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Improving the Efficiency of FOIA at the EPA

The following is an excerpt from GovLoop’s latest industry perspective on information governance. To read the full thing, head here.

The EPA’s mission is to protect human health and the environment. To accomplish that, officials must be able to provide information and data to researchers, policymakers and citizens when they need it. This means the agency must have a well-defined information governance plan in order to share documents, process FOIA requests and capitalize on the data the agency collects.

Recently, GovLoop spoke with Renee Wynn, Acting Chief Information Officer and Acting Assistant Administrator of the EPA’s Office of Environmental Information, about the agency’s information management strategies.

“One of the things that I have come to really appreciate is that information is a strategic asset,” Wynn said. “[The EPA] needs to be about knowledge on demand — information when you need it, where you need it, regardless of device, with known quality parameters and appropriate security measures.”

This philosophy underscores the efforts that the EPA has made to improve the way it processes FOIA requests. In fiscal year 2013, the EPA received more than 9,900 FOIA requests and processed 9,100. Each request tends to be unique and often very complex, making the procedure for responding long and laborious for employees. Still, responses serve as an essential function of an open and transparent democracy.

“Once all the information is gathered to respond to a FOIA request, you then need to spend time going through all that information and making a decision about what is responsive and what can be released under FOIA,” Wynn said. “And that’s where the complex FOIAs come in. You can end up with a lot of documents and a lot of e-mails in order to try and be responsive to that FOIA request. And that just really takes time.”

To expedite this process, the EPA stood up a centralized e-mail search in its Microsoft Outlook e-mail system. Within the feature, employees can define search teams, identify individuals and send one batch of information to employees, so they get everything collectively at one time.

“This has been very successful,” Wynn said. “We have to market it some more within the agency so more people know about it, and we have to do some thinking to see where we can apply that process to potentially all electronic responsive material.”

The bottom line, Wynn said, is there’s no quick fix to information governance. Plans take time and persistence to hash out.

“Understand your business, have partners that you can work with and look at your program as bite-size pieces so you can have some successes,” Wynn said.

This is an excerpt from our latest industry perspective. Symantec protects the world’s information, and is the global leader in security, backup and availability solutions. Their innovative products and services protect people and information in any environment – from the smallest mobile device, to the enterprise data center, to cloud-based systems. Their industry-leading expertise in protecting data, identities and interactions gives their government customers confidence in a connected world. More information is available on Symantec’s GovLoop Page.

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Image: Flickr, smif

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