Inquiring into inquiries – what’s the point?

“If the success of Public Inquiries is judged in terms of changes in regulations and legislation, then we cannot often claim to achieve that” (Dame Janet Smith, Chair of the Shipman Inquiry).

What’s the point?

What do they achieve?

Don’t they just kick problems into the long grass?

They can be really expensive – is the public getting value for money?

These are just some of the commonly held viewpoints about Public Inquiries. Popular criticisms say that the current system encourages inquiries for the sake of political expediency, to avoid making difficult decisions, to look earnestly busy in the face of disaster or tragedy. Others point to the value of inquiries, saying that they cost a lot of money with few tangible results. The cynic’s sketch might caricature them as a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury Signifying nothing.

We are hoping to gauge the strength of these ideas at today’s Symposium. Two years in the making, CEDR Foundation’s ‘Inquiry into Inquiries’ project takes a long, thoughtful, open look at a component of public discourse that is perhaps unfairly maligned and misunderstood. We believe that inquiries are a vehicle whose time has come; a genuine mechanism for the public and other important stakeholders to be actively involved in looking at an issue, working out the story of ‘what happened’ and working together to find ways of moving forward.

Throughout the project, our main thought has been how to fully involve the public in the public inquiry process. After surveying over 2000 people in 2012, we found that nearly 70% of respondents feel that the public should have greater involvement in the inquiry process. Indeed, two of the most recent high-profile public inquiries – Hillsborough and Leveson – made great attempts to involve the general public at all stages of the process: and it is interesting to note that these two inquiries seemed to really capture the public’s imagination. Here was an opportunity for affected groups to stand up and explain how circumstances had affected them, and an opportunity for us all to listen and understand them.

Inquiries may not hold all the answers, but I believe that they offer a true public benefit. They allow us to find out why a particular event happened and provide recourse to prevent the event from happening again.  In the future, there may be more room for collaborative problem solving and a fresh look at design within the Inquiry process, to enhance its efficacy both as a process and in terms of outcomes delivered.

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