When NARA established the National Declassification Center (NDC) in December 2009, we included the unit that processes classified FOIA and MDR requests for accessioned Federal records. To establish the NDC and the new declassification processes, NARA applied Lean- Six-Sigma (LSS) methodology, including defining a problem, measuring output, analyzing alternatives and developing an improved “to be” model. The new NDC process established procedures that will support the NDC as we push to meet the President’s goal of eliminating the 400+ million page backlog by the end of 2013. For more information on NDC declassification processes, see David Mengel’s blog posts NDC Blog » NDC Declassification Process – Overview
While participating in the LSS approach to solving our backlog challenge, I realized that our FOIA/MDR unit would benefit from such an evaluation. We conducted our FOIA/MDR process evaluation between July 2010 and February 2011, and developed several changes to our processes.
- We created multiple queues for cases to ensure that a request for an individual item does not wait in the same line as a request for 10 boxes of records.
- To ensure consistency and standardization, we developed a one page “quick reference” checklist for staff to use when processing requests.
- We implemented procedures for contacting researchers with large, complex cases to offer prioritization strategies; we also began contacting researchers with older cases to determine their continued interest.
- Perhaps the most innovated change was a pilot program to scan requested documents into our system for external referral to equity-holding agencies via CD instead of making paper copies. This improves efficiency by reducing the time required in creating multiple copies for multiple equity holders. It improves accuracy as the pages of the scanned images are computer stamped with the case number, unique document ID, and page number, and it allows us to automatically generate the forms needed for document accountability. Moreover, by scanning upfront, the images are ready for final processing when agencies return their decisions. Finally, we are retaining the scanned images in storage, where they are available to process appeals, to respond to additional researcher requests, or for public release.
While additional time will be needed to fully evaluate the success of these changes, initial results have been encouraging. In the second quarter of FY 2010, for example, the team received 114 new FOIA requests and closed 53. This represented a fairly productive quarter in terms of closing cases. As the new procedures were being implemented in the second quarter of FY 2011, productivity increased considerably with staff being able to close 77 cases. This is a significant increase in just one year and should continue to improve as the new processes are fully implemented and adopted by staff.
Despite this increase in productivity, our backlog continues to grow. We continue to receive more cases (132 new cases in the second quarter of FY 2011) than we are able to process. We are optimistic that the FOIA/MDR process improvements coupled with the shrinking of the backlog of approximately 400 million pages of reviewed but unprocessed records, requesters will to need to file fewer FOIA requests, and those that are filed will be targeted for specific exempted records.
I look forward to sharing updates on our FOIA process improvements and hearing from you if you have any questions or suggestions.