Royal commission recommendations: processes to ensure they are implemented


How realistic are the prospects of the Hayne Royal Commission’s 76 recommendations being implemented, ask Peter Wilkins and John Phillimore.

So we now have the 76 recommendations of the Hayne Royal Commission and debate and lobbying is underway on their merits. The government has agreed to take action on all the recommendations and the opposition has accepted them all in principle.

But what are the prospects of them being implemented? There is evidence from past inquiries on both counts to raise doubts.

For instance, the 2016 Redfern Statement by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peak organisations observed that over the past 25 years a variety of reports had made over 400 recommendations in relation to Indigenous policy, “… most of which have either been partially implemented for short term periods or ignored altogether”.

In a rare exercise assembling quantitative evidence across a range of reports, research conducted for the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse rated the extent to which recommendations of previous relevant inquiries had been implemented. It found that out of 288 recommendations, 48% were implemented in full and 16% partially. Twenty-one percent were rated as not implemented, and the implementation status of 14% could not be determined.

A difficult time for the government

“Should (the government) always accept and commit to implementing all the recommendations, without any detailed assessment of their merit, the cost of implementation, and the prospect of possible unintended consequences?”

Receiving and releasing a Royal Commission report can be a difficult time for the government.

Should it always accept and commit to implementing all the recommendations, without any detailed assessment of their merit, the cost of implementation, and the prospect of possible unintended consequences?

It is even more challenging when there are significant time and political pressures, such as when the report is released in the lead-up to an election.

In the current case, the opposition promised that it would seek to carry out all the recommendations even before it knew their contents and reportedly stated that “both sides of politics will need a “very, very, very good reason” not to adopt any findings”, and that the “… default position should be if the royal commission recommends it, it shall be done” (Financial Review, January 23).

The government responded to the commission in a matter of just a few days, without having the opportunity to fully consider the details of the recommendations, although it would have had a good idea of what they were likely to be from the interim report released in late September last year.

It is unlikely that there is a single model for following up recommendations that maximises the prospects for meaningful change. But there are a few examples where this has been addressed specifically.

For instance, the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse recommended that there be five annual reports commencing 12 months after the tabling of the Final Report on the implementation of recommendations made, and that a review be conducted after a further five years to establish the extent of the implementation of recommendations and to examine the extent to which the measures taken have been effective.

Along similar lines, the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) recommended in 2009 that there should be statutory provisions requiring that government publish “… an update on implementation of recommendations that it accepts one year after the tabling of the final report of a Royal Commission or Official Inquiry; and periodically thereafter to reflect any ongoing implementation activity”.

Follow-up processes need to be designed carefully so that they do not impede change processes and ongoing service delivery. A presentation by the lead author revealed the immense frustration of public servants who at times face wave after wave of reports with overlapping recommendations that they feel are not sufficiently sensitive to the context in which they operate. How are they to progress implementation and report separately for a plethora of overlapping and at times obsolete recommendations?

Commissioner Hayne’s terms of reference did not specifically ask him to identify processes for implementation and follow-up of his substantive recommendations and nor did he choose to do so.

Regulatory oversight

“We believe it is important that research be undertaken that looks at the follow-up and impact of recommendations made by independent inquiries.”

It might be argued that the recommendations beefing up the role of regulators will see that the recommendations are in fact implemented. And the recommendation to create a new authority independent of government to provide oversight to the effectiveness of each regulator could be seen as reinforcing the pressure to implement Commissioner Hayne’s recommendations. But are these provisions sufficient to ensure that there is accountability and transparency regarding implementation?

We believe it is important that research be undertaken that looks at the follow-up and impact of recommendations made by independent inquiries. Integrity agencies such as ombudsmen and auditors general might be a good place to start. Their practices might be expected to show more refined approaches to ensuring meaningful change, as they are continuing institutions, produce an ongoing stream of reports and are in a good position to learn from similar organisations across Australia and overseas.

Such research should be set in the context of international best practice so that the conclusions can help inform practitioners and researchers involved in developing, implementing and following up recommendations in a wide range of inquiries, including royal commissions.

Dr Peter Wilkins is an adjunct professor at Curtin University with the John Curtin Institute of Public Policy. He served as Western Australia’s deputy ombudsman from 2008 to 2012, and prior to this had been WA assistant auditor-general — performance review.

Professor John Phillimore is the executive director of the John Curtin Institute of Public Policy at Curtin University. He has 30 years’ experience working in universities and as a senior adviser to government ministers in Western Australia.


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