I want to pick up on something I mentioned in passing in my last post, namely issues of accountability and trust in public sector organizations. I’m prompted to do so because the other day I was listening to a news bulletin and several items were to do with the publication of reports by inquiries into various scandals or failures. There were reports from the inquiry into deaths in the maternity unit at Furness Hospital; the inquiry into the Oxford child abuse grooming cases; and in the US the inquiry into the Ferguson police shooting. The week before the news was dominated by inquiries into the Jimmy Savile sex abuse case. A couple of weeks before that the big story was the delayed report of the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war, which has been running since 2009 and is itself the third public inquiry about the war, following the Hutton Inquiry which reported in 2004 and the Butler Inquiry which also reported in 2004.
Public inquiries are not a new thing, but the frequency with which they occur (in the UK) is increasing and their scope is becoming broader – moving away from being about specific events towards examinations of whole institutions and cultures, as with the Leveson Inquiry into the press. They have an obvious tactical attraction for politicians: by setting up an inquiry into a controversial issue it is possible to show decisive action whilst at the same time avoiding talking about it until the inquiry has reported, which in some cases may be a very long time, and by that time the political charge may have gone out of the issue, or the government has changed.
But I think that there is more at stake than political expediency. What is striking is how the increased use of inquiries goes hand in hand with the increasing emphasis on public sector accountability, so brilliantly described in Michael Power’s now classic book The Audit Society. One might have thought that this increased accountability would have obviated the need for public inquiries: after all, if organizations are more transparent, why would we need them? In fact, the obverse is the case, and increased accountability and transparency has eroded trust, exactly as predicted by the philosopher Onora O’Neill in her prescient Reith Lectures in 2002.
This is a new twist on an old question, formulated as ‘Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?’ by the Roman poet Juvenal, but present also in Plato’s The Republic. Who will guard the guards? No matter how much public disclosure there is, it is never enough. Thus we see arraigned around public sector organizations regulators who check on them. But these regulators are themselves not to be trusted, and requiring further inquiry. Thus, for example, this week’s Furness Hospital report was concerned not just with the failures of the hospital but with those of its regulator, the Care Quality Commission (CQC). The CQC itself has been repeatedly criticised and has been subject - really, you couldn't make this up - to at least one major independent inquiry (the Rider Inquiry in 2012) into its operations.
So there is a kind of infinite regress here. All the time what is being looked for is an outsider or ‘independent’ person. But now even that it is a problem. The UK historic child abuse inquiry was originally to have been chaired by Baroness Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, but she was discredited as insufficiently independent because of her family connections. A new chair, Dame Fiona Woolf, was announced but she too had to stand down because of her ‘Establishment links’. Now, it is to be chaired by a New Zealand judge, Lowell Goddard. It’s not too difficult to imagine an inquiry into the decisions to appoint these inquiry chairs. It’s actually quite easy to imagine an inquiry into the use inquiries.
It’s no coincidence, I think, that the increasing stress on accountability and the increasing use of inquiries when things go wrong has been accompanied by decreasing trust in public institutions. We don’t even trust public inquiries any more, as was illustrated with the Hutton Inquiry which was almost immediately discredited, in large part because it had been ‘open’ in publishing its evidence which all too clearly did not square with its conclusions. A shocking thought, then: perhaps we trust more when we inquire less. Indeed, isn’t that what trust really means?