Learning lessons from the crisis

Posted on 16/07/2020 by Ed Hammond.

We are, to be honest, not great as a country when it comes to learning lessons after terrible things happen. Nationally, the model we have adopted appears to the one designed to be uniquely irritating to the victims of disasters or crises – to appoint a retired judge to conduct a public inquiry, assisted by a panel of similarly expert individuals, assisted by counsel. This is a process that is painstaking and designed to be highly forensic, but which invariably comes across as unnecessarily slow, lumbering, elitist and legalistic.

When such inquiries conclude and produce their recommendations it is often years after the event in question – long enough in time for key decision-makers to have moved away or retired, and for Government either to quietly bury the findings or to make vague assertions about looking at any recommendations carefully, without necessarily doing anything to implement them.

There is the prospect of the mother of all public inquiries once the COVID-19 crisis is finally over – the Prime Minister having seemingly committed to such an inquiry in recent days. It’s difficult to imagine such a process getting off the ground until this time next year, even if a vaccine is successfully rolled out in the coming months. It’s easier to talk about what would *not* be in scope of such an inquiry, rather than what it *would* cover – every aspect of the economy, society, cultural and community life during the pandemic would surely be up for scrutiny.

It seems that a large scale public inquiry would be a huge, unwieldy beast – complex, slow moving, difficult to handle. In a way, it presents a counterpoint to the challenges that have faced Government as it has used centralised tools to handle the pandemic itself.

Perhaps we need something more distributed. At the very least, we need something that takes account of the huge number of people who have been engaged in the response to the pandemic, and to the recovery. In the coming weeks and months, in offices and workplaces around the country, debrief and reflection exercises will be commencing. What have we learned; what could we have done better? Perhaps the best way to start is by seeking to aggregate the evidence arising from those exercises. Perhaps locally-led scrutiny of the operational response, and scrutiny of recovery plans, can be drawn together to present a more distributed national picture – one informed by the insight of multitudes rather than framed through the perspective of a retired judge working to terms of reference signed off by the Prime Minister. We’ve put out some material in the last few days which explains what these exercises might look like, and how we can help local areas to deliver them

This seems a bit much to hope for, unfortunately. It seems likely that we will have a judge or former judge-led process – perhaps next year all the news will be about the Hale Inquiry, or the Neuberger Inquiry. Will that give us the answers we need before 2025; before the next election sweeps direct political accountability away? It’s unclear. At a local level all we can do is work towards giving our own residents the satisfaction that we are conducting a process to satisfy ourselves, and them, that we did all we could. We hope to be able to support overview and scrutiny to carry out this critical task in the coming months.

About the Author: Ed Hammond

Ed leads CfGS's work on devolution, transformation and on support to councils and other public bodies on governance and accountability.