in the Federal Government. However, IPS’s lack of a sound process to develop its information systems led to delayed and flawed deployment of the Freedom of Information Document Managing System 2 (FREEDOMS 2), IPS’s key software for managing cases, resulting in significant backlogs.

This is the same system that State’s Annual FOIA Report dated March 2012 says is “designed to more efficiently and effectively perform case processing functions.”

State’s Chief FOIA Officer is Joyce Barr, the Assistant Secretary at the Bureau of Administration. IPS is headed by Deputy Assistant Secretary Margaret P. Grafeld who assumed post on September 2010. The director and deputy director of IPS are Sheryl L. Walter and Alex Galovich respectively.

The little devils in the fine details

  • Personnel in Department bureaus who serve as liaisons to IPS are normally staff assistants or others for whom FOIA responsibilities are a small part of their job. Their lack of responsiveness indicates that performance in handling FOIA requests is not a significant factor their evaluations. Even if it were, the Department has not developed performance standards for responding to IPS’s requests for documents. IPS does not report to the upper levels of the Department about the responsiveness of bureaus and embassies on FOIA. To improve the Department’s FOIA performance, the Department must fix responsibility at all stages of the process.
  • Persistent neglect of fundamental leadership responsibilities and management practices has had profound consequences in IPS. The OIG team’s observations, discussions with IPS staff, and the responses to OIG’s questionnaires indicated an office with problematic morale, perceptions of favoritism, micromanagement practices, and confused lines of authority. Inspectors found failures of communication, lack of training, questionable staffing decisions, and poor time and attendance record keeping. IPS’s new director is just beginning to address the many challenges that she faces.  Many suggest that poor morale stems from frequently changing priorities and excessive workload. REDACTED
  • Communication among all levels of IPS staff is poor. Division chiefs are located on the same floor in order to strengthen communication within higher-level management. This physical arrangement limits managers from seeing what their employees are doing on a daily basis, however. IPS leadership told the OIG team that they plan to change this arrangement with the building renovation, currently in process, which will colocate managers with members of their staff.

Is it just us or does it seem like when there is a negative report, things are often just in the cusp or the verge of change?  Apparently a new director is addressing the problem and the office’s physical arrangements will be changed with the building renovation.  Which should happen soon.


Despite the huge backlog, staffers go on excursion tours … to Brazil …to Brazil

“IPS recently allowed several staffers who process FOIA requests to take excursion tours in Brazil to assist in visa processing. At a time when IPS has a large backlog of cases, it is unwise to divert staff to other duties.”

In her Chief FOIA Officer March 12, 2012 Annual Report, Ms. Barr reports that “Comprehensive quarterly training is provided to employees who review documents in response to FOIA requests.” And that “Staffing has remained the same. Any vacant positions were filled during the year.”

The OIG report on staff development, training, staffing gaps

  • IPS management has not made staff development a priority because of the heavy workload. Some employees noted that the only training they have received during their tenure in IPS is on-the-job training and that they receive minimal constructive feedback regarding performance.
  • IPS does not have a plan to manage retirements and fill vacancies promptly. Since 2009, 69 employees have retired or resigned. Three division head positions and one branch chief position were vacant at the time of the inspection, one since 2007. The deputy director, in addition to his other duties, serves as acting head for all of those offices. This situation is unacceptable. These offices handle a significant part of the workload for IPS and require consistent, full-time leadership. However, IPS used funding for these positions to hire new full-time equivalents at lower grades.

All together now — Sister Sledge sings “We are family ….”

  • IPS employs an unusually large percentage of WAEs and contractors. The presence of these experienced employees, who work under a flexible system, is a source of strength to the organization. However, the OIG team identified multiple occasions when WAEs reached their hour or salary caps, and IPS rehired them under a contract so that they could continue performing the same work. It is not permissible for an employee on a temporary appointment who reaches his or her hourly or salary cap to continue work as a contractor performing the same duties.10 This practice can result in violations of Federal employee ethical standards and related criminal laws.
  • At the time of the inspection, three former deputy directors and one former senior advisor of IPS were working as contractors. The common perception among IPS staff is that only certain employees are provided this opportunity. The OIG team found several cases of immediate family members of IPS employees working in the office. Several employees raised the issue of nepotism in questionnaires or interviews with inspectors, and staff thought that family members have an advantage in the office. Some of these same family members were interns in the IPS student program before they received a full-time position with the Department.

Trickle up Awards Program Sounds Familiar?

  • IPS has an active awards program, but many employees noted that its implementation appears unfair. A few upper-level management employees appeared to receive consistent high-dollar cash awards in the past 3 years, but division staff at lower grade levels did not receive corresponding amounts. According to staff members, many believe that only a select group of individuals in IPS receives awards each year.

More not so fun details:

  • Many position descriptions have not been updated recently, with some dating from 1990.
  • IPS cannot identify how many records the Department creates.
  • IPS cannot account for hard-copy records that domestic bureaus and overseas posts should be sending on a regular basis to the records service center.
  • Despite the large number of hard-copy documents IPS reproduces, the office lacks copy machines that can handle the volume required.
  • In the absence of an accurate inventory, AAS was only able to estimate the levels of idle equipment as between 70 and 125 workstations.
  • SMART [State Messaging and Archival Retrieval Toolset] captured 61,156 of an estimated 15 million record emails in the system that should be captured.
  • An estimated 13,000 cubic feet of retired records are past due for destruction.
  • IPS issues office-specific security badges to its own employees [...] Issuance of the IPS-specific badges is excessive and a waste of resources.

The Chief FOIA Officer reports that “Due to its global structure and the nature of its record holdings, the Department faces great challenges in achieving full compliance with the time limits of the FOIA.”  But don’t you worry, she insists in her annual report that “it remains committed to achieving the fullest possible compliance, with the greatest level of customer service.”

Related items:

Inspection of the Bureau of Administration, Global Information Services, Office of Information Programs and Services Report Number ISP-I-12-54, September 2012

State Department Chief Freedom of Information Act Officer Annual Report | March 12, 2012

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Filed under Career Employees, Functional Bureaus, Govt Reports/Documents, Leadership and Management, Regulations, State Department, Technology and Work

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