Key Best Practices and Recommendations From The FOIA Advisory Committee Report

Key Best Practices and Recommendations From The FOIA Advisory Committee Report

best practices and recommendations from the FOIA Advisory Committee

In 2014, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) formed the Federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Advisory Committee to improve Federal Agency FOIA Operations.

The purpose of creating the FOIA Advisory Committee was to explore procedures and methods which will contribute to improving FOIA Operations.

After 2 years of work, the Committee released their Final FOIA Recommendation document this January. The document includes series of recommendations for Federal Agency FOIA Operations.

The aim of these recommendations is to make sure that maximum information is released, both in response to FOIA requests and proactively. They include specific actions to be undertaken and series of best practices to be implemented.

Let’s start with the specific actions FOIA Advisory Committee recommends your agency to undertake in order to improve FOIA Operations.

Committee-Recommended FOIA Specific Actions

In their Final FOIA Recommendation Report, the FOIA Advisory Committee recommends a series of specific actions concerning:

  • Search Technology
  • FOIA Accessibility
  • FOIA Performance Standards

Here are the specific recommended actions across the three segments that agencies should do:

  1. To propose that the Chief FOIA Officers Council and the Chief Information Officers Council study the FOIA technology across agencies, and find the best practices that can be implemented across agencies.
  2. To request the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Information Policy to gather detailed information about the specific methods and technologies that agencies use to search their electronic records. The details should be a part of each agency’s Chief FOIA Officer Report.
  3. To suggest that the Federal Acquisition Regulation requires all agencies to provide access to Federal Agency Records. This will help in purchasing decisions for Electronic Records Management Software.
  4. To contribute to the development of standard requirements for FOIA processing tools by making sure that your tools and outputs are Section 508 compliant.
  5. To request that the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) evaluate the methods and actions agencies use in preparing files for posting on agency FOIA reading rooms.
  6. To encourage OGIS to point out issues with the Proactive Disclosure and Section 508 compliance in its report to Congress.
  7. To direct OGIS to assess the use of appropriate performance standards in Federal Employee Appraisal Records, and to recommend plans that ensure compliance with FOIA requirements.

Committee-Recommended Best Practices for FOIA Operations

FOIA Advisory Committee recommended best practices for FOIA operations

The FOIA Advisory Committee recommends your agency to implement series of best practices to improve the compliance and the overall administration of FOIA.

These series of recommendations are aimed to bring improvement in every aspect of the FOIA Process such as:

  1. The Technology used for FOIA Processing
  2. The Management of the FOIA Process
  3. Proactive Disclosure
  4. FOIA  Accessibility

Let’s dive into these recommendations and see how each of them is useful for your agency.

1. Technologies Used For FOIA Processing

FOIA processing is almost impossible without the use of technology to ease the process. The FOIA Advisory Committee came out with a series of recommendations to improve the technologies that agencies use to process FOIA requests.

Here are a few of these recommendations:

  • Create career model for information management. This enables new FOIA/Information Management professionals to get familiar with the process of information governance, privacy and Support Record Management.
  • Contract a Surge Support Staff to rapidly increase responses. By quickly reacting to surges and decreasing backlogs, this surge support staff will eliminate everyday pressure in your FOIA Department.
  • Create Add-Ons to IT Systems for exporting records. This way Federal Agencies will be able to search through and track requests more efficiently. These add-ons will further streamline the FOIA search process.
  • Assign a Project Coordinator to approve search requests within file management systems. This improves quality of searches and reduces time and effort invested in searching and reviewing.
  • Make responding to FOIA requests the key focus of your file management system. This improves the process of responding to FOIA requests and creates a basis for a better system of transparency.
  • Adopt a centralized tracking platform in all FOIA departments, or at least, consolidate to fewer tracking systems. From a technical perspective, this way you standardize the entire FOIA process and simplify the FOIA reporting requirements. Also, this allows your agency to increase the managerial oversight and accountability.
  • Create an in-house system in cases when a COTS/GOTS product doesn’t meet your agency’s needs. The in-house system is very useful because it adapts to your workflow. This feature will save your agency from the trouble of trying to change the workflow to adapt to the system.

2. Management of the FOIA Process

When it comes to improving the Management of the FOIA Process, the FOIA Advisory Committee draws attention to the importance of teamwork, accountability, expanded use of tracks and centralization.

In light of this, the Advisory Committee recommends agencies to:

  • Actively contact and work with requesters. This enables your agency to narrow requests and save resources for processing. It also increases the transparency of the process and increases requesters’
  • Train your FOIA staff for the record-keeping systems you use. This way you provide your employees with the necessary knowledge. This improves staff effectiveness and customer experience.
  • Promote collaboration among employees to ensure that if an employee needs assistance in a particular situation (for instance during periods of leave or peak time) they can get help from a colleague.
  • Form teams based on common strengths. This enables your employees to manage a certain type of request more efficiently thanks to prior experience with the type of request in question.
  • Include Case Closures and Pages Reviewed as part of FOIA staff performance evaluation. This leads to smaller backlogs, and
    encourages your FOIA staff to take responsibility for their performances in completing cases.
  • Track status of requests, ensure visibility and establish protocols to handle delayed requests. This gives requesters a better understanding of the reasons for the delay. Also, it helps you identify areas in the process which are causing a backlog.
  • Separate requests using different workflows for simple, complex, and expedited requests. This ensures quick turnaround of simple requests, which leaves your employees additional time to focus on complex and expedited requests.
  • If purchasing a new email system, look for FOIA complaint email systems. This provides your FOIA staff with a more capable Search functionality, and easier way to export emails throughout your agency.
  • Where appropriate, centralize processing. Centralized processing reduces the time spent coordinating multiple teams. It also increases the collaboration across agencies and enables them to reduce backlogs.

3. Proactive Disclosure

proactive disclosure FOIA Advisory Committee recommendations

Proactive Disclosure plays a vital role in FOIA. With that in mind, the FOIA Advisory Committee makes the following recommendations:

  • Prioritize proactive disclosure for materials that are related to both the establishment and the operations of the Federal Advisory Committee Act, such as agendas, coming events, timelines, recordings, transcripts, etc. This creates a fully transparent system and reduces requests for committee information.
  • With necessary privacy reductions, disclose unclassified reports provided to Congress. Proactively releasing these reports also relieve the pressure on the FOIA process.
  • Post all your organization charts and contact information, for all offices. This allows the public to contact federal employees for assistance.
  • Proactively disclose records that are most frequently requested under FOIA (records requested more than 3 times). This saves your agency time, effort and money.
  • Proactively disclose and update your FOIA logs. This enables the public to know which records were requested and released under FOIA and make more specific requests in future.
  • Proactively release declassified material, as much as possible. This unburdens agencies as the needed documents will already be released to the public without anyone submitting an FOIA request.

4. FOIA Accessibility

Being an important factor which increases the public trust in the government accessibility is the primary matter the FOIA Advisory Committee addresses. Concerning this matter the Committee recommends:

  • Enclose documents which currently are not Section 508 compliant to your agency website, and avoid removal of those already posted on your agency website. This way you allow the public to access as many documents as possible, which is the main idea od FOIA.
  • Try to simplify the process by providing accessible procedures for people with disabilities to request records. This provides easier way for people with disabilities to access records and at the same time increases the transparency of the system.

Conclusion

The FOIA Advisory Committee recommendations, both the series of specific actions and the series of best practices, were issued for solely one reason: to improve FOIA Operations.

All of the recommendations point to the importance of teamwork, accountability, accessibility, etc. for the sole reason of improved communication with the public and most importantly satisfied requesters.

These recommendations add to the complexity of the FOIA legislation. Luckily, there are companies that work hard on offering FOIA solutions that meet all government regulations.

Take a look at Armedia FOIA Module, and how your agency can benefit from it.

If you want to know more, please feel free to contact us.

Exciting News for Blind or Visually Impaired People Using SharePoint

Exciting News for Blind or Visually Impaired People Using SharePoint

 

SharePoint

Image Source: Wikipedia

AFB Consulting (AFBC), the consulting division of the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), conducted a comprehensive accessibility and usability evaluation of the Discover 508 for SharePoint software from Discover Technologies of Reston VA.

The product evaluation compared Out of the Box (OOTB) SharePoint in SP 2010 and SP O-365 with Discover 508 for SharePoint, a software solution designed to make SharePoint easier to use. AFBC tested and compared these products based on how well they interact with various screen reader software products used by people with vision loss to access Windows computers.

Testing results clearly illustrate that Discover 508 has significant usability advantages over the out of the box experience in both environments.

The usability and accessibility advantages allow a blind or visually impaired person to complete tasks much more easily and quickly than in the OOTB environment. The superior usability comes largely from a more intuitive, well-designed architecture that is easier to navigate and more suitable for efficiently accomplishing tasks. It also lacks inaccessible pop-ups and other features designed with only sighted users in mind.

A clear and easy to use set of instructions provided by Discover 508 is another significant advantage over the OOTB experience, providing step-by-step guidance and allowing a beginner user to learn how to use the system.

Discover 508 provides an environment that is more suitable for use with screen readers, with a markup that includes among other things, properly coded headings, properly labeled links and form elements, and properly formatted and tagged tables.

Properly tagged headings allow a person using a screen reader to quickly navigate to the headings that indicate the important sections of the page, and it also allows screen reader users to get a better concept of the overall layout and logical hierarchy of the page.

Discover 508’s properly labeled form elements let screen reader users determine things like a particular type of edit field, such as Document Title or Date. They also help make combo boxes, check boxes, and radio buttons easier to use. Discover 508 also avoids the use of poorly formatted and tagged tables experienced in the OOTB environment.

With the Discover 508 for SharePoint solution, AFB testers found it substantially easier to manage calendar events, upload and edit documents and collaborate with team members. Time spent learning the system and completing individual tasks was significantly shorter when using Discover 508.

While SharePoint has made progress with their “More Accessible” mode, Discover 508 clearly stands out as the more accessibility usable solution.   Although testers could eventually complete most tasks attempted in the out of the box environment, there were some inaccessible tasks that could not be completed without sighted assistance.

The level of frustration and confusion was also significant. For example, simply changing the name of a document took nearly 20 minutes in an initial attempt. Adding a folder to a document library is an example of the difficult and sometimes illogical nature of the OOTB experience.

Rather than beginning the process with something intuitive like a “New Folder” or “Add Folder” link, the user first has to activate a “New Document” link. AFBC usability testers spent nearly 40 minutes trying to determine how to create a document library, including time spent with SharePoint’s online help instructions, some of which were helpful and some of which were not. The instructions that did help get the job done said to go to “Settings” and then “Add an App,” which obviously lacks a logical or intuitive path.

Discover 508 for SharePoint avoids all that difficulty and confusion. The experience with the Discover 508 solution was much more intuitive and streamlined, giving a person with vision loss the ability to complete each task as effectively and efficiently as his or her sighted peers. This is extremely important in today’s competitive job market, giving people with vision loss the ability to compete on an even playing field with their sighted peers.

New Digital Accessibility Regulations For The Travel Industry

November 2013 was an important month for the travel industry as the Final Rule for the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) was implemented and the formation of the Rail Vehicles Access Advisory Committee was approved by the Access Board.

So what does that mean to your external facing IT Portfolios?  

Air Carriers:

On November 12, 2013, the US Department of Transportation (DOT) published in the Federal Register a final rule that amends its rules implementing the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) to require U.S. air carriers and foreign air carriers to make their Web sites that market air transportation to the general public in the United States accessible to individuals with disabilities. In addition, DOT is amending its rule that prohibits unfair and deceptive practices and unfair methods of competition to require ticket agents that are not small businesses to disclose and offer Web-based fares to passengers who indicate that they are unable to use the agents’ Web sites due to a disability.

The amendment applies to:

  • All domestic and foreign airlines operating at least one airplane with a seating capacity of more than 60 passengers, serving U.S. passengers.
  • Domestic and foreign airlines that have more than 10,000 passengers.
  • Ticket Agents that are not small businesses (including travel websites such as such as Kayak.com, cheaptickets.com, airlineconsolidator.com, cheapoair.com, orbitz.com).
Complying with the Air Carrier Access Act Accessibility Amendment

The amendment lays out a two-phase compliance schedule for domestic and foreign airlines.

Compliance Schedule for Air Carrier Access Act

Phase 1: All  “Core functions” must be WCAG 2.0 Level A and AA compliant by December 12, 2015. Core functions are defined as:

  • Booking or changing a reservation (including all flight amenities)
  • Checking-in for a flight
  • Accessing a personal travel itinerary
  • Accessing the status of a flight
  • Accessing a personal frequent flyer account
  • Accessing flight schedules
  • Accessing carrier contact information.

 

Online Disability Accommodation Requests

Requires carriers to make an online service request form available within two years of the rule’s effective date to passengers with disabilities to request services including, but not limited to, wheelchair assistance, seating accommodation, escort assistance for a visually impaired passenger, and stowage for an assistive device.

 

Phase 2: All remaining pages must be made compliant by December 16, 2016.

Accessibility Requirements for Air Carrier Access Act

Please Note: A carrier’s “text-only” version of a web page may only be considered an accessible alternative if it provides the same content and functionality as the corresponding non-text version, and can be reached via an accessible link from the primary site. The “text-only” version must conform to WCAG 2.0 Level A and AA guidelines and must promptly and regularly updated.

In addition, domestic and foreign airlines exceeding 10,000 passengers must ensure accessibility of all kiosks installed after December 12, 2016, and 25% of kiosks in each location must meet the specified accessibility standards by December 12, 2021.

Finally, Ticket Agents that are not small businesses must accessibly disclose and offer web-based fares on or after June 14, 2014

 

What is the risk for non-compliance?

 

The ACCA is known for imposing some extremely large fines, as witnessed by a $50,000.00 fine assed to Frontier Airlines for compliance failure.   If you take into account that domestic carriers alone received almost 19,000 complaints as reported in the 2012 annual report on Complaints Received by Airlines in 2011 and you have a recipe for a fairly large risk to the business.  I would imagine that now electronic forms must be put in place on every Travel website and new amendments to include IT the number of complaint will increase.

The Department’s Enforcement Office stated that it intends to audit carriers as it deems necessary in the future to ensure accurate reporting. In 2009, 2010 and 2011, the Enforcement Office conducted a number of on-site investigations, which involved reviewing carrier records to, among other things, verify the accuracy of the carrier’s disability reporting.

In May 2010, one carrier was fined $100,000 for undercounting Disability-related complaints and in February of 2011, one carrier was fined $2.0 million for violating numerous provisions of the ACAA regulation, including undercounting disability related complaints.  Four other carriers have been assessed civil penalties in cases that in part involved similar kinds of violations.   The Department’s Enforcement Office also investigates each disability-related complaint filed directly with DOT’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division.

Section 508 Compliance and SharePoint

As most of you know by now, Section 508 is about providing access to information technology for disabled Americans. Since its implementation, the rush to become Section 508 compliant has led to most all of the focus having been placed on the Internet and other external facing applications.  As an advocate for disabled Americans this has been a welcomed and huge first step to providing equal access to IT.  Now it is time to continue moving forward by providing the same level of access to your internal IT so the barriers to employment for disabled Americans are removed and the level of contributions they make can rise.

The rapid pace of Internal IT collaboration has seen huge growth and for many companies provided high ROI.  One such platform being widely adopted is Microsoft’s SharePoint platform.  Like most of Microsoft’s products, SharePoint is shipped as Section 508 compliant.  The problem with accessibility comes after application developers start customizing look and feel or implementing homegrown or third party tools to make the platform more useful.  It has been my experience that most all of the problems can be solved with training the users, providing developers with an accessibility framework, and continuous monitoring.  SharePoint is used in so many different ways that it would be impossible to address each one so my advice is to always remember that one, accessibility is part of your company’s mission goal and two the law was not evoked to eliminate technology or make things harder.  There needs to be a delicate balance on the approach to Section 508 compliance when dealing with any collaboration platform with the ultimate goal on inclusion and increased productivity.

Section 508 Framework for SharePoint

Having a Section 508 framework in place before rollout of the product to the users would be best practice, however reality says that the environment has already been deployed and is currently in use. Will this make things harder?  The answer is yes, just like developing an application with accessibility in mind is easier and less expensive than remediating the application after the fact, so is implementation of a Framework into an existing environment vs. a brand new rollout.  It would also be less costly to hire a Section 508 SME (Subject Matter Expert) that has proper training to develop your custom framework than to put this on your SharePoint Farm Administrator and expect any positive results.

So much for the bad news, the good news is that once you have management buy-in, setting up the framework and managing it will not be a mammoth job.

Some items that need to be considered:

  • Audience (external, external partners, internal)
  • Forms and Workflows to automate framework processes
  • Monitoring tools and other third party tools used for reporting and remediation
  • Priorities and KPIs to measure progress
  • Realistic goals
  • A seat on the  SharePoint Governance Board
  • MaterPage development and design policies
  • Mobile platform development
  • Third party tools connected to Farm
  • Different uses of the Platform (Project Management, Document creation, BI, Workflows, data collection, etc)

Stay tuned for our next blog, Section 508 Monitoring Tools in SharePoint

Accessible Technology Part 4 – Top 10 Things CIO’s Should Know About Accessibility

1. Adopt a Social Responsibility Perspective for Accessibility

Private Sector businesses unintentionally erect barriers to participation and inclusion for people with disabilities; however, a shift in perspective can fundamentally change their approach to accessibility (i.e., the staircase creates the barrier, not the wheelchair). Agencies that adopt a proactive position—actively seeking to prevent access barriers—will do much better than those who address accessibility as an accommodation “they have to do.”

2. Manage Accessibility

The Section 508 manager for your office must be visible, backed by policies that lend it authority, and have access to IT decision-makers. There are many accessibility stakeholders within an agency, and to establish and maintain relationships with those components, organizational placement and structure are primary concerns for management.

3. Treat Accessibility like Security

Much like security, businesses dedicate resources to accessibility and Section 508 reluctantly. They see it as a legal obligation while overlooking the benefits—improved usability for all users, increased productivity for employees with disabilities, and ability to provide government services. Under resourcing accessibility underestimates the consequences—slipping project schedules, cost overruns to retrofit projects whose design did not include accessibility, and the consequences of legal action that can include judges making your business’s IT decisions.

4. Design and Plan for Accessibility

Designing for accessibility starts at the concept phase, and thus requires formal inclusion in multiple phases of an organization’s development and procurement life cycles. Having a single process approval gate at the end of a project is not sufficient, because by then it is too late. Large and important project approval will likely trump retrofitting for accessibility, and adopting an inaccessible project exposes your business to avoidable legal risk. Retrofitting applications and remediating accessibility issues is more costly, difficult, and time consuming than addressing accessibility at a project’s design phase, so take a proactive approach and place accessibility requirements into the life cycle early and often.

5. Impose Targeted Standards

Ensure Section 508 standards are included in your business policies, development life cycle processes.  Describe how your business will interpret the Section 508 standards and how they integrate with other agency specific accessibility requirements. Specify how your business will evaluate accessibility requirements.

6. Test and Validate

Your business must evaluate and test products, applications, and electronic content if it wants positive and measurable accessibility outcomes. Vendor claims and, for that matter, agency development group claims are meaningless without scrutiny and a method to measure accessibility progress. As you prioritize what is tested, understand that validation is fundamental to improving accessibility.

7. Study and Use Best Practices

Successful accessibility programs have many practices in common. Benefit from the best practices applicable to your business, continue to evaluate and mature your accessibility program by learning from others, and participate in communities of practice.

8. Participate in and Join Communities of Practice

Communities of practice are important for sharing ideas, expertise, and creating a uniform marketplace for E&IT. Participate in Section 508 Coordinator workshops, interagency ad hoc committees, and comment on Notices of Public Rule Making. Consider participating in communities of practice beyond US Federal agencies. Section 508 spotlights the federal sector, but outside communities of practice are eager for agency participation. Take advantage of their wealth of expertise, creativity, technical guidance, process approaches, and policy examples.

9. Develop a ROI Strategy Around Inclusivity

All things considered, a business outside-in view of performance benchmarks (Earnings Per Share, Shareholder Value, stake-holder value) is not fundamentally different from an inside-out (Topline, Bottom-line, Growth, internal value creation) perspective. All of these are different manifestations of Return on Investment, the improvement of which is a top priority of every businesses executive management.

The implication for technology companies is that their solutions must add teeth to ROI improvement by aligning with their customer’s value creation objectives and alleviating their pain points. In other words, they must think of themselves as providers of outstanding business solutions and not merely brilliant technology.

Since cost reduction is the cornerstone of ROI management, businesses are constantly looking out for ways to improve efficiency and productivity to bring down the per unit cost of “doing business”. However, there is a limit to how far costs can be cut. For instance, fixed costs towards hardware, networking, physical infrastructure et al can be reduced under innovative leasing, outsourcing and hosting arrangements, but still make for heavy expenditure.

Hence, since total costs can never be brought down to zero, the solution must lie elsewhere. The automobile sector, and more recently, the telecom industry are great examples of how to push up ROI by lowering per unit cost, with volume acting as the game changer.

A parallel can be drawn in the banking industry, where cost can be expressed per transaction, customer, unit of revenue, unit of capital deployed, channel and so on. Quite simply, an increase in any of the aforementioned at the same total cost shows up as a healthier bottom-line and ROI. This builds a strong case for replacement of legacy core systems with a modern alternative that can support a continuous increase in the scale of business for years, at the cost of a one-time investment. Businesses, which typically view core transformation as a burden on expenditure, need to adjust their perspective accordingly.

Apart from increasing the volume, customer base or transaction “denominator” to cut per unit cost, ROI may be enhanced by a cross-sales “multiplier”, which is explained as follows. Each time a customer interaction succeeds in selling an additional product, it not only doubles the productivity of that event, but also saves the cost of resources needed to make a similar sale at a future date and therefore “multiplies” the impact on ROI.

So, the magic formula for ROI improvement prescribes stretching an investment as far as possible to serve an expanding business, for instance, scaling up transactions by adding new channels, acquiring more customer accounts through right-selling and enlarging the customer base through inclusivity. While the prioritization of these actions will depend upon the  business objectives, the core platform is a common facilitator in all.

10. Market your Accessibility Position

Actively market your new stance on accessibility and watch your customer base grow.