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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.

Illuminate website login page

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.

Comments

Thank to whoever wrote this fair and constructive letter. I am eager to read ACE response...

I'm so glad I'm not alone in these thoughts! Agree with every point.

We have little of no concerns about the actual work implementing the IPs. However we are also spending approx. 35 people hours per year across staff and Board on the oversight (4 x IPs subgroups x 30 mins. at 4 per year plus time at 4 x Board meetings per year.) Multiply that by 932 organisations I think that equals approx. 12 years of staff/board time per year across the portfolio. Of course some may not be structuring the Board oversight in the same way but that's a lot of time before you factor in the actual reporting into ACE.

Just as we are absorbing the near-daily revelations about the design flaws in Fujitsu's Horizon software, I find myself wondering what brief PwC tendered against. I completely agree with the point in the letter that there are many culture-specialist teams who could have done this work better, but the letter also suggests to me that PwC may have tendered against a badly, uncomprehendingly written brief, compounding the problems of their own ignorance and inexperience in this specialist field.

Very pleased to see this, if only to know that one's own concerns and struggles with reporting are shared by many. New systems are needed, or we will spend more and more time counting and reporting and less time doing the transformational work that the arts can deliver. No doubt ACE or Government want more quantifiable evidence for the impact of the arts. But many of us are are simply asking them to listen to the sector they are supporting and trying to nurture. Goodness knows how particularly the smaller organisations, with so few staff to process the work, are coping. What would also help would be if ACE could convey more information about what difference all this data collection is making. Is it winning an argument to Government for funding (or even more funding)? Otherwise if feels like more oversight, which can demotivate. I'm curious that the letters signatories decided to remain anonymous. Not criticizing this (there could be many reasons), but I hope anyway that a positive culture can be maintained between ACE and the sector and speaking up about what is not working results in a positive dialogue. Surely we are in this game together.

This has to be the most out of touch/deluded piece I have ever seen on this website. “Why do we have to use spreadsheet?”You should be fully accountable for every penny you spend and I imagine a standard workbook allows for easy collation and review. You freely admit that “in the participatory/social practice sub-sector, which mainly sits outside the venue/ticket selling /easy-to-count and track areas of the sector.” Aka creating and promoting content that doesn’t justify investment nor reach an audience aka flushing money down the toilet. NPO organisations should be grateful they continue to be showered with public funds during a time of severe economic stress. Spare a thought for the countless cultural organisations who have had to develop models which are fully independent of public funding and no doubt make a greater impact on the communities they serve. It is exactly this entitled attitude why politicians are ‘licking their lips’ at the proposed evisceration and like dismantling of ACE from 2027. In any case, executives such as these authors days are numbered.

- Spreadsheet is to give the illusion that there is somehow data or structure -- reality is that it's just inadequate space for the same old subjective arts verbiage. The only structural element is objective tracking, but that's a status you would need to track. Are they ingesting and plotting statuses against random arts goal verbiage? Seems unlikely. - Yep -- everything is about how you are working towards talking about things you might do (or an idea you are hoping might turn into a concept). I guess this is what you would expect from a bearaucracy who seeks to make everyone else in their own image. - You would hope trustees have made it onto boards because they have done something with their lives, and they'll have done it by cutting through and ignoring this kind of stuff in their main careers. Forcing them to focus on this kind of thing instead of getting shit done, is likely to leave boards staffed by ineffectual bureaucrats with a high tolerance for spreadsheet verbiage. Alternatively, we may find them performing a kind of pantomime for the sake of ACE, whilst they try to get on with things, or getting ChatGPT to write some kind of pantomime. So -- I guess this could result in some artistic output after all.

An important factor in arts data related to Lets Create will be to redesign a system with quantitive and qualitative modes. Lighter framework. The Relationship Manager needs to see both of these. The qualitative data in report form gives a quick snapshot of the output in relation to Lets Create goals and the quantitive data in online cell/sheet form gives the figures. The board then handles some benchmarking of this with the staff team. Having worked with this kind of thing with various NPOs, the report on an impact basis quickly gets to the bottom of performance against set goals. The figures enable metric assessment across NPO ranges of investment, with allowances for strategic and location specific outcomes. A company like PWC is unlikely to have sufficient art-form knowledge or specialism to integrate report and data capture to a level that ticks for ACE and NPOs.