One lesson of the terrible Black Saturday fires in Victoria was that lines of communication can break down, with tragic consequences. Information which may have been available to some did not reach and so could not inform the decisions of those who had to act.
The recently-released interim report of the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission is in many ways an impressive achievement, produced on a tight schedule.
Ironically, however, the report is itself marred by broken lines of communication. In this case, they are the threads of argument relating the mass of information provided in the chapters with the Commission’s general recommendations.
For example, the Commission has in effect concluded that the controversial “stay or go” policy should be retained, though in modified form (Rec. 7.1). But what exactly is the case for retaining this policy as opposed, for example, to “leave early,” which they acknowledge is “unquestionably the safest course”?
Presumably the Report’s authors understand the case well enough, but nowhere have they succinctly and transparently laid it out. Relevant parts are scattered through Chapter 7, but considerable effort needed to pull them out and reconstruct them into a coherent whole.
The Commission has given us a kind of logical jigsaw puzzle, but where many of the pieces don’t belong to the puzzle at all and others are missing entirely.
What is the standard or benchmark against which this complaint is being made?
Simply this: that for any significant conclusion or recommendation, the ordinary reader ought to be able to tell, reliably and without inordinate effort,
(a) what are the main lines of argument for or against it, and for or against any salient alternative;
(b) what is the detailed evidence backing up each of those lines of arguments
(c) why the recommended option is on balance more strongly supported.
The Report consistently fails to meet this mundane standard. It is, in fact, a document only a lawyer could love.
Deficiencies of this kind are common in official reports, but they can have very serious consequences.
First, and most importantly, the Commission may have made some errors of judgement. We trust the Commission to base every recommendation on due consideration of all relevant arguments. If it had those arguments clearly before its collective mind, then there should be no trouble presenting them in easily digestible form in the Report. Conversely, if the Commission does not or cannot present them succinctly and transparently, then what confidence can we have that they were ever properly considered?
Second, recommendations may fail to be adopted. A case that cannot be identified or understood cannot be properly appreciated, and the recommendation may be unjustly rejected or neglected.
Third, the Commission may suffer in the court of public opinion. Those inclined to disagree with a recommendation, unable to divine the Commission’s sweet logic, will suspect it of stupidity, ignorance, malice, cowardice or perhaps even involvement in some conspiracy.
As it happens, the Victorian government has indicated that it will be accepting all the Commission’s recommendations. However it is not at all clear that it did so because it clearly understood the Commission’s reasoning and recognized the compelling force of the arguments. Rather, acceptance may have been driven primarily by political imperatives. And it may in fact be accepting some ill-justified recommendations.
Granted, the interim report is only a staging point in the Commission’s process. We can hope – and justifiably expect – that the final report will be much improved in this regard.
Fortunately the problem should not be difficult to fix. It does not entail drastic changes to the form or substance of the report. Rather, the simple addition of “case summaries” would largely do the trick.
Every significant conclusion or recommendation ought to have associated with it a succinct and transparent summary of the reasoning on which it is based, a summary satisfying the basic requirements listed above. It is not crucial where the case summary appears; it could be a in sidebar in the chapter body, directly alongside the recommendation, or in an appendix. What is crucial is that it be easily found, and easily followed.
Simple “user testing” will show whether the case summary approach is working. Show a draft report to a handful of ordinary readers and simply ask them to find and explain the basis for any given recommendation or conclusion.
Australia has just been experiencing record-smashing winter temperatures, consistent with dire predictions of global warming and its impacts. We should anticipate that the bushfire conditions of February 2009 will recur frequently. The conclusions of the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission will be of national significance for decades to come.
Given the enormous investment of public resources in the Commission, the extra cost and effort required to address this problem of logical transparency would be negligible. An appropriate commitment to logical housekeeping in the final report may help to save resources, property and many lives later on.