Book chapter

Blame Avoidance and Crisis Inquiries (2020)

in: Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics

Abstract

Public inquiries are ad hoc institutions, formally external to the executive branch, established by governments or a minister for the task of investigating crises, policy failures, or disasters. Inquiries play an important role in the aftermath of crisis by serving as instruments of accountability and policy learning. Yet the very existence and function of public inquiries are shaped by post crisis politics, in which public and politically independent inquiries create risks to potentially implicated players, who seek to avoid and mitigate potential blame. The blame-avoidance literature indeed provides a useful theoretical framework for the study of public inquiries. Empirical studies suggest that blame-attribution patterns are predictive of the political decision of whether to appoint an inquiry into a crisis. Studies of the effects of inquiries on public opinion show that, at the investigation stage, the institutional attributes of inquiries foster their legitimacy as a procedure for policy learning and accountability. However, after an inquiry reports its findings, members of the public can evaluate the report, rendering institutional attributes negligible in evaluating the inquiry. As for the effects of inquiries on the public agenda, existing evidence provides no support for a quantitative effect of inquiry appointment on the level of media coverage of a crisis. An integrated analysis of these findings offers an up-to-date theory of the political role of post crisis inquiries and points to some current gaps in our understanding of them.