Public Inquiries are significant, authoritative institutions established by governments to address some of the most important and controversial issues in public policy and society. Inquiries are powerful mechanisms to investigate and advise on matters of public concern. They are designed to right wrongs and address egregious breaches of public trust. However, Public Inquiries are not just tools of government. They are also tools of society, and they express a significant dimension of the social contract, the reciprocal acceptance of obligations between citizens and their government. Public Inquiries often respond to crises, scandals, or the incremental development of inadequacies, which violate public expectations of the reciprocal obligations between State and citizens.
The central objective of this thesis is to assess the success of Public Inquiries in Australia. Public administration scholars and political scientists generally contemplate success from the point of view of government. This is problematic because it has resulted in less than adequate recognition of the ‘public interest or common good’ served by Public Inquiries (Prasser and Tracey 2014, p. 227). On the basis of illustrative case studies, the thesis argues that including citizen perspectives provides a powerful means by which to assess the success of Public Inquiries in repairing breaches of societal expectations.
The literature review (Chapter 2) is utilised systematically to distil three recurring propositions regarding the assessment of success of Public Inquiries. These propositions suggest that an assessment of the success of a Public Inquiry should examine the ways in which a Public Inquiry:
• has responded to a crisis and restored legitimacy;
• given voice to the public, including stakeholders, ‘victims’ or experts; and
• provided the opportunity for policy change and improved outcomes.
Based on these three propositions, and their theoretical foundations, an analytical framework is derived to assess the success of Public Inquiries (Chapter 3). Three Public Inquiries are selected as case studies for analysis, each corresponding to a distinct ‘type’ of Public Inquiry. The first type is the ‘Investigatory Inquiry’ (Inquiry into Certain Australian Companies in Relation to the UN Oil for Food Programme 2006; Chapter 4). The second type is the ‘Policy Advisory Inquiry’ (Queensland Child Protection Commission of Inquiry 2013; Chapter 5). The third type is the ‘Hybrid Inquiry’ (Queensland Floods Commission of Inquiry 2012, Chapter 6). The analytical framework is applied to each case study (respectively in Chapters 4, 5 and 6).
The thesis then draws out the implications of these findings for scholarship (Chapter 7). For Public Inquiries to be positioned as part of the social contract, the perspectives of citizens could be more effectively incorporated. The case study analyses reveal various proxies or markers of citizen perspectives. These include media commentary, subsequent Inquiries, and legal action. Further analysis of the case studies using these proxies provides significant insights into how citizens assess the success of the Public Inquiry.
The thesis then moves to theory building and argues that despite their many variations, the overarching purpose of a Public Inquiry is to rebuild the social contract after breach. Three enduring functions of Inquiries are identified: to respond; to hear; and to prevent. The analytical framework applied to the three case studies is revised to include citizen perspectives in order to assess success. That is, an assessment of the success of a Public Inquiry should examine three characteristics. First, the ways in which the Public Inquiry is trusted to make sense of the events or the violation of expectations. Second, the ways in which people were heard. Third, the ways in which the Public Inquiry rights wrongs and thus changes policy, processes or outcomes for the better.