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.