Nearly a year into the latest investment round, many National Portfolio Organisations are finding the new reporting requirements unduly burdensome - at best - and, in some instances, unfit for purpose. A group of NPO Chief Executive Officers explain their struggles.
Dear Arts Council England,
We run small and medium-sized National Portfolio Organisations. As we come to the end of the first year of the current three-year investment cycle (now perhaps four), we’ve been thinking about your new reporting requirements… and we've got some feedback and questions for you.
Why do we have to use spreadsheets?
Spreadsheets are designed for numbers. Using them to collect qualitative and quantitative information in the same cells when reporting progress on Investment Principles and Activity Plans seems a strange use of the software. Laughable even to those who work outside our sector.
We assume you must be aware the reporting workload has become too burdensome, so you have restricted it to a requirement to 'only' report on ten activities from our annual Activity Plans. But the range of information needed for each of the ten is very broad. One cell might need to contain information on, say, the number and diversity of the creative team and cast, expected audience response, audience size, or carbon footprint. All wildly different aspects of the same project. If we must use a spreadsheet, can we enter each thing on a new line?
We also wonder if you have some wizard wheeze to add up the spreadsheets across the whole portfolio to make a case for the sector. Since we’re writing reams of text in a tiny box, that probably isn’t the case. But can you see the wood from all the trees we’re submitting? We cannot.
How did you come up with the categories?
We have to report progress on our yearly Investment Principles Plan across the categories ‘skills development’, ‘people & representation’, ‘planning’ and ‘tools & monitoring’. But if we were to install solar panels on the roof, there’s no place to tell you. We can tell you how we're going to plan for it, the group of people we'll get together to talk about it, even how we'll report it to the board, but there’s nowhere to input that we're actually doing it.
The Investment Principles Plan is meant to be the ‘how’ relating to the ‘what’ represented by the Activity Plan. So far so good. But the way we’re asked to report is a step removed. It’s how you’re going to do the stuff around how you’re going to do your work. Does it melt your brain like it melts ours?
Did PwC bite off far more than it could chew?
Which brings us to a bigger issue. It’s our impression that when PwC won the audience data contract and began work on Illuminate, it had no idea what it was in for. The platform seems to have been designed chiefly for large, ticketed venues - though they don’t seem thrilled with it either. Everything else seems to be a bit of a workaround.
Rather than undertake any sector consultation on what a new platform might look like, you went straight to tender and, we assume, had to accept the lowest bidder. We were disappointed that PwC won the contract - as a huge commercial company, without any particular expertise in the arts, that hoovers up contracts and thus is able to undercut quotes from sector specialists, whose experience and expertise is sorely missed.
And sure enough, PwC’s Illuminate is less user-friendly or useful on audience analysis than what we had before. As a sector, we are constantly asked to quantify our value – economic and social, and to a much lesser degree, artistic – yet you don’t accord us the respect of adequate consultation.
This is particularly notable in the participatory/social practice sub-sector, which mainly sits outside the venue/ticket selling /easy-to-count and track areas of the sector. There is nuance in what we do that is missed again and again when we’re given metrics to quantify value by systems that aren’t designed to understand how we work.
Our companies rarely make work presented in standard venues. We rarely sell tickets, most work is free at the point of contact. The reporting systems are inadequate to record our work, which arguably is a central plank of the Let’s Create strategy. For example, for touring work we're required to name each place we perform. That place then appears as somewhere our company is ‘responsible’ for. Companies that perform in unusual spaces are now ‘responsible’ for various shopping centres, car parks and libraries across the UK. We don't understand how this venue data links up. Do you?
And why can’t we download data from Illuminate that includes un-ticketed audiences? To gather all the information required to report audience data to our board adds a huge extra workload on us personally.
And speaking of boards...
ACE has a very laudable wish to diversify the boards of arts organisations. We're fully in accord with this. However, offloading a large amount of the scrutiny of the activity of arts organisations to their boards AND specifying so tightly how that reporting should be done, severely limits the kinds of people who can join an arts boards to those who have the spare time and experience to absorb huge amounts of paperwork.
ACE’s demands on our trustees is causing tension as we ask them to respond to these new governance expectations. They require more of trustees’ time to read the increased volume of board papers, to join Investment Principle sub-groups and attend extended board meetings. The expectation that all trustees (who are all volunteers, as you know) discuss every investment principle at every meeting is onerous, unrealistic and unreasonable.
At one recent board meeting, 99 pages of information were tabled. How is anyone able to meaningfully read and understand that volume of information? Of course, we can produce easy-read versions of all our documentation – and are happy to do so - but that also adds to staff workload.
The finance template
We're pleased to say we don’t mind the finance template so much, but we have some questions about the reporting lines. Why are there so many for overheads and so few for our artistic activity? Why do you need to know the exact amount of our quarterly bank charges, but not how much we’re spending on commissions or on freelancer pay? Perhaps no one knows.
Stretched to the limits
You might agree with us that things would run more smoothly if only funding hadn’t been cut to the bone. It must be nigh-on impossible to do your job with just a fraction of the staff of a decade ago. It’s only too clear that your Relationship Managers are stretched to the limit. But we’re stretched too.
The onerous and unfit-for-purpose reporting required leaves a sour taste in the mouth when we should be working together to support the sector, our creatives and audiences, in delivering work of the highest quality across the nation.
Is there any way we could work together to improve things? To review what’s gone wrong? We'd even put up with twice the number of spreadsheets. Let’s make it happen.
The authors are NPO Chief Executive Officers and wish to remain anonymous.