Why promptly might not be as prompt as all that

FOI Man explains why responses to even the simplest FOI requests may take a little while to reach you

The length of time that it takes public authorities to answer an FOI request is one of the most common complaints about FOI. A quick glance at the decision notices relating to timeliness of responses on the ICO website is enough to confirm this.

And sometimes requesters make a point of stressing in their request that they should receive a response within 20 working days. Sometimes they go even further. They remind us that they should receive a response “promptly”.

In FOI, section 10(1) requires that a response is sent out “promptly, and in any case within 20 working days”. The EIR equivalent at regulation 5(2) calls for a response “as soon as possible and no later than 20 working days” after the request was received.

So what exactly does “promptly” or “as soon as possible” mean? Well, as I explained in a post last year, the Information Commissioner does accept that public authorities have to balance their responsibilities. So it doesn’t mean that everything else will be dropped to answer your request.

Depending on how the authority manages requests, and for instance, how many requests they receive, there could be lots of responsibilities to balance. Even the people directly responsible for answering FOI requests – people like me – can have quite a few things to juggle.

A few months ago I featured a guest post here, where another FOI Officer highlighted the struggle they had to keep on top of FOI requests at a time of diminishing resources. And whilst I can’t claim to be struggling quite as much with my FOI workload (touch wood), I have a range of other responsibilities.

As well as FOI, I am also responsible for, in no particular order – compliance with the Data Protection Act, Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations and copyright licensing requirements, records management, student complaints and student disciplinaries. Oh, and the official archives.

I’m not complaining – variety is the spice of life, so they say. But perhaps you can see why it might take us longer than you feel it should to answer even the simplest requests. Sometimes they just have to form an orderly queue.

2 comments

  1. Lee says:

    You also have to take into account occassions when you need to allow time before responding, I had one recently relating to an incident where we were waiting for a police investigation to conclude before responding.

    Then there are the ones where it is ‘politically expedient’ for the organisation to ‘take the time to fully consider the request’ (ie use the full 20 days) before responding.

    Rightly or wrongly we have all had ones like that to deal with.

  2. Michelle says:

    Great post! Massive challenge getting services to prioritise FOI on top of other work, especially when the FOI contacts are often senior managers. Even more so when those managers work is concerned with the wellbeing of the authorities’ vulnerable clients as it so often is in the service where I coordinate FOI requests.

    They do appreciate that the law is that we need to respond promptly, but quite often have said to me “I wish the requestors realised our workloads/priorities” or similar.