Staking our future on Inquiries

It seems that a fresh wave of inquiries will be hitting the headlines soon, in the wake of yet more scandals and controversies.  

Issues ranging from expansion at Heathrow, the BBC’s handling of Newsnight’s Jimmy Savile investigation, and even the Libor rate are now the subject of inquiries. As with any inquiry, challenging conversations and issues will need to be explored in a sensitive yet purposeful way. I am sure that as these inquiries develop, plenty of fascinating and thought-provoking discussions will be prompted about the process of the inquiries, and the broader system of inquiries as an investigative tool.

What do all of these inquiries have in common, besides the name? One interesting issue is the question of stakeholders – as the ongoing work of CEDR Foundation’s ‘Inquiry into Inquiries’ highlights, the inquiry system is increasingly popular because it aims to meet the needs of key stakeholders affected by events, not least the general public.

However, I think that as inquiries become an increasingly mainstream method of investigation, the question of stakeholders and other design elements will become more nuanced. The Heathrow Inquiry is already pointing to this kind of question – we know that businesses large and small, residents and airline operators will all be engaged in the discussion, but what might their positions be? Do all residents oppose development of a third runway, or is opinion led by a core group of engaged residents who influence the way the rest of the community acts? Likewise, how many businesses have a ‘bottom line’ case for airport expansion, and how many are influenced by what seems to be the popular narrative that “business needs a new runway”? And everyone will have a NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) perspective that resonates for them.

These questions merely scratch the surface of what I think is an issue about how each party’s needs are best addressed. Inquiries often do excellent work in establishing the facts around an issue, and my hope is that similar excellence will become characteristic in finding innovative ways of dealing with the complex needs of equally complex stakeholder groups. If inquiries represent pioneering ways of establishing facts, we should apply that sense of originality and intelligent design to every part of the process – and particularly be aware of the process and outcome assumptions we are bringing to the inquiry table.

I will be following the Heathrow, Libor and ‘Newsnight’ inquiries closely, as a mediator with an eye for problem solving and as a member of the public. We are all stakeholders in this process to some degree, and it can only be a good thing for these inquiries to receive as widespread public interest and attention as possible. How else can the public own the public inquiry?

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