The Covid-19 pandemic has tested the resilience of governments around the world. But as countries emerge from immediate crisis mode and implement a science and data-driven containment and control strategy, the political agenda shifts towards a focus on accountability and learning.
The multi-layered nature of these review processes is reflected in the planning of several future investigations. The Scottish government has published a public consultation on the aims, process and objectives of a future public inquiry focused on Covid. The UK government has pledged to set up an independent public inquiry next spring and to announce its president before Christmas. And the general assembly of the World Health Organization, the World Health Assembly, called on WHO to conduct “an impartial, comprehensive and independent assessment” of “the experience gained and lessons learned from the international health response coordinated by the WHO to Covid -19 “.
The importance of using research to inform policy making is now widely recognized. This is especially true in the UK, where the Research Excellence Framework encourages non-academic impact and where specific investments and innovations – the What Works Network and the Universities Policy Engagement Network are key examples – have created a translational research infrastructure.
But the use of research data to inform the design and effectiveness of the review structures themselves – although highlighted as one form of potential impact in REF’s guidance documents – is much more delicate and is rarely crossed.
Accountability processes fulfill a range of roles. The two most important are arguably, first, to explore what happened in relation to a specific event, challenge, or crisis in order to attribute merit or blame, and, second, to draw conclusions. lessons that need to be learned in order to build future resilience. . The problem is that while these dimensions are not mutually exclusive, the central idea of ââa vast network of public accountability scholarship is that the emphasis on blame too often rules out learning.
In other words, being “held accountable” is not associated with a reasonable or balanced review of the evidence upon which decisions were made – or an appreciation of the contextual pressures under which ministers and their officials have worked. On the contrary, it is associated – especially in press reports – with a more brutal focus on blame and scapegoats. As a result, there is little incentive for governments to ask for help to make control structures more effective.
One example is the recent report of the British Parliament’s Joint Committee Coronavirus: lessons learned so far. What was striking was the extent to which he explicitly tried to avoid focusing on blame for whoever was focused on learning the lessons. The fact that it has nonetheless sparked a media storm of blame-based debate underscores the difficulties for any researcher seeking to illuminate effective oversight structures.
In many ways, the creation of an independent public inquiry aims to facilitate a more thoughtful and balanced review of the evidence by creating some space between the review process and day-to-day partisan politics. However, evidence and research on public inquiries suggests that they are generally a very ineffective way to learn lessons. Or, more specifically, the most effective surveys in terms of learning and positive policy impact tend to be highly targeted surveys.
Covid investigations are likely to be incredibly broad in scope, with some overlap, duplication and boundary conflicts between different agency investigations somewhat inevitable. But there is a significant opportunity here for the arts, humanities and social sciences to demonstrate professional agility and intellectual ambition.
The UK’s International Public Policy Observatory (IPPO) is seizing this opportunity by launching a new design-focused workflow for public inquiries. The key to the IPPO approach is to try to inject a choice-oriented and solution-oriented perspective into survey design. The ambition is to stretch and induce politicians and decision-makers to recognize not only the existence of a much wider range of options in the survey structure than is commonly recognized, but also the benefits political, economic and social innovation in the examination space.
The key lies in bringing together and presenting the existing base of research on investigative effectiveness to politicians and officials in a way that draws not only on interdisciplinary knowledge (from history to history). architecture, from visual methods to cultural studies, from design to ethnography) but also on an explicit understanding of the need to establish and maintain high, low-cost relationships of trust between politicians and scholars when working on such political ground.
Brazil’s recent Senate report on the country’s response to Covid – which called on the country’s President Jair Bolsonaro to face murder charges – highlights just how the atmosphere surrounding investigations is likely to be. politically charged. But as the evidence of a global democratic recession grows, researchers must also do everything possible to ensure that the review provides more examples of lessons learned – and fewer âembarrassmentâ headlines.
Matthew Flinders is Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield and Vice-President of the Political Studies Association in the United Kingdom.