Outside of the academy, public inquiries are regularly vilified as costly wastes of time that illuminate very little. Social scientists echo similar concerns, describing inquiries variously as hollow rituals, agenda management tools, props for political theatre or sites for unhelpful blame games. These commentaries, however, are united by more than their pessimism. They also lack robust evidence and an understanding of contemporary public policy and governance dynamics. In response, this paper draws on policy learning theory and an international comparison of inquiries in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom in order to: 1) reconceptualise the public inquiry to better recognize twenty-first century politics and policy; 2) evaluate the worth of inquiries as a lesson-learning mechanism; 3) test a range of conventional claims found in inquiry scholarship, such as the well-rehearsed argument that legal-judicial logics within inquiries prejudice lesson-learning. The findings in all three areas suggest that we need to reconsider a great deal of what we think we know about these important institutions. 

Dr. Alastair Stark is a public policy lecturer in the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland. He is the author of Risk and Crisis Management in the Public Sector(Routledge, 2015) and PublicInquiries, Policy Learning and the Threat of Future Crises(Oxford University Press, 2018). Dr. Stark has published widely on public policy, governance and deliberative democracy in leading political science journals including Public Administration,Governanceand the Journal of European Public Policy. He currently holds two ARC Discovery Awards in relation to projects that examine deliberative democracy in the context of social and environmental policy and the implementation of Royal Commission recommendations in Australia.

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