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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