Contemplating the COVID crisis: what kind of inquiry do we need to learn the right lessons?

Essay by Geoff Mulgan: “Boris Johnson has announced a UK inquiry into COVID-19 to start in 2022, a parallel one is being planned in Scotland, and many more will emerge all over the world. But how should such inquiries be designed and run? What kind of inquiry can do most to mitigate or address the harms caused by the pandemic?

We’re beginning to look at this question at IPPO (the International Public Policy Observatory), including a global scan with our partners, INGSA and the Blavatnik School of Government, on how inquiries are being developed around the world, plus engagement with governments and parliaments across the UK.

It’s highly likely that the most traditional models of inquiries will be adopted – just because that’s what people at the top are used to, or because they look politically expedient. But we think it would be good to look at the options and to encourage some creativity.

The pandemic has prompted extraordinary innovation; there is no reason why inquiries should be devoid of any. Moreover, the pandemic affected every sector of life – and was far more ‘systemic’ than the kinds of issue or event addressed by typical inquiries in the past. That should be reflected in how lessons are learned.

So here are some initial thoughts on what the defaults look like, why they are likely to be inadequate, and what some alternatives might be. This article proposes the idea of a ‘whole of society’ inquiry model which has a distributed rather than centralised structure, which focuses on learning more than blame, and which can connect the thousands of organisations that have had to make so many difficult decisions throughout the crisis, and also the lived experiences of public and frontline staff. We hope that it will prompt responses, including better ideas about what kinds of inquiry will serve us best…

There are many different options for inquiries, and this is a good moment to consider them. They range from ‘truth and reconciliation’ inquiries to no-fault compensation processes to the ways industries such as airlines deal with crashes, through to academic analyses of events like the 2007/08 financial crash. They can involve representative or random samples of the public (e.g. citizens’ assemblies and juries) or just experts and officials…

The idea of a distributed inquiry is not entirely new. Colombia, for example, attempted something along these lines as part of its peace process. Many health systems use methods such as ‘collaboratives’ to organise accelerated learning. Doubtless there is much to be learned from these and other examples. For the UK in particular, it is vital there are contextually appropriate designs for the four nations as well as individual cities and regions.

As already indicated, a key is to combine sensible inquiries focused on particular sectors (e.g. what did universities do, what worked…) and make connections between them. As IPPO’s work on COVID inequalities has highlighted, the patterns are very complex but involved a huge amount of harm – captured in our ‘inequalities matrix’, below.

So, while the inquiries need to dig deep on multiple fronts and to look more like a matrix than a single question, what might connect all the inquiries would be a commitment to some common elements which would be shared:

  • Facts: In each case, a precondition for learning is establishing the facts, as well as the evidence on what did or didn’t work well. This is a process closer to what evidence intermediary organisations – such as the UK’s What Works Network – do than a judicial process designed for binary judgments (guilty/not guilty). This would be helped by some systematic curation and organisation of the evidence in easily accessible forms, of the kind that IPPO is doing….(More)”