First it was penny stocks, then the piling scandal and earlier this month came the report on the Tuen Mun bus crash. On Friday, investigators were appointed to look into Harbour Fest and yesterday a select committee of legislators began probing the Sars outbreak. The Equal Opportunities Commission is expected to be next. Over the past 18 months, the drive to inquire has reached hitherto unknown proportions. Investigations of one kind or another have long been part of our system of governance, whether taking the form of judicial inquiries or being conducted by the Legislative Council. Mountains of evidence have been gathered and reports running to hundreds of pages compiled. Sometimes officials are found culpable and disciplined. Usually, they are not. Often, the inquiry becomes as controversial as the events which are investigated. In the past these hearings have been relatively rare occurrences - but not any more. The reasons for the trend are easy to understand. Assessing how much the investigations achieve, however, is rather more problematic. The introduction of Tung Chee-hwa's ministerial system lay the foundations, with government hype contributing to unrealistic public expectations that senior officials would be swiftly punished for perceived blunders. When it became apparent that the ministers were only really accountable to Mr Tung, and that he was reluctant to take action against them, inquiries were seen as a means of apportioning blame and inflicting punishment. They became a consequence of the unhealthy finger-pointing culture which has recently developed. This is evident in pressure for an inquiry into the penny stocks affair last year, and the desire for one probe after another into the Sars outbreak. If causing heads to roll is the aim, however, the inquiries have proved ineffective. Normally, an apology is the most that they achieve. Investigations also appeal to the government, as they can ease public concern and provide reassurance that controversies are being taken seriously. The findings of an independent inquiry can be invaluable in diminishing the administration's responsibility for the events which occurred, even if the final report is often branded a whitewash. The growing demand for greater public participation in politics and general dissatisfaction with the Tung administration, have also played their part. We cannot vote our leaders out of office, but we can at least investigate their conduct. However, the inquiries often take a long time and tend to cost the taxpayer a substantial sum of money. Legco's investigation into the piling scandal, for example, took two years to complete at a cost of $14 million. By the time it was ready earlier this year, most people had forgotten why the issue was important - and the findings were inconsequential. Even when concrete suggestions are made by the panel, as in the penny stocks affair, they are not always adopted by the government. So where does the real value of an investigation lie? The answer is partly in ensuring that matters of grave public concern are properly - and objectively - scrutinised. Despite their deficiencies, the inquiries do provide a level of transparency which would otherwise not be possible. This is all the more important while we do not have a fully democratic system. The investigations should focus on learning lessons and providing valuable insight into how improvements can be made. A good example was the expert report on Sars, which provided a detailed blueprint for reform of the health service. So whether it be the new Legco hearing on Sars, the judicial inquiry into Harbour Fest, or perhaps a probe of the EOC affair, the emphasis should be on providing better governance in future, rather than dwelling too much on the past.