Boris Johnson recently announced that the UK will begin investigations into the government’s handling of COVID-19 in 2022 (parallel investigations are planned in Scotland), and more investigations will emerge around the world. But how should such a query be designed and run?
It is likely that the most traditional survey model will be used, simply because it is the habit of high-level people, or because they seem to be politically expedient. But the pandemic has triggered extraordinary innovations, and there is no reason not to conduct any investigations. The pandemic has also affected all areas of life, and it is much more “systematic” than the types of problems or events solved by typical investigations in the past. This should be reflected in how to learn lessons.
So here are some preliminary thoughts on what the default values look like, why they might not be appropriate, and what some alternatives might be.
Brief history of query
There is a long tradition of investigating after major public disasters or crises. In the UK, these include: the Chilkot report of the Iraq war, the Hutton investigation triggered by the death of Dr. David Kelly, the Glenfelta investigation, Lord Levison’s investigation of media abuse, and Bloody Sunday’s survey.
There are many other types of investigations: Parliament (an estimate indicates that different specialized committees have conducted about 60 COVID-related investigations); Royal Commission, audits trying to understand the truth; and internal civil servant inquiries; and more local Optimized queries, such as those after the death of the Central Staffordshire Hospital.
The British political system obviously likes to inquire. Usually, the first call made by the media and opposition parties when there is a problem is that there should be a problem. Some of these are governed by UK government legislation passed in 2005, which attempts to standardize its format, the main purpose of which is to ensure that queries are more trusted.
However, the investigation continues to be condemned as “internal work” and “institutional stitching”, which will be a key challenge for any investigation of COVID-19. The government tends to appoint favorable people to conduct its own investigations-and then usually conclude that no serious mistakes have been made, which does not help the problem.
Standard query model
Queries usually aim to find out: what happened, why it happened, who should be blamed, and how to prevent it from happening again. Their models come from laws and courts, with witnesses, cross-examinations, and written judgments. They occur in a physical location. The purpose is to determine key facts, determine guilt, and then recommend new rules or laws to prevent repeating mistakes.
The default settings for any COVID inquiry are very similar. As in the past, a leading agency with a legal or government background will be responsible. Written and oral evidence will be taken. A series of reports will be produced sometime in the future.
We can expect that many groups are nervous about the prospects of such investigations and want to shape them to protect themselves: those politicians who make a series of misjudgments, especially in the fall of 2020; scientists’ suggestions on different aspects, especially It is early and may be wrong; facts have proved that its crisis management mechanism is at best a very unbalanced official. Many people will work hard to establish narratives and explanations to protect their reputation.
In general, the government may want the pandemic investigation to extend as far as possible into the future. In contrast, the opposition party may wish to conduct a brief, sharp investigation and draw a conclusion before the next election. Both may actually serve the public interest well.
Hierarchical model and its limitations
The traditional inquiry mode is a highly centralized, formalized and legalized method based on prose; a hierarchical system designed specifically for a hierarchical system, which allocates responsibilities to some responsible persons.
This approach satisfies the deep human need for interpretation and justice-if something goes wrong, we want to see who should be blamed and see them being humiliated or punished. The Westminster-style parliamentary system is particularly keen on “sacrificing accountability”, while the United States has its own style, often quite partisan investigations.
But this method also has serious limitations. It can weaken the honesty and self-awareness that are essential to learning. It can be a kind of theater, encouraging performance rather than understanding.
It is not as democratic in practice and spirit as the court system where the jury represents the public. It creates a huge motivation for distortion or transfer.
This is not a particularly good way to change the way complex systems work, nor is it a way to give people a chance to express their pain and sorrow and get answers from the strong. This is an important aspect of some investigations—such as Grenfell—and an important part of post-conflict investigations. Without hearing the catharsis of testimony from experience, it is difficult to rebuild trust.
Whole society approach
There are many different query options, from “truth and reconciliation” queries, no-fault compensation procedures and the way industries such as airlines deal with crashes, to academic analysis of events such as the 2007-08 financial crisis. They can involve a representative or random sample of the public (civic assemblies and juries), or just experts and officials.
In the next few weeks, at the IPPO (International Public Policy Observatory), we will work with colleagues around the world to develop a more comprehensive survey taxonomy and discuss the pros and cons. How should they understand the many different levels of governance and decision-making involved in COVID? Should they have different stages?
Read more: COVID-19: How dialogue can help bridge research and policy
A key question is to ask the right questions. Some should be basic issues of capabilities and processes (what are the right and wrong decisions about the lockdown?). But this crisis also raises many more basic questions: what do we know about loneliness and isolation, how do we create better mechanisms for coordination between the state and local governments (the UK is particularly weak in this regard), or scientific advice How to organize in the future, especially to make more use of the rather marginal social science within Sage, which provides scientific and technical advice to support government decision-makers in emergency situations.
Alternative survey models can be more decentralized and decentralized, creating space for many institutions to think about and absorb important lessons. We can think of it as a “society-wide” learning method to conduct evidence-based consideration of important issues and lessons in many institutions and communities. For example, the school curriculum may be very different from the police curriculum. If the people they respect—including other teachers—are closely involved, they are most likely to be accepted by the teacher.
The COVID-19 crisis is uniquely widespread and systemic. It requires a relatively systematic and inclusive mode of inquiry. At least, let’s discuss it. The most traditional model is likely to be adopted, because this is the habit of high-level people. But this will be a huge wasted opportunity, and it may leave more, not less, distrust and suspicion.
You can read a longer version of this article on the International Public Policy Observatory (IPPO) website.