Public inquiries are a frequent element of democracy in the UK: yet the way that media and public view them can be contradictory. For some, they are the pinnacle of independent investigations and calls for inquiries almost inevitably follow any tragedy or scandal. For others, they represent an enormous drain on public funds whilst delivering little tangible benefit.
I recently completed research considering the value of public inquiries from the viewpoint of those running them, examining whether government control over nominally independent inquiries is too great, and assessing the effectiveness of inquiries through the lens of public value theory, championed by Mark Moore in his 1995 book on creating public value. My research began with analysis of the literature, including earlier reviews of inquiries by – among others – the Institute for Government, the National Audit Office and a select committee investigation into the impact of the Inquiries Act. Picking out a number of common themes, I tested their validity among a small group of interviewees including current and former inquiry secretaries and solicitors, panel members, and a handful of other senior staff.
My research identified two main areas in which inquiries delivered less value than they should: in the start-up phase, and in the implementation of their recommendations. All my interviewees agreed that the first months of an inquiry are harder than they should be. Government, perhaps keen to demonstrate non-interference, can be slow to provide support and guidance on how to run an inquiry. Lessons learned reports – written by secretaries at the end of each inquiry – tend to be lost in government recordkeeping systems. Despite persistent calls for a centralised support unit for inquiries, from inquiry insiders and outsiders alike, have been resisted by successive governments for two decades until last year when a small unit was finally established.
The other main area of limited effectiveness is at the other end of the inquiry’s lifespan, often once the inquiry itself has ceased to exist. Recommendations are non-binding: both public and private organisations can reject or ignore recommendations; those that are accepted can be allowed to quietly fade away once public and media interest wanes. A lack of monitoring means that the impact of inquiries is invisible to most. Non-implementation of recommendations is perhaps the main area of ineffectiveness and public value failure for too many inquiries.
Public value theory provided a framework for analysing the extent of government control over inquiries. Its concept of the ‘strategic triangle’ – developed by Philip Heymann in the late 1980s and refined by Moore – suggests three elements that should make an effective organisation: mission, external support and operational capacity. Criticism arises in the literature that government has too much control over the scope of inquiries (their mission) and can close an inquiry (withdraw their external support) at any time. However, the officials I interviewed found neither of these to be a significant problem and therefore not a barrier to delivering effective public value. Scope is discussed and agreed with the independent chair, and a minister is highly unlikely to close an inquiry that they have established, particularly when support from victims and the wider public is high.
However, interviewees were concerned over implementation of recommendations, which can be rejected by public and private sector organisations alike, with little transparency of reasoning. Some felt there should be a dedicated body or bodies responsible for monitoring implementation and enforcing transparency; others felt monitoring mechanisms already exist – Parliamentary Select Committees for example – but are poorly utilised.
Operational capacity also tends to rest – initially – with government. Many inquiries are staffed by officials with no prior inquiry experience and my interviewees had generally found it difficult to work out ‘how to do it’. Guidance issued by the Cabinet Office is out of date and provides limited assistance. Commercial frameworks to assist inquiries with procuring their specific needs, such as hearing centres or evidence management systems, do not exist. Ultimately, new inquiries have to rely on the willingness of other inquiries to help them get started; indeed my research found that inquiries could be much more proactive in disseminating guidance and helping new organisations establish themselves rapidly.
But on the subject of government control, public value theory argues that it is right for inquiries – with their typically high expenditure – to remain within the control of elected politicians, even if this blurs the lines of independence. With the beginnings of a centralised support unit for inquiries and an evolving network of intra-inquiry knowledge transfer, the problems around start-up may diminish in the future. Monitoring recommendations is a trickier subject – the main difficulties being the identification of an appropriate body with the authority to demand responses from both public and private sector organisations.
For those of us running inquiries, we naturally believe that they deliver value. Most critically they provide a degree of catharsis for victims and their families. The information made available by inquiries also allows the public to assess facts for themselves. But we also recognise that the early steps could be much more efficient and that recommendations don’t always make the impact we hope for. The apparently simple steps needed to improve these two elements (more support from government and establishment of a monitoring body) are in fact complicated but I look forward to the future of inquiries with some confidence – things are improving and there is a drive in the inquiries community to lobby for and work towards better things.
Moore, M. (1995) Creating Public Value: Strategic Management in Government (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts).
National Audit Office (2018). Investigation into Government-Funded Inquiries (House of Commons: London). Available at https://www.nao.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Investigation-into-government-funded-inquiries.pdf,
Norris, E & Shepheard, M. (2017) How Public Inquiries Can Lead to Change. Available at: https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/sites/default/files/publications/Public%20Inquiries%20%28final%29.pdf
Parliament. (2014) House of Lords Select Committee on the Inquiries Act 2005 The Inquiries Act 2005: post-legislative scrutiny, London: The Stationery Office Ltd. Available at: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201314/ldselect/ldinquiries/143/143.pdf
Justine Rainbow is Head of Information Management at the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse. Ten of her twenty years as a civil servant have involved working with or for public inquiries. During her MPA with the University of Birmingham, her dissertation focused on the public value of inquiries.