This is the final instalment of four pieces on the place and function of royal commissions, you can find the previous blogs HERE.
Anyone who has listened to recent evidence coming out of the Covid Inquiry will be struck by just how poorly expert advice to ministers was treated. At best it was ignored, at worst it was misrepresented in public. The Inquiry certainly makes dispiriting viewing for anyone who thinks there is a positive role for external expert advice in Whitehall.
However, it might be wrong to generalise from the Covid experience. It was a novel situation, with heightened stakes and emotions all round. The Johnson Government was also probably one of the most “advice resistant” ones of modern times. Johnson scrawling “bollocks” on a report about Long Covid is something I can’t imagine any previous Prime Minister doing.
In the previous three posts in this series I looked backwards in turn at royal commissions, departmental committees and select committees’ roles in policymaking and constitutional change. In this final post (for now) I want to look forward. I want to ask what future role expert and/or political commissions and committees might play in the future of policymaking and constitutional change.
The first question to ask is why might such bodies be useful? What purpose do they serve? The most cynical view has always been that such bodies are either pointless or are simply a means for government to kick an issue “into the long grass”. Slightly less cynical is the view that while they may come up with some good ideas, they take too long and these ideas are rarely taken up. There is some truth in both these criticisms but there is also counter-evidence that these bodies can often work more swiftly and produce more change than they are often given credit for. And it is difficult to see why if they are so ineffective that they are still so widely used – not just in Whitehall and Westminster but in many other democracies, including our own devolved tiers of government. The reasons for this are in fact fairly obvious.
Firstly, government (and Parliament) will never contain all the expertise needed to address the many and varied issues policymakers have to grapple with. Ministers are rarely appointed for their deep knowledge of the policy issues they have to oversee. Our senior civil servants are still mostly generalists whose expertise is in policy-making and the machinery of government rather than policy issues, despite numerous attempts to change this. Secondly, one of the most common features of “the blunders of our governments” in recent decades has been ‘group think’. Convening a group of experts from outside government is one way of trying to avoid such pitfalls. Thirdly, especially for complex policy areas, there are often a range of stakeholders and powerholders outside of government who need to be engaged with any proposed solution. And finally, such commissions and committees can take medium to long-term views unaffected by relatively short electoral cycles.
There are many and varied forms these sorts of bodies can take. One type I haven’t considered, and won’t look at here, are ongoing advisory bodies – of which there are hundreds. Instead, the bodies I am concerned with are task-specific, time-limited, ‘one-offs’.
Royal commissions and what are called ‘departmental committees’ are in practice very similar – committees of experts from outside government set up by government to address a specific policy or constitutional issue. More recently, as was pointed out in the third article in this series, constitutional issues have tended to shift to committees inside Parliament consisting of politicians, but with some external expert input.
Since the Public Inquiries Act (2005) the problem of investigating specific incidents of public concern has been largely separated from the commission/committee format and even non-statutory public inquiries follow a similar pattern. Indeed, there exists Cabinet Office guidance to that effect (though they won’t publish their up-to-date version for some reason).
If a future government were to ‘go with the flow’ the obvious option for future constitutional reform would be some form of cross-party, and probably cross-House, parliamentary commission. But, and this is considered below, with some form of external input. This would operate more like a grand select committee than a royal commission or departmental committee. For complex medium to long-term policy issues – sometimes called the ‘wicked issues’ – a more traditional royal commission style approach might be appropriate.
Which brings us to the question of who should set up, and be engaged with, any policymaking or constitutional change commission or committee. It’s useful to think about five groups here: government; Parliament; experts (practitioners and academics); interest groups; and finally, but often neglected, the public.
Royal commissions or departmental committees are initiated by government, but they don’t have to be creatures of government. It is possible that their terms of reference and membership could be agreed with opposition parties through “the usual channels”, and they could be asked to report to government and directly to Parliament.
There are many forms of expertise outside of government and politics that can be drafted in to help. These include research expertise from academia and elsewhere. But they may also include more hands-on expertise from private, public or civic organisations engaged in the areas in question – or even from different but useful sectors.
The question of special interests is a thorny one. Sometimes it’s essential to involve ‘stakeholders’ who will be instrumental in the success of any resulting policies. But there is also always a danger of ‘capture’ by special interests or of deadlock between competing interests. It’s also important to be clear whether someone is present as an expert in their own right, or as a representative of a special interest (or sometimes a bit of both).
Finally, the public. Quite a few commissions and committees have, in the past, commissioned surveys of public opinion to help inform them about what the voter’s priorities are and what are the limiting parameters of possible policy options (the famous ‘Overton Window’).
Which leads us neatly to the question of how any commission or committee should be constituted. Two of the most radical examples in our neighbourhood in recent decades were the Scottish Constitutional Convention (1989-1995) which laid the basis for the re-constitution of the Scottish Parliament and the Irish Constitutional Convention which laid the basis for a whole series of constitutional changes in the Republic of Ireland (2012-2014). Both of these involved fairly broad (if different) participation, including in the Irish case some randomly selected citizens.
Elsewhere, beyond these isles, there have been a whole host of experiments to supplement ‘normal’ political and democratic processes to deal with ‘big issues’. These have included new as well as old forms such as: direct democracy (referenda); participation through methods like deliberative ballots or assemblies, mini-publics, and other forms of large-group participation – some using new technology that facilitates engagement in ways that would be impossible without it. There is a large literature now on such innovations, but any of these methods might be used to supplement or even replace the work of commissions and committees.
And finally, there are some old methods that have featured in the work of many commissions and committees in the past. Calling for evidence is one well accepted method, but this of course may lead to one-sided evidence or gaps in the knowledge required. Occasionally commissions have undertaken original research or ‘fact-finding’ exercises, although these have tended to be limited by time and resources. One innovation might be for commissions to be able to call on existing institutions such as the National Audit Office, the Office for Budget Responsibility, UK Research and Innovation or other such organisations to provide it with analytic support.
One thing is certain – many of the big policy and constitutional issues facing the UK are going to require answers that have at least broad and reasonably stable support over the medium to long-term, and well beyond any single electoral cycle. To avoid group-think and narrow partisanship, commissions and committees, and their possible supplements, could well be a way forward on many issues. Whether or not our increasingly polarised politics could be dragged in this direction remains to be seen. Watch this (policy) space?
Colin is Emeritus Professor of Government, University of Manchester. He also has relationships with the Cambridge Judge Business School and the Federal Trust. Colin has worked extensively with all levels of British government and public services, including being an advisor to two House of Commons Select Committees and appearing as an expert witness over two dozen times in both Houses of Parliament, the Scottish Parliament, and the Welsh Assembly. He has also advised more than a dozen other governments, from the USA to Japan.
The Constitution Society is committed to the promotion of informed debate and is politically impartial. Any views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society.