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Making Official Inquiries available and accessible to the public

By Gregory Evans, 21 Nov 2016

In April 2007 an S&P ratings agency analyst wrote: “We rate every deal. It could be structured by cows and we would rate it.” The deals he was referring to were the subprime mortgage products that, just a year later, would blow up, setting in motion the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Major financial institutions would face imminent collapse, requiring enormous bailouts by national governments and a four-year global recession would ensue whose effects persists to this day.

The willingness of S&P analysts to put aside their judgement in pursuit of short-term profit was a key cause of the subprime collapse that kick-started the financial crisis. But how do we know this? How did we come upon this analyst’s revealing statement? We know because it is recorded on page 297 of the US Senate’s “Levin/Coburn” report into the crisis – and it’s not just that one fact. Most of what we know about the financial crisis and the poor behaviour of firms like S&P, investment banks like Goldman Sachs or subprime lenders like Countrywide comes from two official inquiries: the Senate report and the report of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission.

These two reports are a gold mine of high-quality information on the inner workings of major players in the US financial sector and comprise a thorough historical account of one of the critical events of the twenty-first century, complete with extensive first-hand testimony from the individuals at the heart of the crisis.

Official inquiries are special: they have real powers to get documents and testimony, they have dedicated teams to research and write the reports. This means that official government inquiries give us an invaluable opportunity to get hard evidence and to hold to account the rich and powerful.

However, most of us are unfamiliar with these reports, even if we may have heard tidbits from some of their key findings via news stories that came directly from them (without these two reports, it would have been nigh-on impossible for journalists to get reliable, high-quality information on what happened during the crisis and the inner workings of major financial institutions). Famous news stories like that of trader “Fabulous Fab” Tourre are only the tip of the iceberg. These reports are vast and filled with similar stories and other information.

As crucial as these two reports are, it is surprisingly hard to access and use them online. Many official inquiries like these suffer badly from link-rot and can even disappear off the web entirely — in part a reflection of the fact that many inquiries are the results of independent ad-hoc committees that go out of existence once their report is complete.

Even when material is findable it is usually locked up in inaccessible PDF files that can be large files, hundreds of pages long and difficult to browse, The contents of many of these reports do not appear on search engines, because they comprise scans of paper documents which are unreadable to a computer and therefore unsearchable. The exhibits and testimony from the Levin/Coburn report are one such example.

To find these scanned documents is an effort in itself. After finding the relevant section of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations site (no mean feat in itself!), you would have to download a PDF file with links to another website, where you would have to navigate through another tree to find the reports.

Surely there is a better way ? Rather than having to navigate a maze of disparate websites and (often broken) links, we should be able to quickly and easily browse and search the findings of our governments’ inquiries.

That is the purpose of the Official Inquiries Project: to collect the key documents of official inquiries, preserve them and present them in a useful and usable form. We will collect, archive and structure official reports from around the world in order to make them permanently and reliably available and to present their contents such that users can search, read and analyse them quickly on an easily-navigable website with reliable links and fully-searchable text that can be browsed conveniently on a mobile device.

The Chilcot report into Britain’s role in the Iraq War has recently been published. We want to make sure that reports like these are as easily available and accessible to the public as possible and that they stay that way.  Join us at http://officialinquiries.atomatic.net.