The power of inquiries

It strikes me that 2012 was a good year for inquiries. Lord Leveson’s into the phone hacking scandal and media standards was perhaps the most high profile but there were many more such as the Vickers Inquiry into banking and the Tyrie Inquiry into the Libor rate fixing scandal. Each had different processes and powers and will probably have varying effects on the things they were set up to investigate.

I started wondering whether how you do inquiries as a nation might be important. We run public inquiries very rarely because they’re generally thought to be expensive and intrusive but maybe we should have more. What if we systematised the process and had a National Inquiry Service that could handle much greater throughput than just having one Levenson scale inquiry every few years for example?  I don’t know whether there’s a country that does it particularly well but in terms of learning the lessons from failure, it might be something we should do a lot more of.

If we got it right, the culture of investigating, analysing and recommending could be something that begins to permeate other areas of life. In my experience, organisations vary wildly in their ability to learn from events. I remember reading about Alcoa’s approach to accidents in the 1980s where within a week of any accident, the division head had to write to the CEO of the company (Paul O’Neill at the time) saying what had happened, what had caused it and what was going to be done to stop it from ever happening again. Over time it had a huge effect.

It’s also something I wish we taught much more. The skills involved in learning how to improve systems seem to be much neglected but could have a really positive impact in lots of settings. Anyway, just a thought.

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