August 4, 2016
The federal government has announced the long-awaited launch of a national inquiry into violence against Indigenous women and girls. It’s a major victory for Indigenous activists, who worked persistently over years to move this issue into mainstream politics. And for many, it’s a source of great hope.
But are we right to invest our faith in commissions of inquiry? Are they effective vehicles for policy change?
Like referenda, commissions take policy outside of regular government channels. Theoretically, they create space for new ideas and new forms of participation. But they’re also derided as expensive exercises in responsibility-shirking – or the thing you do when you can’t think of a useful policy response. You can make both cases.
Commissions of inquiry do matter for policy change, for lots of reasons.
- Inquiries are (at least meant to be) independent of the politics of the day. Commissioners don’t have to worry about re-election at the end of their mandates. So inquiries can look over the horizon, and make far-reaching policy proposals without worrying about immediate political consequences.
- Inquiries reframe public issues, breaking them out of existing policy silos. The inquiry into violence against Indigenous women and girls is a good example. It cuts horizontally through several policy areas – public safety, poverty and social services, Indigenous affairs, gender. This allows us to take a new and more holistic view of a policy problem that defies easy categorization.
- Inquiries act as focussed evidence institutions. They employ multidisciplinary teams of social scientists and other experts, and (if they’re given enough time3 ) can produce reams of new research. They can possess a research capacity that far exceeds the regular capacity of the civil service.
- And inquiries play an education role. They can boost the public’s understanding of a given issue, and build popular momentum for change.
Inquiries can look over the horizon, and make far-reaching policy proposals without worrying about immediate political consequences.
But inquiries disappoint, too. There are reasons for skepticism.
- After all, they do just make recommendations. Because they are temporary and exist outside of regular policy channels, there is no guaranteed buy-in or a dedicated bureaucracy ready to implement. And while inquiries may be politically freer, that doesn’t apply to the politicians who must accept their recommendations. So an unreceptive political environment means commission reports just gather dust.
- Inquiries can also stand in for real action on an issue. There is some evidence to suggest that inquiries are called when public opinion demands a response to a problem, and governments want to avoid blame4. The danger is that the inquiry becomes an end to itself, rather than a means to meaningful policy change.
- And inquiries can be expensive. This is a common complaint, but actually it’s complicated. On the one hand, they are clearly more expensive than policy-as-usual. But to do a real cost-benefit analysis, you’d have to quantify the ongoing policy failure that inquiries are meant to fix, which is tough to do.
The short answer is: there’s no clear, simple relationship between commissions of inquiry and policy change. A recent comparison of 10 inquiries found outcomes ranging from “transformative and direct” policy change, to “marginal and limited” effects5. And assessing causality is hard. If change does follow a commission, is it because of the commission – or is creating the commission itself evidence of existing momentum for change?
Ultimately, this inquiry’s approach will affect its ability to drive desperately needed policy change. Key traits we should look for include:
A commission of inquiry has two audiences: the government that created it, and the general public. And since there are no guarantees that governments will opt into its recommendations absent public pressure, it’s essential that the inquiry gets heard by a large audience. That means that along with producing (often) thousands of pages of research and analysis, the findings should be boiled down into a succinct, digestible, well-communicated form. The goal is to be seen, read and remembered, and not just by professionals in the field.
We should understand how a commission reaches its conclusions. This means hosting public hearings as often as is appropriate. And research produced from the inquiry should be published and made widely available. In past, governments have withdrawn financial support for disseminating commission research, blunting the long-term impact6. The raw materials produced from inquiries can fuel policy analysis for years to come.
Commissions should use their superior analytical capacity to make precise, concrete, granular recommendations to government – not just generate platitudes. Specific recommendations are easier to track, easier to hold governments accountable for, and prove that the inquiry can answer the questions it asks. Of course, they have to speak to the big picture too.
We’ve written elsewhere about governments’ struggles to build policy on good evidence. Until we fix that in a more permanent way, there’s a strong argument for commissions of inquiry to fill in on an issue-to-issue basis. Violence against Indigenous women and girls clearly demands an effective response, and we haven’t seen it yet from regular policy channels. Let’s commit to this process – but with cautious, critical optimism.
More related to this topic
August 4, 2016
- Gregory Inwood and Carolyn Johns (2014), “Why Study Commissions of Inquiry,” in Inwood and Johns (eds.) Commissions of Inquiry and Policy Change: A Comparative Analysis (University of Toronto Press, 2014) p.7. [↩]
- Inwood and Johns, p.6 [↩]
- Peter Aucoin (1989), “Contributions of Commission of Inquiry to Policy Analysis: An Evaluation,” Dalhousie Law Journal 197, p.206. [↩]
- Raanan Sulitzeanu-Kenan (2010), “Reflection in the Shadow of Blame: When Do Politicians Appoint Commissions of Inquiry?,” British Journal of Political Science 40 (3), p.613-634. [↩]
- Inwood and Johns 2014. [↩]
- Peter Russell (2014), “The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples: An Exercise in Policy Education,” in Inwood and Johns (eds.) Commissions of Inquiry and Policy Change: A Comparative Analysis (University of Toronto Press, 2014) p.166. [↩]