Review of Freedom of Information (FOIA) Practices at the Social Security Administration (SSA)


On December 14, 2005, the President signed Executive Order 13392 (, which requires Federal agencies to review their FOIA operations and procedures in order to formulate plans to improve operations with both efficiency and customer service in mind.  The Executive Order also requires agencies to name a senior FOIA Official to oversee all agency implementation plans and the overall administration of FOIA.  The plans must be reported to the Office of Management and Budget and the Department of Justice and be posted on agency websites by June 14, 2006.

Pursuant to the Executive Order, this report describes SSA’s FOIA operations.  Overall, the Agency’s operations compare quite favorably to those of other agencies.  Under the Department of Justice standards for FOIA reporting, SSA processed over 17,000,000 FOIA and Privacy Act (PA) access requests in over 1,400 locations during fiscal year (FY) 2005.  Nearly all of those requests were completed well within the 20 business day timeframe established by FOIA.  Most FOIA requests were handled in two FOIA Requester Service Centers in Baltimore, Maryland, while the vast majority of PA access requests were processed in SSA field offices nationwide. 

The primary FOIA Requester Service Center is the Office of Public Disclosure (OPD) in the Office of the General Counsel (OGC).  OPD handles and processes the most complex FOIA requests SSA receives, as well as all Agency appeals.  These requests are the most time intensive, as OPD analysts must thoroughly research each request for various reasons; e.g., the material requested is very voluminous or the issues are very complex and necessitate research and consultation with other SSA components.  Before responding to these requests, OPD often must seek materials from other SSA components and obtain a legal opinion.  With a staff of 21 full-time FOIA analysts, team leaders and managers, OPD processes about 2,500 requests a year, plus all FOIA appeals.  OPD uses a semi-automated system to track and control its workload and to produce ad hoc management information reports.

The second FOIA Requester Service Center is in the Division of Earning Records Operations (DERO) in the Office of Central Operations.  DERO processes approximately 50,000 requests a year, mainly requests by people interested in genealogy for copies of Social Security number (SSN) applications of deceased individuals, and requests for the full SSN record.  This workload has expanded with the growth of genealogy websites, which point the public to SSN records to research family trees.  DERO uses its own semi-automated system to track and control its workload and to produce management information reports.

The remaining workload consists of simple requests for public materials, such as guides and publications, as well as PA access requests processed in SSA’s 1,400 regional and field offices.  Over the past several years, SSA has reported a sharp increase in the number of simple individual PA access requests, as well as requests for earnings records, benefit verification services, and SSN extract records (Numident).  We attribute this increase to various factors including the fact that we now have better management controls and reporting systems in place (we were under-reporting the above requests prior to these improvements).  In addition, private and public entities, such as mortgage companies, banks and insurance companies, frequently ask their customers and clients to consent to the verification of SSNs or benefit amounts for their own business processes, and these types of requests have increased substantially in recent years. 

We are able to provide continuous timely and efficient service in a number of areas.  We rarely deny simple PA requests, which allows for quick turnaround times and a comparatively low percentage of denials.  We usually satisfy PA access requests the same day, and we routinely process, very quickly, many simple consent-based disclosures.  We process on a local basis other kinds of requests, such as simple requests for information from a manual, or copies of the Social Security Act, SSA regulations or operating procedures.     

I.  Expenditure of Resources on FOIA Compliance

During FY 2005, SSA had in its two FOIA Requester Service Centers in Baltimore

80 full-time personnel responsible for handling FOIA matters.  In addition, throughout the approximately 1,400 SSA regional and field offices, SSA employees with part-time or occasional FOIA duties worked approximately 325 work years on these activities. In

FY 2005, the Agency reported costs of $22,849,644 for processing FOIA requests and related activities.

SSA collects more FOIA fees than any other agency.  The Agency collects most fees for requests for earnings records and SSN record requests, and uses a separate fee provision in 1106(c) of the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C. § 1306(c)), rather than the fee schedule under FOIA.  Using this provision, SSA can recover its full costs when requesters seek records for a purpose unrelated to the administration of the Social Security Act (e.g., a request for income verification for a private company pension or mortgage application).   

II. Extent to Which Requests Have Not Been Responded To Within the Statutory Time Limit

During FY 2005, SSA processed over 17,000,000 FOIA and PA access requests, primarily simple PA disclosures with consent and PA access requests that SSA field offices normally satisfied on the same day. Since we took longer than one day in fewer than 100,000 requests, SSA complies with the 20 day statutory timeframe in the overwhelming percentage of these requests.  As of April 30, 2006, SSA had only 53 cases pending over 20 days old, with only two of these over six months old.   

III. Review of Processes and Practices to Inform Public Regarding FOIA Process

SSA has a prominent FOIA page on its website at:, with a “Guide to FOIA Requests” located therein.  This Guide advises members of the public how to make FOIA requests and provides information about fees and available documents, as well as SSA’s FOIA and Privacy regulations.

We have developed a form that members of the public can use to request a copy of a deceased individual’s application for an SSN.  This form can be printed directly from the FOIA page, completed and sent to DERO, the FOIA Requester Service Center responsible for the response.  Our FOIA and Privacy regulations can also be accessed from the FOIA page.

IV. Use of Information Technology to Respond To FOIA Requests, Including Tracking And Communication With Requesters

SSA is finalizing a new, comprehensive and more automated electronic FOIA system (called eFOIA) to replace the systems currently used in the two FOIA Requester Service Centers. E-FOIA will greatly facilitate FOIA processing and will enable the Agency to better control and track its FOIA workloads.  The e-FOIA system will provide faster service to requesters and will collect more accurate management information for the annual report to the Department of Justice and for general management purposes.           E-FOIA will also enhance communication between the two Centers. Currently the Centers obtain status of cases by telephone. This is inefficient for OPD, which gets the bulk of status requests from the public. E-FOIA will allow OPD to view DERO cases being processed by DERO, and DERO will be able to access OPD requests.  In addition, e-FOIA will increase efficiency by allowing members of the public to make FOIA requests and credit card payments via the Internet.

Our FOIA Requester Service Centers currently use systems that were retooled to handle FOIA requests.  OPD’s current system has control and tracking functions, maintains images of, and the response to, the request, maintains related documents, and captures data for the annual report.  However, even with some upgrades, the system is not totally dependable.  The DERO system maintains and tracks requests and provides basic management information data for the annual report.  It also helps DERO management maintain efficient operations given the large volume of requests processed by that office.  However, it lacks more sophisticated features (e.g., image collection and similar features), and operates separately from the OPD system.

Since these systems do not fully track and control requests, they are supplemented by manual processes that take longer to complete and are more error prone.  We take more time to collect information for the FOIA annual report, and we spend added resources to ensure that we issue a quality product. This is where our e-FOIA system should make a substantial difference.  The eFOIA system is designed to help process requests in a more efficient manner, provide more information about the status of a request, and detail how a request is being processed.  The eFOIA system will also provide imaging and storage capabilities, thus allowing DERO to streamline operations and conserve resources.

V. Practices With Respect To Requests for Expedited Processing

Expedited requests are usually directed to OPD.  Intake personnel are trained to spot these requests and to promptly refer them to a team leader or supervisor. OPD puts expedited requests on a separate track and issues a decision promptly after identification.  In FY 2005, all requests for expedited processing were denied, with a letter to the requester within the statutory timeframe specifying the reason of the denial and that OPD would process the request as a regular request.

VI. Implementation of Multi-Track Processing

As mandated by the FOIA Amendments of 1996, SSA implemented multi-track processing in 1997.  We instituted four tracks:

  1. Requests that can be answered with readily available records or information.  This means that the request can be answered by querying an electronic system or by providing a record located in the office receiving the request.
  1. Requests where the receiving office needs to obtain records or information from other SSA offices, but does not expect that the decision on disclosure will be time consuming.
  1. Requests which require a decision or input from other SSA offices or other Federal agencies that may require a considerable amount of time, or requests that are complicated or involve a large number of records. 
  1. Requests for expedited processing.

OPD processes all the above types of requests.  DERO processes those requests that fall into the second track above.  DERO has to request copies of SSN applications from the Wilkes-Barre Data Operations Center, a process that usually takes only a few days.  Therefore, most DERO requests are answered within the statutory timeframes.  Requests made in field offices fall within the first category, as described earlier in this report.

VII. Policies and Practices Relating to Availability of Public Information through Websites and Other Means

SSA has a wealth of information available on its website:  

Further, its FOIA web page,, which was one of the first established after the enactment of the FOIA Amendments of 1996, includes a guide on making FOIA requests, and contains links to a variety of documents of interest to the public, as well as frequently requested documents.  When the public can obtain documents and information this way, it reduces the number of formal FOIA requests.  Examples of documents on the SSA FOIA web page are:

§         Manuals and instructions

§         Laws and regulations

§         Frequently requested documents

§         FOIA annual reports

§         Research and statistical information

Subsection (a)(2) of FOIA deals with records that an agency determines are likely to be the subject of subsequent requests for substantially the same records.  Under the current process, OPD personnel determine which FOIA-processed records fall within the (a)(2) provisions, based upon their familiarity with the subject matter of the records, their knowledge of FOIA requests received in the past, and their best judgment of the types of requests likely to be received in the future.  We will be able to pinpoint such requests more efficiently once the eFOIA system is implemented.  The new system has features that can identify (a)(2) records more easily than can be identified by the manual process. 

VIII. Ways to Eliminate or Reduce FOIA Backlog

The generally accepted definition of a FOIA backlog is the number of cases to which a response has not been issued within the statutory time limit.  As OPD handles the most complex FOIA cases, virtually all backlogs are located in that office.  However, at the end of April 2006, OPD’s backlog consisted of merely 53 cases, which is a very small portion of the number of requests processed by SSA annually.  OPD management ensures that the backlog is as low as possible by continuous and diligent monitoring of older cases.  OPD management evaluates weekly every old case and seeks ways of improving the processing of the request.  Under a recent reorganization, a senior executive service position was established that focused executive and Agency attention on SSA’s responsibilities under FOIA.  This reduced the already minimal backlogs even further.   

If SSA is unable to meet the statutory timeframe, it is usually because extensive searching is needed to obtain the documents or information requested.  Sometimes we must review voluminous amounts of material (hundreds, or even thousands of pages and email strings). When SSA becomes aware of the potential for lengthy processing, SSA writes the requester that SSA has received the request but that a response may not be timely.  Also, OPD has a dedicated phone number where requesters can call and obtain information on the status of a particular request.

OPD has been examining other possible methods to improve the timeliness of locating and obtaining requested documents.  OPD Executives have increased outreach efforts to components whose records are in demand by FOIA requesters and which often cause delays in SSA responses.  OPD currently has a network of FOIA coordinators in all Headquarters components and regional offices.  Working with other components, we are

examining the use of existing control systems to facilitate more timely production.  Continuing educational contacts with components further help OPD answer requests more promptly.