Is Congress aware that the people that do ALL the reviewing for @StateDept FOIA requests (are) part timers?

Posted: 3:23 am ET
Updated: April 19 9:47 pm PT
[twitter-follow screen_name=’Diplopundit’ ]

 

Below is an excerpt from the Associated Press v. State Department Case 1:13-cv-01363-EGS Document 48-2 Filed 12/11/15, a status hearing with John Hackett who has been with the State Department since 2013. Mr. Hackett was the Deputy Director, Office of Information Programs and Services from April 2013 to March 2014. He served as Acting Director for a year, and in June 2015, he was appointed Director of the Office of Information Programs and Services. The hearing occurred before Judge Richard Leon at the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. This is an excerpt from the court transcript:

Q How many people you got working under you, sir?
A We have approximately 60 civil servants who work on the FOIA program.

Q You have some part-time people too, right?
A We have additional part-time people.

Q Forty?
A We have 40 former foreign service officers who do primarily the review.

Q You have 40 part-time employees, former foreign service officers who assists the 60 full time, right?
A The 40 former foreign service officers are the primary reviewers. They’re experts in their field, and they do, they do the bulk of the review. In fact, they do all of the reviews.

Q The sixty, 64 folks that you have on your full-time staff don’t do any reviewing?
A No, your Honor, they’re case analysts and they receive the documents that come in, the requests that come in from the public. They do the validations of the requests. They do the tasking of other bureaus and offices. They open the mail, task things out.

Q They process the paper?
A Process the paper, yes.

Q They don’t have the training, background and skill to make the kinds of judgment calls that reviewers make, if I understood you correctly?
A That’s correct, your Honor.

Q And when you say 40 are part time, what does part time equal 20 hours per week?
A It depends, your Honor. They are in a special category that allows them to work X amount of hours per year and receive their pensions at the same time, their foreign service pension. So there’s a cap on their hours and there’s also a cap on their dollars. So a lot of them work I would say 20 to 24 hours a week, but it depends on what they’re paid. Because many of them cap out before they’ve used all their hours. They cap out on their salary hours.

Q So you don’t have the authority to direct them to work more than X-number of hours a week or do you?
A I don’t, your Honor, because it is a provision, and I’m not sure — it’s in the department’s regulation or whether it’s in an act or statute that allows them to work, work for the State Department, work for the government in addition to receive their foreign service retirement.

Q Is Congress aware that the people that do all the reviewing for State Department FOIA requests part timers? Does congress know this?
A Your Honor, I can’t speak to what Congress does or does not know.

Q Well, has that always been the system?
A It’s been the system since I arrived, your Honor. It’s been a successful system to have.

Q Well, now that’s a matter of prospective, sir. The  State Department has been publicly criticized on many occasions for how slow they are in processing FOIA reviews, many occasions. Indeed, I think Justice and State are the ones that are publicly criticized the most for the slowness of their reviews. Surely you’re aware of that, are you not, it’s your department?
A Your Honor, we have since 2008, had a 300 percent increase in the number of requests coming to the Department.

Q All the more reason why you should have full-time people doing the reviewing. So prior to you getting there it was always part timers too as far as you know?
A As far as I know, your Honor, yes.

Q As far as you know it’s always been part timers?
A Yes, but there’s been part timers, but it’s not just their part timers. You need staff or you need experts in this field, in diplomacy and national security information. And they come to us with —

Q Let’s pause there for a second. You don’t need that to figure out Huma Abedin’s, Special Government Employee papers. That doesn’t affect national security, does it?
A I don’t know, your Honor.

#

Retired FSOs who return to work as part-timers are called Reemployed Annuitants (previously categorized as WAEs or When Actually Employed employees), and their work hours are capped at 1040 hours a year. Below via RNET:

The term WAE (When Actually Employed) is used in the Department of State (DoS) to describe a reemployed annuitant who works on an intermittent basis for no more than 1040 hours during each service year and whose appointment is not to exceed one year. Bureaus utilize WAEs to fill staffing gaps and peak workload periods. While the acronym WAE is currently well-known inside DoS, new employees understandably find it confusing. In order to transition out of using the term WAE, the program has been renamed the Reemployed Annuitant (WAE) Program or REA/WAE.
[….]
A FS annuitant reemployed on a temporary basis will continue to receive their full annuity and the full salary so long as the annual earnings and annuity received do not exceed the higher of: (a) the FS annuitant’s salary at retirement (unadjusted for inflation) or (b) the full- time salary of the position in which the FS annuitant is reemployed.

Updated April 19:

A new declaration from Mr. Hackett (via Leopold v. State Department) case indicates that the State Department has hired additional reviewers. It looks like there will be 25 more FOIA reviewers to be brought onboard this spring.

 

Related posts:

 

#

Advertisements

Snapshot: State Dept FY2014 FOIA Personnel and Costs

Posted: 9:46 am EST
[twitter-follow screen_name=’Diplopundit’ ]

 

Via FY 2014 FOIA Annual Report:

During this fiscal year the Department experienced a 60 percent increase in FOIA lawsuits over fiscal year 2013. The majority of new lawsuits involved voluminous sensitive records that required careful coordination with other federal agencies. To meet the demands of this upswing in FOIA lawsuits, the Department reallocated resources from FOIA processing to FOIA litigation, which directly impacted efforts to manage and reduce the backlog of pending FOIA requests that are not in litigation.

Despite all efforts, including employing best practices established during the successful backlog reduction project in fiscal year 2013 as well as processing over 88 percent of the thousands of referrals that were pending from last fiscal year and received by the Department this fiscal year, the FOIA request backlog rose by 15.8 percent this fiscal year. However, the Department achieved a significant reduction in the FOIA appeal backlog lowering the backlog by 13.7 percent. The Department also closed its ten oldest requests and consultations. These accomplishments are especially noteworthy in light of the fact that the Department reallocated FOIA processing resources to address large, complex FOIA litigation cases and to provide assistance to the Department on significant special document productions throughout the fiscal year.

Note that the number of FOIA requests and administrative appeals backlogs at the end of FY2014 (September 30,2014) is 10,045 or 1,376 cases more than FY2013. Processing of simple FOIA cases can take anywhere between 3 days to 1,576 days or 4.3 years. Processing complex cases can take anywhere between 11 days to 2,237 days or 6.1 years. The average number of days for processing expedited FOIA cases is 385.6 days. (see pdf)

In the table below, the “Equivalent Full-Time FOIA Employees” include When Actually Employed (WAE) former Foreign Service Officers who perform document review and students who work part-time throughout the year to process FOIA requests. Note that the breakdown of personnel does not identify exactly how many WAE and how many students are working FOIA cases, only that they are equivalent to “full-time employees.”  WAE employees have no regularly scheduled tour of duty and the hours worked cannot exceed 1,040 in a calendar year. As for the students, we don’t know how many students rotate through the FOIA office requiring training every year.   Also useful to know that each bureau has its own WAE application and appointment procedures and the ability to hire is limited by the bureau’s budgets.

Screen Shot 2015-03-08

According to the annual report, the processing costs below include “a percentage of the costs incurred by IT staff who were employed to support the FOIA program as one of their major duties”  The IT staffing numbers are not reflected in personnel data column so we also have no idea how many IT staff supports the FOIA office.

Screen Shot 2015-03-08

 #

In related news:

 #

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