How to make best use of an inquiry report
The Commonwealth Treasurer assigns Inquiries to the Productivity Commission via formal Terms of Reference which specify topic and timing. The Productivity Commission Act 1998 outlines the powers and processes of Inquiries and the general obligation on the Commission to frame its response to support the overall economic performance of the nation, along with other guiding factors.
The Commission publishes its Inquiry reports in digital and non-digital forms, in order to maximise the audience access to the analysis and conclusions established in the course of an Inquiry. One of the statutory obligations on the Commission is to promote public understanding of matters relating to its reports.
Inquiries are often 12 month long processes, and always involve multiple rounds of written submissions as well as public hearings or discussion processes and a draft Report.
Reports are often lengthy documents, containing a substantial bank of information in support of the recommendations made and detail on how the analysis was conducted. Some interested parties find the detail a burden. However, the objective of the Commission is to provide in one location both short-form summaries of its Inquiry results and full, comprehensive detail of how these were obtained.
While immediate understanding of the outcome of an Inquiry is highly desirable, it is not the only objective. Reports are equally designed for the long term, and it is not unusual for aspects of an Inquiry report to still be cited in public policy development ten years or more after its conclusion.
The reason for this is simple, and significant: it is rare to have a comprehensive examination of the breadth and depth of the work undertaken by the Commission, and even if not immediately implemented, the work itself should be of a quality that it can stand the test of time.
For those interested primarily in the conclusions, an Inquiry Report has as its early pages a Key Points summary, usually a single page; an Overview, which contains the broad narrative of report; and the Recommendations.
These three elements are constructed such that a sound general understanding what, how and why a Report came to certain conclusions should be communicated effectively.
Since the objective is primarily to assist the time-poor reader, making the often complex into a simple form where possible, the language used may differ to a degree from that in the main text of the report, although every effort is made to ensure that differences are not material.
The main report
The chapters that make up the bulk of the report are designed to take each significant aspect of the topic - as determined by the Terms of Reference, inquiry submissions, application of well-established economic or social science, public debate and the expertise of the Commission — and in a manner consistent with good analytical practice, review and conclude on what the evidence gathered suggests are the issues of main public policy relevance and how to address them.
Chapter sequencing is often designed to match the narrative in the Overview, but this is not a rule that can always be followed in practice.
For readers seeking more detail on a particular aspect of the report, the relevant chapter (chapter numbers match those cited in the recommendation, for example) is a good place to start.
Each chapter starts with a single page of points that attempt to provide a sense of the key policy relevant results from the chapter. The logic behind a conclusion or recommendation should be evident from the chapter Key Points, unless complexity demands that a reader go to the relevant sub-chapter.
Each chapter documents the sources used, to assist future researchers or policy-makers who may be undertaking related work or considering how to implement a recommendation.
Most final reports contain Appendices and/or Technical Supplements, which outline the technical work — economic modelling, surveys, in-depth consideration of studies by others, and other material that backs up the report chapters.
The Commission is obliged to use modelling in some of its Inquiries. While the numbers that emerge from models are often used by some as a short-hand way of summing up an Inquiry, it is rare for a model to be as conclusive as this implies.
Models are most often useful tools for placing boundaries around the probable net benefits results of policy change (or costs of not making change), but they are often limited by their very nature.
Documenting the models used and stating their limitations is not only good practice, but enables other researchers or public policy analysts to vary the model and test their own assumptions. Too rarely, today, is this done by strongly self-interested groups, despite the models being published for this purpose.
The Commission also often provides key data sets relevant to an inquiry for others to use for their own purposes.