The Department of Justice is conducting a review of how it responds to congressional information requests to improve its correspondence management system, according to a letter from Assistant Attorney General Carlos Uriarte to the Government Accountability Office.
DOJ is also customizing and reconfiguring its correspondence management software to better track and monitor the status of responses in greater detail.
Congress sends hundreds of information requests to DOJ and its agencies like the FBI annually, with the Office of Legislative Affairs chiefly responsible for responding, but in the past two years lawmakers have complained their letters have gone unanswered or partially answered at multiple hearings. GAO reviewed DOJ’s procedures and found it failed to maintain “key information” for effectively tracking and monitoring responses in its existing system, in a report released Wednesday that included Uriarte’s letter.
“Incoming and outgoing letters are readily and individually retrievable in department systems,” Uriarte wrote. “However the department recognizes that it can improve its policies, procedures and technology to ensure that its correspondence management system is robust and effective.”
GAO analyzed available correspondence data from 2012 to 2021 and found it could take hundreds to thousands of days for a letter from Congress to be documented as received in DOJ’s system. DOJ had difficulty even providing GAO with correspondence data, requiring a contractor’s assistance with 2012 data.
DOJ’s system doesn’t always catch when a draft response moves between agencies, and the department is sometimes still sending information to Congress when inquiries are closed, GAO found.
“According to OLA officials, the correspondence management system is not intended to accurately capture and summarize the flow of correspondence from receipt to disposition — a task completed by individual OLA attorneys,” reads the report. “OLA managers noted that there is variation in the mechanisms OLA attorneys use to track their receipt and disposition of congressional correspondence (e.g., spreadsheets) for their own purposes that exist outside of the correspondence management system.”
By contrast the FBI provides step-by-step instructions for employees entering data in its own correspondence management system, Sentinel, and quality assurance checks. While the FBI monitors correspondence from receipt to disposition with a Correspondence Tracker SharePoint List (Tracker) and is developing data quality guidance to ensure proper entry, DOJ’s “Correspondence Manual” doesn’t address data maintenance, and some of its agencies’ data are inaccurate and incomplete when it comes to receipt dates and disposition.
Uriarte wrote data quality guidance and additional fields are forthcoming.
GAO also found OLA and three of DOJ’s five agencies lack performance measures, while the FBI has a 90-day response deadline and the Drug Enforcement Agency a 30-day deadline — 20 days if it’s working through OLA to respond.
“According to OLA officials, they have not developed such performance measures because each congressional correspondence is unique, including in the amount of time needed to address the request,” reads the report.
DOJ further cited limited resources for responding to information requests, though GAO’s final verdict was optimistic OLA could learn from the FBI and DEA’s success.
“Variation in OLA’s and DOJ components’ processes for responding to congressional correspondence underscores a challenge and an opportunity, particularly given OLA’s oversight role in directing and managing all legislative functions between Congress and DOJ,” reads the report. “Certain components have prioritized the quality of the information used in their processes to manage responses to congressional correspondence, such as systematically recording accurate details on the receipt, disposition, and timeliness of responses.”