Oversight/Review Committee

Norman Schultz

August 2003

Demanding Accountability

Consider this scenario: A government-owned facility used to manufacture radioactive material has recently been shut down. In order to make the site ready for commercial use, it must be cleaned up. The government has invested an enormous amount of time and money researching how best to do this. But the local community has concerns about health effects and environmental degradation and wants to have a say in the cleanup methods and plans for future use of the site. However, the public lacks technical expertise, financial resources, and information needed to investigate alternatives. With incomplete information and insufficient understanding of the issues, the only perceived alternative is to protest.

Of course, the government wants to avoid this situation -- public protest is bad public relations for the government. But the public wasn't involved in all the technical studies, and bringing them up to speed now would be a long and difficult process, perhaps impossible, due to the technical nature of the issues and security clearances needed for access to all the relevant information. However, since its decisions regarding the facility affect the community, the public has a stake in the process. What can be done to give the community confidence that care is being taken and their concerns addressed without starting all over? This kind of factual dilemma is not limited to government projects and sensitive politics. In some conflicts, one side cannot reasonably be expected to employ a fact-finding effort, or add their own personnel to a joint fact-finding endeavor. This may be due to a lack of expertise, resources, or timing issues: if one party already has a long history of research and study on an issue while an opposing party is new on the scene, a new fact-finding effort may equate to reinventing the wheel. Also, research into technically complex and scientifically esoteric fields is often too costly or difficult for community groups.

An Alternative to Fact-Finding

An alternative to fact-finding is to have qualified experts evaluate the content of the research available or oversee it while in progress. In this way, one side's factual information can be checked and verified, with possible impacts for the other side taken into account. This is the purpose of an oversight committee.[1]

Oversight committees are frequently used in technically complex and politically charged conflicts. They are made up of experts in appropriate fields and act as a means of verifying research. An oversight committee attempts to ensure that the research on hand has three central qualities: that it is thorough -- meaning that the science and research methods are solid, that it is complete -- all relevant considerations and alternatives have been taken into account, and that it is objective -- that conflicts of interest and bias are minimized.

Utilizing an oversight committee has several advantages. It is generally much more cost effective compared with forming and implementing a new fact-finding body. Also, since the oversight committee is a separate entity, access to corporate secrets or otherwise classified information can be controlled. Since experts are involved, uninformed bias is kept to a minimum. The oversight committee can also operate as a mediating body between the active organization and the public. In this role, the committee can help the public understand technically complex issues by publishing reports that communicate the facts in ways the public can understand.

The existence of an oversight committee can have an impact on the quality and fairness of fact-finding even before the committee gains access to the relevant information. When research is done in the knowledge that an outside entity will be reviewing the research methods and findings, there is an increased sense of accountability. Government or corporate research entities must ensure the standard of their work is acceptable, especially because in the long run it will be more costly and time-consuming if they are forced to go back and correct mistakes when an oversight committee detects errors or deceptions.

However, oversight committees must seek to avoid what Guy Burgess has called "analysis paralysis," the tendency to want to analyze something forever, in an effort to eliminate all uncertainty before making a decision. Since uncertainty is unavoidable in many scientific inquiries, it is important that oversight committees recognize when the best available research strategies are used, and accept the results from that research as the best obtainable at the time. This allows decisions to be made and actions taken in a timely manner.

[1] This kind of committee can also be called a review committee or a "Blue Ribbon" committee.

Use the following to cite this article:
Schultz, Norman. "Oversight/Review Committee." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: August 2003 <http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/oversight-committee>.

Additional Resources