18: Re-appraising political decisions with the benefit of hindsight

Central and local government reach decisions, for instance on planning matters following public inquiries, which in due course of time may be seen to have been ill-advised and therefore to vindicate opponents who had presented counter arguments. Insofar as there is any subsequent analysis of such an outcome, the politicians involved are usually treated as if they had simply been misguided or mistaken in their judgement rather than having deliberately ignored the public interest for baser reasons such as short-term electoral advantage. It is commonplace to view a regrettable decision as the consequence of an inevitably imperfect process. In effect, it is written off as a lost cause with nothing to learn to make such errors less likely to occur in future. At best, aggrieved opponents may have the minor satisfaction of being able to say at a later date “we told you so”.

Could something more positive be derived that could lead to better decisions being made by adopting a new process of re-appraising past ones? One method that can be proposed would be to choose by public consultation or voting a limited number of key decisions on contentious issues that were reached in the past. An independent scrutiny panel would review the outcome of the original decision, say two, three or four years later, as appropriate. Its aim would be to reach a judgement as to whether the outcome was as originally envisaged and whether the evidence presented at the time had been fair, reliable and objective. It would have similar characteristics to a small House of Commons Select Committee inquiry with all-party representation, but crucially also some co-opted independent members with expertise in any critical aspects of its examination.

Such a procedure could represent an invaluable learning process for politicians, civil servants or council officers, and professional advisers as well as for the general public, especially of course those who represented opposing evidence and views on the issue under review. More optimistically, over time, the experience should result in an improvement of both the process employed and the quality of decision-making.

There can be little doubt too that awareness of the possibility of contentious decisions being re-appraised at some time in the future could encourage all those involved to take their responsibilities more seriously. This would impinge on their consciousness not least owing to their wishing to avoid the risk of exposure of their failure to have acted as they should have done, especially with the prospect of critical media coverage. It could also promote presentation of more carefully prepared evidence from all the parties involved. At present, anyone involved knows that they are unlikely to be held to account for getting things wrong because nobody bothers to “rake over old coals” and that, even if that were to happen, they would be likely to be out of office, retired or dead by the time that their decisions or the grounds for their objection were evaluated.

Originally published in Future Perfect: A Compendium of the World’s Greatest Ideas (ed. Nick Temple et al.), 2002. (Learning from re-examining past decisions to improve the quality of future ones.)

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