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Rosemary Shipton

Commission of Inquiry Reports: A Special Kind of Editing

Most projects we editors take on involve editing only, but if you’re in the mood for a stretch and enjoy the challenge of handling many different tasks, try editing the reports of commissions of inquiry.

These commissions are appointed every now and again by the federal or one of the provincial governments to investigate and make recommendations relating to a disaster (such as an air crash) or a systemic problem (for example, drug use in sports) within its jurisdiction, in the hope that similar tragedies can be prevented from happening again. They follow a precise mandate setting out the parameters of the particular inquiry and the date the report is due. The commissioners selected to lead inquiries are almost always esteemed judges, often from a superior court, and they become responsible for most aspects of the inquiry for its duration — from finding office space to appointing senior and junior counsel to organizing public hearings and writing the report.

Every commission is different in the issue under investigation and in the top-level people appointed to see it through to completion. In all probability, none of them have been involved in a commission before, and they come together to work intensively over a period of months, if not a few years, and to deliver a thorough, often multi-volume report setting out their research, findings and recommendations in both official languages by a predetermined date.

If the topic is large and complicated, the government concerned may appoint an administrator (ideally one with some experience in these sporadic entities) to look after that side of the commission, including the appointment of editors in both languages and also translators. Frequently, however, there is no official administrator, and the commissioner asks around for recommendations. Once appointed, the editors, as the publication specialists on the team, become responsible not only for editing the report at all levels but also for finding and liaising with the translators and editors in the other language, for scheduling the progress of the report to ensure that it comes out on time and for dealing with the production staff for design and layout.

Ideally, the editors will be appointed as the hearings stage of the inquiry is nearing its end and before the commissioner and the legal staff begin to write the report. Commission of inquiry reports benefit greatly in organization and form from sound structural editing advice — to the point where presentation can make the difference between an effective, well-received report and an ineffective one that collects dust on the shelf. It is best, then, if at least one member of the editing team has good experience in this specialized work and is familiar with its conventions and process. Given the tight schedule and the length of most reports (some of which have volumes of research studies as well), it is also imperative to have two or three editors on the team — ideally people who are used to working well together. With multiple authors and editors participating, they must devise ways early on to establish a uniform voice, tone and style and, by means of an elaborate guide they develop, to keep the text consistent. In the final flurry of changes toward the end, they must ensure that the report comes out exactly the same in both languages.

To give but a couple of examples of how beneficial it is to have experienced editors advising the commissioner, let’s consider the two key parts of any commission report: the executive summary and the recommendations. They are read by everyone who is interested in the report in any way, while the detailed chapters and appendices are considered in depth only by people implicitly affected by the problem and by the legislators and regulators responsible for implementing the report. The executive summary, despite its title, should not be a summary of the whole report, start to finish. That would not be effective for its most significant purpose — to feed the journalists covering the report on the day of its release the information they require to do the job well. In a few succinct pages, this summary must provide an overview of the context for the commission, the highlights of its findings during the research/interview/hearings stages and the major recommendations going into the future. It must be a persuasive overview of the commission and its work, not a mere summary of the detailed report.

Similarly, the recommendations must be a convincing document, setting out in logical order the commissioner’s suggestions on the specific problem at hand for the incumbent government — perhaps not the same government that appointed the commission. They should provide a narrative that makes sense on its own, though each recommendation should be linked to the section of the report that led to it so that readers who want further information can easily find the context and details they need. From a practical point of view, the recommendations will be far more effective if they are clear and direct, focus on reforms the government can actually make, and assign responsibility for implementing them to specific officials or institutions.

Through the 16 commission of inquiry reports that my two business partners and I have worked on over the years, I have learned a lot about topics I knew nothing of before: the blood system in Canada, conflict of interest in government, mine disasters, mall collapses, pediatric forensic pathology, Fraser River salmon and crowd control during G8 conferences, to name but a few. Above all, I have come to respect commissioners and their legal and expert teams enormously for their dedication and willingness to work extremely hard to produce an excellent report — one that will make a real difference in our society, so long as its recommendations are implemented.


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10 Comments on “Commission of Inquiry Reports: A Special Kind of Editing”

  • I enjoyed reading this text. Clearly, dealing with various documents requires different editorial skill sets.

    Just out of curiosity, how do commissioners go about finding editors and translators? Do they write and send offers of service via tendering services such as MERX or its provincial/territorial counterparts? Or do they know or know about editors and translators in their professional circles? And must the language professionals work and live in the same area? I’d be interested in dipping my toes in editing inquiry reports at some point. Come to think of it, the federal government should be launching an inquiry into murdered and missing Aboriginal women and children later this year. Perhaps I should offer my editorial services.

    • Rosemary Shipton


      I’m glad you enjoyed it, Dwain. Yes, lots of skills needed for this kind of editing, including making technical language understandable to all readers and handling heavy documentation and tables.

      Applications are open to all. Sometimes they are posted on the usual tendering sites, but everyone is free to send an application to any commission they choose.

      The Globe and Mail ran a column today by medical reporter Andre Picard on the recently published Motherisk Commission in Ontario, so the timing of this post could not be better!

  • lindsay d.


    this was very interesting! thank you for posting it. 🙂

    • Rosemary Shipton


      And thank you for commenting, Lindsay. It’s nice to know readers find it interesting.

  • Thank you for this post, Rosemary. Two questions. First, I notice that you don’t use the serial comma. What are your views on this? Second, should the executive summary be persuasive? I’ve been viewing it as a summary of findings, not as an argument. Although I suppose the recommendations do represent an argument.

    • Rosemary Shipton


      Your first question is easy to answer, Ellie: I use the serial comma, but the Editors’ Weekly does not, and the copy editor does a fine job of removing them all!

      I think both the executive summary and the recommendations should be convincing and persuasive. Commissions are appointed to investigate big issues or disasters, and the public has a right to expect that the reports will lead to significant results. We’ve had too many that, after months or years of work and millions of dollars, get no action. It’s easy for the legislators, the regulators, and the organizations or institutions involved in a particular investigation to do nothing, so the report needs to make a clear and compelling case for what went wrong and what should be done to fix it. First you want the executive summary to get journalists’ attention to cover the report well on the day it is released, and then you want the clearly expressed and directed recommendations to lead to the necessary reforms. I believe that editors who understand the process can assist the commissioner and the legal / expert team to achieve those goals.

      • I use the serial comma, too! 🙂

  • Frances Peck


    At a time when the speed of communication tends to trump quality, and editing is sometimes viewed as optional, it’s encouraging to learn that commissions value editors and editing to this extent. Thank you for such an uplifting post, Rosemary.

    • Rosemary Shipton


      You’re right, Frances – it is rewarding and interesting work to get every so often. Ultimately, the respect is a two-way exchange, and the editor must be prepared to offer real value-added work. In addition to fine editing at all levels, that means an understanding of the commission process, the particular audience the commission is trying to reach, and the goals it is hoping to achieve, once it has completed its in-depth investigation. Inevitably, too, there always seems to be a huge rush to get the report out in both official languages by its due date!

    • Hippie


      This is an arctlie that makes you think «never thought of that!»

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