School’s out for summer

FOI Man pours himself a cold one and considers the implications of the summer break for answering FOI requests.

It’s that time of year again. The roads are less busy, there are seats on the buses and trains first thing, and the office is eerily quiet. Yup, school holidays have started.

So what are the implications for FOI, I hear you ask. Well, aside from the obvious response that perhaps you should consider a holiday too, here are a few thoughts.

Legally, most organisations still have to respond within 20 working days. The main exception is schools. They get more time to do their homework (20th school day after receipt or 60 working days, whichever is sooner) in school holidays. Other exceptions are in place for information dependent on members of the armed forces in action, information held abroad, and public records in the National Archives or ‘Places of Deposit’.

Everyone else has to respond within normal timescales. Having said that, of course, let’s not forget the practical side of this. Often a public authority will only have one FOI Officer, usually with other responsibilities. As with other work, it’s usually the case that when they go away, somebody else is in place to deputise for them. But that person will obviously have to fit in the FOI work (and possibly other duties) with their own job. They may not be as expert in FOI as the regular guy or gal. So if something tricky comes in, there is a good chance that delays will occur.

Even if the FOI Officer, dedicated as he or she is, doesn’t go away, there may be other problems. As we’ve discussed here before, answering FOIs relies on asking people across the organisation to provide the relevant information or to explain why it can’t be disclosed. And you’ve guessed it, at this time of year, a lot of those people are on their hols.

In some parts of the public sector this is a particular issue. Think about universities for instance. Academic staff tend to go away not just on holiday, but often carrying out field work in the summer break. So if someone requests information that is only held (or might be held) by a member of academic staff, that is going to slow things up considerably.

It’s not just answering requests. If somebody requests an internal review, the pool of people who can carry these out is often pretty restricted at the best of times. Normally it has to be somebody at the same or a higher level than the person who approved the response, and really they shouldn’t have been involved in answering the original request at all. In complex cases, that can mean that there are only one or two individuals who are able to look at the review. In holiday periods, trying to pin that person down to consider an internal review becomes even trickier.

So, legally, public authorities should be responding within the usual timescales at this time of year. But if your response is a few days late, try to be patient. Shut down your computer, go and get a beer from the fridge, and chill out for a while. Meanwhile, we’ll be doing our best to get an answer to you as soon as we can. Spare us a thought over that beer.

No comments

  1. ML says:

    Or, if you are the Lone Ranger for FOI matters, you take a laptop with you while you’re on hols and check your e-mail every day. 🙁

  2. The FOI Dude says:

    The powerful, less tolerant, less forgiving but quieter EIR cousin cares even less than FOI about holidays.

    If it is an EIR request and you are in a school / academy or the armed forces think about the fact that the SIs extending FOI response times only apply to s10(1) FOIA….

    Mine is a pint of ale btw 🙂

  3. S Jones says:

    I’m going to have to disagree with FOIman with some of this.

    It’s inevitable that there will be some areas that only one person really knows “inside out”. But for it to be impossible for anyone/someone else to find that information and – where necessary – get it checked by a higher authority for accuracy, completeness and appropriateness of release (i.e. no exemptions apply) … just in terms of general information management, possibly even consistent provision of a service, that could be a huge risk to the organisation concerned.

    If the request is particularly complex or time-consuming, then at the very least, it should be possible to supply the enquirer with a partial response within the time limit and ask for their patience so you can ensure that they *do* get all the information they require (18 working hours does not equate to 2-3 days elapsed time – we have to fit this round other work and as FOIman points out, we are all pretty much flat out anyway, and this is worse at holiday times).

    A straightforward FOI response might take longer than it “normally” would because the person covering for the internal-lead-on-holiday isn’t so au fait with the area – but if the 20 days is breached “just because someone is on holiday”, then that, for me, would raise questions about the organisation’s internal communications, business continuity and succession planning.

    @ML – Frankly, your organisation needs to get its house in order and ensure competent cover in the event of your absence. Limited resources mean that your conscientiousness (sp? nvm) is being taken advantage of – but they’d make you redundant soon enough if management of those resources led to the decision that your services were surplus to requirements, they don’t own you, or owe you a job for life, which means that you don’t ‘owe’ them your leisure time. In your position I would refuse to do this and raise the issue with your line management right smartly. It’s not just about you – they need to manage the potential risk to them (what would happen if you had no e-mail access/were too ill to work?).

    Double gin with single tonic and a generous chunk of lemon for me!

    • admin says:

      Thanks for comments. Of course you’re right Sandre that orgs should be able to locate info if somebody is away. I don’t think we’re in disagreement over that. But however well set up you are, as you recognise, it’s always going to be more difficult when key people are away. And on occasion I think we all know that at least some of our responses rely on local knowledge however risky that may be. I think ML had her tongue in her cheek, but if not, I tend to agree with you. Frankly failure to meet deadlines in such a case would be an organisational failure not a personal one.

  4. ML says:

    It’s not a question of failing to respond in time — if I’m going on leave, I make sure everything is answered before I go. But I don’t think it’s fair for me to let a request sit in the FOI e-mail box for a week or more without being assigned to the department who has to provide the information.