What do we want from COVID-19 public inquiries?

IPPO’s recent global roundtable on public inquiries highlighted important questions about how best to design an inquiry to ensure it effectively meets the diverse objectives of its many interested parties

Joanna Chataway, Rachel France and Katrina Rattu

On 19th October, IPPO ran a global roundtable split into two sessions to allow contributions from both northern and southern hemispheres on the different types of inquiry that would best serve when reviewing COVID-19 policy responses.

As Matthew Flinders, Geoff Mulgan and Alistair Stark pointed out in their recent IPPO paper, even if we are working within the legal confines of statutory inquiry, there is scope to think creatively about how the process and scope of an inquiry link to its overall objectives.

In particular, early thinking about how an inquiry is being set up to achieve specified outcomes, as well as a clear idea about what a good outcome will look like, are important in inquiry design. The IPPO inquiries roundtable provided a forum for experts to discuss inquiry design from a number of perspectives, and we will now use the discussions to help frame our future work in this area (see below). We also note that there are some detailed and informative guides to good practice in establishing and running public inquiries.

Key questions raised in the IPPO inquiries roundtable

1. Where is the public in public inquiries?

Participants in the workshops raised questions and offered observations about where demand for COVID-19 inquiries is coming from. Who wants what kind of inquiry? Clearly, there will be multiple inquiries throughout the UK, both at different layers of government and with respect to different issues. Scotland has already announced its own independent public inquiry in advance of a UK-wide inquiry being established.

There are likely to be inquiries about responses to education, specific areas of public health, and other issues. Each of these inquiries will have particular relevance to different sectors of society, yet there is relatively little evidence about how different publics relate to inquiries – and in particular, how the general public fits into the inquiry process.

This means that the public character of a public inquiry is often ambiguous. How should the process and its findings relate to different sectors of society? What do different groups want and need from different types of inquiry? What should be their role in setting the scope and tone of proceedings? Our roundtable participants welcomed the fact that Scotland had opened up a consultation on the terms of reference, to which IPPO contributed this submission.

In short, public inquiries are both a technocratic exercise corresponding to legal and mandated remits, and exercises that require public management and engagement – yet the former is often more evident than the later. In part, this may well reflect the narrow skills and areas of expertise of those appointed to chair independent public inquiries.

2. Are public inquiries mechanisms for accountability, distributing blame, or enabling learning?

In many cases, either by design or as a result of political pressure, the nature of many public inquiries has largely been to blame allocation mechanisms. And yet, a total refocus on learning as the objective of an inquiry would risk leaving those who are seeking redress feeling unsatisfied. Accountability is an important part of any public inquiry remit; as one roundtable participant argued strongly, incorporating accountability as an essential part of the inquiry process should itself enable learning.

In this sense, the objectives of public inquiries likely need to remain broad and diverse. With respect to the design of COVID-19 inquiries, government responses to the pandemic were typically based on balancing health outcomes with economic and social outcomes. Different groups in society have different viewpoints on each of these: for example, privileging health was viewed by some as potentially harming the economy, and vice versa. Compounding the issue is that most people have an interest in both areas to some extent. Designing an inquiry that is fair to competing interests is crucial – and difficult.

If learning and accountability are to be balanced in the framing of the inquiry process (as suggested in our earlier IPPO paper) then implementation of lessons learned becomes essential. There is evidence that some countries – Australia, for example – have better mechanisms and processes to ensure implementation of recommendations than the UK or New Zealand, say. But case studies of the ways that findings from particular public inquiries around the world have been implemented would be helpful.

Another aspect of giving greater emphasis to lesson learning in public inquiries is making sure that those leading the inquiries have the requisite skills and expertise to understand the findings – not only with regard to legal requisites but a broad range of other contexts. A skills audit of those running and staffing inquiries might be useful in establishing whether or not this is the case. Analysis of the skills and expertise of those running past inquiries, and the impact that diversity had in the success (or otherwise) of achieving broader inquiry goals, could be an interesting component of case study and other research.

Finally, the ambition to learn from inquiries has to be couched in the recognition that inquiries are retrospective and may well be subject to hindsight bias. Policy decisions made during the pandemic were made under highly stressful conditions, and post-hoc rationales often mask the realities of the chaos and pressures of the moment. Social science could offer  advice on how best to capture the true experience of decision-makers and stakeholders, but it is not evident this expertise is widely deployed in public inquiries.

Conclusion: the design challenge of linking up findings

COVID-19 has touched so many areas of society. Massive health, economic and social policies have been enacted in response to the pandemic, and all levels of government have been involved. Particular groups have been hit particularly hard, such as the elderly and the young. There will be multiple inquiries: statutory, parliamentary, and those commissioned by international organisations, civil society and others. Individual inquiries can be hugely complex, involving hundreds of staff, and the ambition to design in efficiencies often seems lacking.

While organising coordination, learning and knowledge synthesis across multiple inquiries represents additional challenges, it seems essential if the considerable time, effort and resources that will be spent on these inquiries are to yield meaningful results. Certainly, how to ensure more effort is spent on designing a process that enhances the ways in which public inquiries can effectively meet diverse objectives is something IPPO will be tackling over the coming months.

Broadly, we plan to take a three-pronged approach to our near-term inquiries work:

  1. Gather and share evidence from past public inquiries around the world to inform our thinking on how COVID-19 public inquiries should be designed and run – including by commissioning case studies.
  2. Build a ‘global living map’ of COVID-19 inquiries as they come on stream, including numerous categories to facilitate understanding and further research.
  3. Convene a working group to develop a practical vision for the design of COVID-19 public inquiries.

Whatever your specialism and personal experiences of the pandemic, please do get in touch with your feedback and suggestions for how you might like to be involved in this process. Email us at ippo@ucl.ac.uk with the tagline INQUIRIES.