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Dissecting Disaster: 4 best practices for government response

January 29, 2015

Dissecting Disaster

What happens when financial markets seize up, or an offshore oil rig explodes, or there is a nuclear power plant accident?

Governments typically launch an ad hoc or permanent investigation team to identify the cause of the disaster and to determine whether policy should be changed in its wake.

Temporary investigatory teams, called Commissions of Inquiry (COI), address specific or one-off crises, including commissions launched to review 9/11 (2002) and the financial crisis (2009). Permanent accident investigation boards (AIBs) oversee recurring needs, like the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

The NTSB is the lead agency overseeing all major transportation accidents like the crash of the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo in 2014, or investigating common trends like the dangers of drowsy driving. The NTSB is one of the most well-regarded and effective permanent AIBs in the country, despite the fact that it has no regulatory or enforcement powers. So when should governments establish permanent or ad hoc institutions? And what types of disasters warrant one over the other?

The interdisciplinary Bass Connections: Regulatory Disaster Scene Investigation project team explored how domestic and international governments' selection of permanent and ad hoc investigations influence the safety, security, and future of societies across the globe. Bass Connections is a university-wide initiative that connects faculty and students on project teams that address complex global challenges.

The team of five Duke students, led by History and Public Policy Professor Edward Balleisen and Environmental Economics and Policy Professor Lori Bennear, met with officials at the NTSB and attended a congressional hearing on the Chemical Safety Board (CSB) in Washington, D.C. to better understand how government agencies get pulled into disasters, what they do to help address the crisis, and how they can learn after each incident.

The team that worked on this project will share what they learned during an academic seminar at Duke Forward in Dallas on Jan. 31. Here's a sneak peak of four best practices for the government to create a successful investigatory agency:  

1) Stay independent from involved parties: 
Both permanent and temporary agencies vary in how they manage investigations and analyses. However, a common key to success is their ability to stay independent from industry and regulatory bodies so they can stay neutral and consider any and all possible factors that lead to the disaster.

2) Be transparent: 
Being transparent with all affected parties and the public strengthens the NTSB's reputation. The NTSB works hard to ensure that all parties are kept updated on important elements of an investigation which builds trust with everyone involved.

3) Stay neutral:
A perception of non-partisanship increases the effectiveness of investigatory bodies. The NTSB does not allow more than three of the five board members of the same political affiliation. This reduces the ability to appoint members purely based on politics.

4) Monitor and publicize policy outcomes:
The power of both permanent and ad hoc investigatory bodies rests precisely on their lack of authority over actual policy formulation and implementation.  They only have the force of argument.  But such influence is much greater if the special Commissions or Safety Boards have a way to report on how officials respond to their recommendations.

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