What Can the Private Sector Learn from Public Inquiries and Investigations?

July 2023

The United Kingdom has an extensive history of conducting public inquiries, seeking to uncover the truth and hold institutions and individuals accountable. Between 1990 and 2017, 68 public inquiries were launched.

Inquiries and investigations are now a perennial part of political life. With this comes heightening media attention and scrutiny. June 2023 has been no exception, with the Covid-19 Inquiry and The House of Commons’ Committee of Privileges final report into the conduct of Boris Johnson being the subject of widespread media coverage.

Nevertheless, despite its significant experience in conducting public inquiries and investigations, the UK is accused of failing on a number of fronts. It is an opportune moment for the private investigations sector to analyse and learn from these problem areas.

The Cost and Delay of Public Inquiries

Public inquiries are widely criticized for their high costs and protracted timeframes.

According to the Institute for Government, the total costs of public inquiries conducted between 1990 and 2017 exceeded £639 million. The primary expense of most public inquiries is the investigative team. In its financial report for the year ending March 2021, the Infected Blood Inquiry disclosed that it had spent £19,450,440 on a 249-member investigative team. This amounted to nearly 60% of its total spending during this period.

The costs are unsurprising when considering the scope and divisive nature of the matters addressed in public inquiries and investigations. Another notable example is the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, which took 12 years to complete at a cost of £192 million.

Nevertheless, these costs are aggravated further by the length of time investigations last. Despite the Covid-19 Inquiry launching in May 2021, optimistic speculations estimate that the final report will be published in 2027.

The media have been quick to criticise the UK’s procedures in this regard, pointing to the efficiency of Sweden. Having conducted an inquiry of the same nature, they published their final report into the COVID-19 pandemic on 25th February 2022. However, this comparison is oversimplified, ignoring the complications which arise from a devolved political system, population numbers and the UK media’s tendency to engage in inflammatory rhetoric.

It remains the case that the current UK system is hindering the timely resolution of issues. Such delays can compromise the integrity of intelligence gathering and invalidate the ultimate objectives of an investigation. This has been reflected in the Grenfell Tower Inquiry, where the public still awaits the publication of its final report, more than six years after the event occurred.

Efficiency is crucial to a successful investigation. Employing streamlined processes, leveraging technology, and maintaining focus on a timely delivery ensures that clients are in an optimal position. This is even more important in the current geo-political climate, where timely, reliable and actionable information is needed in order to address ever-changing considerations and threats.

The Integrity of Public Inquiries

In recent years, the procedural integrity and impartiality of public inquiries has been questioned. A survey conducted by Crest Advisory in 2022, found that 47% of those questioned were ‘somewhat confident’ of an inquiry’s independence from government, 30% ‘not very confident’, and 7% were ‘not at all confident’.

The threat of partiality has been seen as another contributing factor to the public’s distrust of public inquiries. Within its first week of hearings, the Covid-19 Inquiry was already plagued with allegations of bias. The inquiry’s leading council, Hugo Keith KC, gave a statement in which he asserted that Brexit has worsened the pandemic’s impact. Mr Keith’s remarks were made prior to the inquiry beginning their evidence gathering, leading journalists to accuse him of already deciding “the truth”.

The difficulty of maintaining impartiality is further aggravated by media pressure and the court of public opinion. The public inquiry into the death of Alexander Litvinenko exemplifies this. The conclusion that he was “probably” murdered on the personal orders of Vladimir Putin has been marred by allegations of misinformation, unreliability and bias. In instances when the media and public have drawn their own conclusions, adhering to due process becomes especially difficult. Even in instances where integrity has been upheld, the public’s acceptance of an inquiry’s findings is not guaranteed.

Following on, ensuring trust in the findings of any inquiry or investigation requires a careful balance between confidentiality and transparency. The UK Supreme Court acknowledged the importance of transparency for “sound decision-making, accountability and development”, whilst also recognising that confidentiality is essential for informants’ trust and safety. The same complication applies to those in the private sector, especially when looking at organisational culture and allegations of sexual misconduct by powerful institutional figures.

As a matter of course, every investigation brings its own nuances, and thus must be assessed on a case-by-case basis. However, as is clear from public inquiries and investigations, disclosing the fact-based reasoning and process through which a decision is reached is sacrosanct to any investigation.

The Lessons to be Learnt

Pursuing any inquiry and investigation in the current media landscape and geopolitical climate is an unforgiving process. It requires a balance of seemingly irreconcilable factors. Delivering timely and cost-efficient conclusions must be balanced against ensuring every stakeholder and subject matter is given adequate consideration. The foundations of a judgment must be justified impartially and transparently whilst also ensuring subject or whistleblower confidentiality.

Nevertheless, the task is not impossible. Unlike the public sector, private investigations firms can rapidly react and adapt to novel circumstances and industry standards. They can tailor the scope of investigations to focus on matters most relevant to a client’s or regulator’s needs. Under the confines of confidentiality, conclusions can be drawn without unhelpful media and public pressures.

The result is the efficient delivery of an investigation, ensuring that clients are provided with reliable and trustworthy information in an ever-changing global landscape.

Quintel has a particular pedigree in this area, having conducted institutional investigations for regulated law firms, listed companies and global sporting institutions. For support in institutional investigations, contact