HANDLING FOISA REQUESTS
The majority of FOISA requests received by Heriot-Watt University are submitted via the generic email address firstname.lastname@example.org.
Staff in Heritage and Information Governance (HIG), with the help of colleagues in Professional Services and Schools, will gather the information. HIG staff draft a reply which is then signed off by the information owners and Marketing and Communications. HIG replies on behalf of the University.
What about information we routinely provide as part of our activities?
You should continue providing this information in the normal way.
Are emails valid FOISA requests?
Yes. As mentioned in the introduction, the majority of requests received in our University arrive via email through our generic FOI email address. These are logged, actioned, coordinated and replied to by HIG.
Should you receive an email requesting information and you are unsure as to whether it falls under FOISA, please contact a member of HIG for further advice.
I automatically delete my emails where I do not recognise the name or the address of the applicant. Can I still do this?
This is no longer an acceptable practice as under FOISA; a request can be made by anyone and from any place.
Do information requests submitted via Facebook, Twitter or any other form of social media count as FOISA requests?
If the applicants are seeking information which we would normally provide as part of our day to day activities, then you should deal with the request in the normal way. Where a request is more specific and/or refers to the Freedom of Information legislation, then this is a legitimate FOISA request and you seek advice from HIG.
What happens if the request is made verbally?
Technically speaking these do not count as an FOISA request. However, we have an obligation to be as helpful as possible to any applicant or requester. We would therefore advise that you help the applicant formulate a written request with a view to them submitting the request via email@example.com.
If however, the request has been left on voicemail, this DOES count as a valid FOISA request because it is in a recordable form. If you should receive such a request, please contact a member of HIG via firstname.lastname@example.org
Requests for environmental information can be made verbally.
Should I record/log separately each FOISA request?
All FOISA requests received via the generic FOI email address are logged by HIG. Schools and Professional Services should continue to comply with any local correspondence logging procedures.
How long do we have to answer an FOISA request?
We have a statutory obligation to respond to FOISA requests in 20 working days. In the initial briefing note sent out by HIG colleagues, guidance will be given regarding deadlines.
What happens if I'm out of the office?
The clock for responding to an FOISA request starts to tick from the moment it arrives in your email account, or in the case of hard-copy (letter) requests, from the moment it lands in your in-tray.
If you are planning to be away from your office over a period of time, we would advise that you make sure that there are procedures are in place so that any requests can be answered within the statutory deadlines.
We suggest that the "out-of-office" function offered by Microsoft Outlook should be used and that colleagues provide details of an alternative contact point.
Is there a form of words that we can use for the "out of office" message?
Best practices indicate that you can use something along the following lines:
"Thank you for your message.
I am out of the office until ****. If your enquiry is urgent and you require advice please contact my colleague *** on [insert telephone number] or email ****@hw.ac.uk.
If you feel that your email contains a request for information that you feel may fall under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002, please forward your email to email@example.com where your request will be dealt with centrally, or visit our website……"
If the requester does not forward the email elsewhere as advised in my out of office wording, am I still responsible?
Technically yes. Providing you have offered at least one alternative point of contact, then it is reasonable to assume that the applicant will forward the request as advised by your email (on behalf of the University). On your return however, it may be worth checking with colleagues that the request has been dealt with.
What happens if I am the sole owner of data, or some student records and I am away from the office?
Best practice suggests that records should be accessible by at least one other when the owner of the records is away from the University for any length of time regardless whether these records are electronic or hard copy.
It is also worth noting that Subject Access Requests made under the Data Protection Act 1998 must also be responded to within the statutory 40 working days. Subject Access Requests can be more complex and time consuming to deal with and so it is essential that records can be accessed by at least one person other than the holder of the record. It also ensures that there is effective business continuity.
What should I do if I return to my office and discover that there is an FOISA request either in my email or in-tray that has passed the 20 day deadline and has not been actioned?
As mentioned earlier, the vast majority of information requests come in via the firstname.lastname@example.org portal. In the unlikely event of an FOISA request coming in directly to you, please forward it onto a member of HIG straight away.
I know we have 20 days to respond to FOISA requests from external applicants, but does this timescale also apply to internal requests e.g. those made by staff and students?
Yes, the 20 day deadline also applies to internal requests.
What happens to the 20 day working period if we need to approach the requester for clarification?
The "clock" will stop ticking during the period where we seek clarification from the requester. Once clarification has been received, the "clock" will recommence ticking. However, we should NOT be approaching the requester on day 18 seeking clarification as this could be perceived as trying to get an extension to the 20 day deadline. Colleagues are asked to seeking guidance from HIG immediately if we to approach the requester for clarification.
What if an applicant asks to see everything to do with subject "x"?
The Act is very specific and we are NOT allowed to ask a requester why they require the information. We are though entitled to seek clarification from the requester. If you feel that a request is too broad, unclear or manifestly too large, please get back to HIG who will contact the applicant directly.
In what format do our responses have to be in?
We are obliged to respond in whatever format the requester asks for. We also have a duty to comply with the Equality Act so if an applicant asks for the information to be provided in braille, then we must do so and within the 20 day deadline wherever possible.