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Reflection in the Shadow of Blame: When Do Politicians Appoint Commissions of Inquiry?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 March 2010

Abstract

Commissions of inquiry play an important role in the aftermath of crisis, by serving as instruments of accountability and policy learning. Yet crises also involve a high-stake game of political survival, in which accountability and learning pose a serious threat to incumbent politicians. The political decision of whether to appoint a commission of inquiry after a crisis thus provides a unique prism for studying the intense conflict between politics, accountability and policy learning. Using data from the United Kingdom, this study develops and tests a choice model for this political decision. The results show that the political decision to appoint inquiries into public crises is strongly influenced by short-term blame avoidance considerations, media salience and government popularity.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2010

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References

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5 Randomly drawn from the entire set of 620 non-inquired issues identified for the research period.

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10 Sulitzeanu-Kenan, Raanan, ‘If They Get It Right: An Experimental Test of the Effects of the Appointment and Reports of UK Public Inquiries’, Public Administration, 84 (2006): 623653CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Conditions 5 and 6 are meant to exclude policy advice commissions (see Wheare, Kenneth C., Government by Committee (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1955), pp. 4344Google Scholar; and Howe, , ‘The Management of Public Inquiries’, p. 294Google Scholar). Sulitzeanu-Kenan’s definition includes a seventh criterion – ‘that the inquiry is held in public’. This criterion was relaxed in this study for several reasons. A number of non-public independent inquiries were appointed in response to major events in recent British political history, and some have consequently taken an important place on the public agenda. Indeed, many accounts of public inquiries in the United Kingdom include ‘private’ ones, usually without acknowledging the distinction, and sometimes explicitly, as in Annex 1 of the 2005 Public Administration Select Committee which includes some non-public inquiries in its comprehensive list of ‘public inquiries’ since 1921. It is expected that the decision to appoint an independent non-public inquiry will share a considerable degree of the attributes of the decision to appoint a public one. Omitting the former decisions from the analysis would unduly reduce the number of cases (limited as it is), and coding them as ‘zero’ investigative response is likely to bias the results.

11 That is, a government formed by a different party, e.g., events that took place under the Major (Conservative) government are ‘historical’ when addressed by the Blair (Labour) government, yet events that took place under Thatcher (Conservative) are not ‘historical’ when addressed by the Major government.

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14 As Boin et al. explicitly acknowledge: Boin, et al. , ‘Conclusion’, pp. 287288.Google Scholar

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16 Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921, Inquiries Act 2005.

17 Council on Tribunals 1996, Public Administration Select Committee, Government by Inquiry, p. 66.

18 At the time of writing these lines, the most recent formal document on this matter is the 2005 Inquiries Act, in which Section 1(1) states only that “A Minister may cause an inquiry to be held under this Act in relation to a case where it appears to him that: (a) particular events have caused, or are capable of causing, public concern, or (b) there is public concern that particular events may have occurred.

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22 Sulitzeanu-Kenan, Raanan, ‘Scything the Grass: Agenda Setting Consequences of Appointing Public Inquiries in the UK – A Longitudinal Analysis’, Policy & Politics, 35 (2007), 629650CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hood, Christopher, Jennings, Will, Dixon, Ruth, Hogwood, Brian and Beeston, Craig, ‘Testing Times: Exploring Staged Responses and the Impact of Blame Management Strategies in Two Exam Fiasco Cases’, European Journal of Political Research, 48 (2009), 695722.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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24 In addition, it has been argued that the appointment of an inquiry serves to ‘block’ other investigative procedures – e.g., of parliamentary committees or criminal proceedings – as a result of rules and conventions governing conflicts of institutional investigative authority and freedom of speech, and particularly of the press (e.g., sub judice): Elliot, and McGuinness, , ‘Public Inquiry’, p. 21Google Scholar; Flinders, , The Politics of Accountability in the Modern State, p. 164Google Scholar; Kremnitzer, ‘The Landau Commission Report’; Polidano, ‘An Exocet in a Red Box’.

25 Tsebelis, George, Nested Games: Rational Choice in Comparative Perspective (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), p. 93.Google Scholar

26 Former Deputy Prime Minister Lord Heseltine in his testimony before the British Public Administration Select Committee, Public Administration Select Committee, Government by Inquiry, p. 9; See also Brown, , ‘Iain Duncan Smith has missed an open goal’, p. 14Google Scholar; Parker, and Dekker, , ‘September 11 and Post Crisis Investigation’Google Scholar.

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28 As quoted by Hunt, , ‘Determined effort to suppress Burgess and Maclean affair’.Google Scholar

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30 Weaver, , ‘The Politics of Blame Avoidance’, p. 380Google Scholar; see also Arnold, Douglas R., The Logic of Congressional Action (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1990)Google Scholar.

31 For a review of this literature, see Soroka, Stuart N., ‘Good News and Bad News: Asymmetric Responses to Economic Information’, Journal of Politics, 68 (2006), 372375CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For the psychological basis of this social phenomenon, see Tversky, Amos and Kahneman, Daniel, ‘The Framing of Decisions and the Psychology of Choice’, Science, 211 (1981), 453CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

32 In the fields of procedural and legislative choices in the US Congress: Weaver, ‘The Politics of Blame Avoidance’; Arnold, The Logic of Congressional Action; for the delegation in politics and bureaucracy: Fiorina, Morris P., ‘Legislative Choice of Regulatory Forms: Legal Process or Administrative Process?’, Public Choice, 39 (1982), 3366CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Ellis, Richard J., Presidential Lightning Rods: The Politics of Blame Avoidance (Kansas: University of Kansas Press, 1994)Google Scholar; Hood, Christopher, ‘The Risk Game and the Blame Game’, Government and Opposition, 37 (2002), 1537CrossRefGoogle Scholar; for welfare policy changes: Pierson, Paul, ‘The New Politics of the Welfare State’, World Politics, 48 (1996), 143179CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Ross, Fiona, ‘“Beyond Left and Right”: The New Partisan Politics of Welfare’, Governance, 13 (2000), 155183CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and for risk regulation: Twight, Charlotte, ‘From Claiming Credit to Avoiding Blame: The Evolution of Congressional Strategy for Asbestos Management’, Journal of Public Policy, 11 (1991), 153186CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hood, Christopher, Rothstein, Henry and Baldwin, Robert, The Government of Risk (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Another strand of studies has concentrated on the activities of office holders when faced with a critical audience: Bovens, et al. , ‘The Politics of Blame Avoidance’; Brändström and Kuipers, ‘From “Normal Incidents” to Political Crises’Google Scholar; and their effectiveness in mitigating blame: McGraw, Kathleen M., ‘Managing Blame: An Experimental Test of the Effects of Political Accounts’, American Political Science Review, 85 (1991), 11331157CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

33 Arceneaux, Kevin, ‘The Conditional Impact of Blame Attribution on the Relationship between Economic Adversity and Turnout’, Political Research Quarterly, 56 (2003), 6371CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Javeline, Debra, ‘The Role of Blame in Collective Action: Evidence from Russia’, American Political Science Review, 97 (2003), 107121CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Lau, Richard R. and Sears, David O., ‘Cognitive Links between Economic Grievances and Political Responses’, Political Behavior, 3 (1981), 279301CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Peffley, Mark, ‘The Voter as Juror: Attribution Responsibility for Economic Conditions’, in Heinz Eulau and Michael S. Lewis-Beck, eds, Economic Conditions and Electoral Outcomes: The United States and Western Europe (New York: Agathon, 1985), pp. 187206Google Scholar; Peffley, Mark and Williams, John T., ‘Attributing Presidential Responsibility for National Economics Problems’, American Politics Quarterly, 13 (1985), 393425CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Rudolph, Thomas J. and Grant, Tobin, ‘An Attributional Model of Economic Voting: Evidence from the 2000 Presidential Election’, Political Research Quarterly, 55 (2002), 805823CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Rudolph, Thomas J., ‘Who's Responsible for the Economy? The Formation and Consequences of Responsibility Attribution’, American Journal of Political Science, 47 (2003), 698713CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Stein, Robert M., ‘Economic Voting for Governor and U.S. Senator: The Electoral Consequences of Federalism’, Journal of Politics, 52 (1990), 2953CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

34 One exception is Hood, et al. , ‘Testing Times’.Google Scholar

35 Justifications ‘deny some or any measure of offensiveness in the act for which the individual admits responsibility’ ( McGraw, Kathleen M., ‘Managing Blame: An Experimental Test of the Effects of Political Accounts’, American Political Science Review, 85 (1991), 11331157, p. 1136.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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43 For example, Shepsle et al. describe the 1991 pay raise bill in the US Senate, which was passed by building a coalition of senators that did not include most of those who faced re-election in 1992 ( Shepsle, Kenneth A., Dickson, Eric S. and Van Houweling, Robert P., ‘Bargaining in Legislatures with Overlapping Generations of Politicians’ (unpublished paper, Harvard University, Department of Government, 2004)).Google Scholar

44 These include: government popularity; indicator variables for the identity of the prime minister; and an indicator variable for issues that have previously been on the agenda as inquiry-issues.

45 The broadsheets were selected based on the availability in the Lexis-Nexis database in different years: January–July 1984: Financial Times (the only period for which only one newspaper was used); August 1984 – June 1985: Financial Times and Guardian; July 1985 – December 1988: Guardian and The Times; 1989 – 2003: The Times and Independent.

46 The identification of an ‘inquiry’ followed the six criteria adopted from Sulitzeanu-Kenan, ‘If They Get it Right’, p. 5. A similar method was employed by Dewan, Torun and Dowding, Keith, ‘The Corrective Effect of Ministerial Resignations on Government Popularity’, American Journal of Political Science, 49 (2005), 4655CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Dowding, Keith and Kang, Won Taek, ‘Ministerial Resignations 1945–97’, Public Administration, 76 (1998), 411429CrossRefGoogle Scholar, for their studies of ministerial resignations.

47 Mahoney, James and Goertz, Gary, ‘The Possibility Principle: Choosing Negative Cases in Comparative Research’, American Political Science Review, 98 (2004), 653669.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

48 For example, the 1972 ‘Bloody Sunday’ incident, which indeed had a second inquiry; and the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, which did not receive a second inquiry.

49 Variations in the number of non-inquired issues are visually evident, yet no significant differences were found between election and non-election periods, between prime ministers, and between government terms.

50 King, Gary and Zeng, Langche, ‘Logistic Regression in Rare Event Data’, Political Analysis, 6 (2001), 137163, p. 142CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Lilienfeld, David E. and Stolley, Paul D., Foundations of Epidemiology, 3rd edn (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 229Google Scholar.

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52 King, and Zeng, , ‘Logistic Regression in Rare Event Data’, p. 144.Google Scholar

53 The original coding instructions included four categories. The first two – ‘private individuals or corporations’ and ‘local authorities’ were merged into one category – ‘remote blame’ (see coding instruction in Appendix 1).

54 Treating the coding as nominal data resulted in Krippendorff’s α = 0.6292, well below the lower limit of the 95 per cent confidence interval (0.7026), providing support to the coders’ ordinal conceptions. See Hayes, Andrew F. and Krippendorff, Klaus, ‘Answering the Call for a Standard Reliability Measure for Coding Data’, Communication Methods and Measures, 1 (2007), 7789.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

55 Even when a specific event is asked about, the question rarely appears more than once.

56 Rogers, Everett M. and Dearing, James W., ‘Agenda-Setting Research: Where Has It Been, Where Is It Going?’ in Communication Yearbook 11 (Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage, 1988), pp. 555594Google Scholar; Soroka, Stuart N., ‘Issue Attributes and Agenda-Setting by Media, the Public, and Policymakers in Canada’, International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 14 (2002), 264285.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

57 This measure is a simplified index of media salience, after pre-tests have suggested that the use of a more complex index, which included the number of words per article and placement in the newspaper added very little information (5 per cent).

58 Comparing the media salience of twenty inquiry issues between the Independent and The Times (averaged) to the Daily Mail (including the Sunday editions of all three newspapers) yielded a strong and significant correlation: r = 0.807, p < 0.001.

59 For example, in the Dunblane shooting of 1996, and following the death of Dr David Kelly in 2003.

60 For another use of (more distant) future conditions as a predictor of current behaviour, see Smith, Alastair, Election Timing (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 113.Google Scholar

61 Sulitzeanu-Kenan, , ‘Scything the Grass’; Hood et al., ‘Testing Times’.Google Scholar

62 Smith, , Election Timing, pp. 91, 137, 181.Google Scholar

63 Boin, et al. , The Politics of Crisis Management.Google Scholar

64 With low salience, the association was insignificant, and it is only at higher salience levels, a positive relationship is reported.

65 The research period is almost equally divided among the three prime ministers: Thatcher, seven years; Major, 6.5 years; and Blair, 6.5 years.

66 Baron, , Thinking and Deciding, p. 468.Google Scholar

67 Bazerman, Max H., Judgment in Managerial Decision Making, 3rd edn (Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley, 1994), pp. 8687.Google Scholar

68 Additional political variables were included in early analyses (see below), yet were omitted from the analysis reported here: overall time-trend, government term, and early/late term of a prime minister.

69 Using the corrected regression constant based on the fraction of inquiries in the population (τ = 0.066) ( King, and Zeng, , ‘Logistic Regression in Rare Event Data’Google Scholar), and for median media salience (3.25), modal election period (0), mean electoral support (−0.25), modal prime minister (Major), and modal previous refusal (0).

70 Following a similar method, when holding blame attribution at its modal – remote blame.

71 King, and Zeng, , ‘Logistic Regression in Rare Event Data’.Google Scholar

72 Harcup, Tony and O'Neill, Deirdre, ‘What Is News? Galtung and Ruge Revisited’, Journalism Studies, 2 (2002), 261280.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

73 The ‘casualty × previous refusal’ interaction term was significant (p < 0.001).

74 Sobel, M.E. , ‘Asymptotic Confidence Intervals for Indirect Effects in Structural Equation models’, in S. Leinhart, ed., Sociological Methodology (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass), pp. 290312.Google Scholar

75 For this analysis the ‘Interactive Calculation Tool for Mediation Tests’ (Preacher and Leonardelli) was used (see http://www.people.ku.edu/~preacher/sobel/sobel.htm). Regression coefficients and standard errors were provided by linear regressions for the association between casualty number and media salience; and between casualty number, media salience and P(I), for ‘first instances’ cases only (n = 93).

76 Mahoney, and Goertz, , ‘The Possibility Principle’.Google Scholar

77 Borrowing the terminology of Maor, ‘Feeling the Heat?’

78 Gove, Michael, ‘The question for Hutton is, do we need his inquiry at all?’ The Times, 12 August 2003.Google Scholar

79 Salmon, Tribunals of Inquiry; Drewry, Gavin, ‘Judicial Inquiries and Public Reassurance’, Public Law, Autumn (1996), 368383, p. 369Google Scholar; Flinders, , The Politics of Accountability, p. 160Google Scholar.

80 Jenkins, , ‘A Tragedy of Errors’; McLean and Johnes, Aberfan; McLean and Johnes, ‘Regulation Run Mad’; Woodhouse, ‘Matrix Churchill’.Google Scholar

81 Gill, Kerry, ‘Lockerbie ‘warning’ produced’, The Times, 15 March 1989Google Scholar; Cohen, Nick, ‘The Lockerbie disaster: Channon accused of lying over Lockerbie alert’, Independent, 15 March 1989Google Scholar.

82 Birkland, Thomas A., ‘Learning and Policy Improvement After Crisis’, American Behavioral Scientists, 48 (2004), 341364CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Boin, et al. , The Politics of Crisis ManagementGoogle Scholar; Wildavsky, Aharon B., Speaking Truth to Power: The Art and Craft of Policy Analysis (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1984)Google Scholar.

83 Boin, and Hart, ’t, ‘Public Leadership in Times of Crisis’Google Scholar; Boin, et al. , The Politics of Crisis Management; Maor, ‘Feeling the Heat?’; Moynihan, ‘Learning under Uncertainty’Google Scholar.

45
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