Paul Kelly and Matthew Blades question the value of tick-box performance evaluation and advocate a more creative way to develop local authority cultural services.
It is perhaps the sign of a sector growing up and being accepted into the mainstream. Or it may be the next phase in an increasingly Kafkaesque landscape, but the growing inspection of the arts and their measurement against government targets has just entered a new phase with the publication by Arts Council England (ACE) of its consultation paper Arts Performance Indicators: a checklist.
This twenty-page paper concerns the appraisal of local authority arts services. The paper starts promisingly stating, The Arts Council is committed to [improving] the cultural and creative life of communities& We believe our principal partner for this work must be local government. It then goes on to propose 20 performance indicators covering a range of areas such as arts strategy, arts management, support for artists, and information and awareness raising. These 20 indicators have a further 47 bullet point measures against which local authority arts services will be appraised and scored. Some of this was expected and is to be welcomed. If the arts services are to argue their case for a share of public spending, they need to be measured and, prior to this consultation paper, performance indicators for the arts were looking worryingly thin compared to those of, say, sports and libraries. Within the overall cultural realm, this has put the arts at a considerable disadvantage at a time when the case for sport is in the ascendant as a result of the 2012 Olympics.
But even though the final basket of performance measures will be smaller than that currently proposed, ACEs paper carries some worrying aspects. First, the inspections of local authority arts services will not, it seems, be carried out as expected by the independent Audit Commission, but by ACE itself. Can ACE be both a strategic and funding partner with local authorities and their inspector? Second, the proposals seem to narrow the role of local authority arts provision just at the time when they have the chance to extend their reach through the new Local Area Agreements something ACE is very keen to engage with. And third, responding to the checklist and providing the evidence is going to take time not easy for already over-stretched local authority arts staff. ACEs proposed performance indicators will measure activity, but will such a checklist approach to measurement help increase creative development on the ground, or actually hinder it?
Recent work in Lincoln suggests an alternative approach, which is both practical, measurable and usefully positions the arts in a wider cultural context. Lincoln City Councils (LCC) arts and cultural services team is just about to embark on a Best Value Review (BVR), a process the cultural sector has been known to see cynically as an efficiency gains exercise to streamline delivery, which can ultimately cut back provision and thereby save money. Not in this case. What is emerging through Lincolns BVR is something much more progressive, and in terms of the influence and impact of culture, much more expansionist. LCC is bringing about a new cultural sector partnership which draws together practitioners from libraries, heritage and the historic environment, tourism, the arts, sport and leisure all under one umbrella working group. This group is being directed not only to look holistically and laterally at ways to develop cross-sector working, upgrading cultural services as a consequence, but also to think innovatively and critically about how the cultural sector could work with greater coherence alongside the Council, in the management of core priorities such as health and education.
This approach is a genuine and welcome attempt to inject creativity into the thinking and work of local authority policy makers, leading to a cultural approach to city planning and the strengthening of communities. In Lincoln, cultural professionals are being given opportunities to exercise real influence and at the same time learn a lot more about how local authorities are mandated to meet their responsibilities while at the same time staying communitarian. In the other direction, the new partnership is effectively demystifying the processes of cultural production, providing the arts and cultural services team with opportunities to learn from the experiences and practice of cultural professionals. Even the potential impact of the Comprehensive Performance Assessment inspection is being discussed in ways unimaginable before the partnership came into being.
In the DEMOS publication The Creative City 1, Dr. Franco Bianchini and Charles Landry suggest creative cities need to encourage local policy makers and cultural professionals, with different skills and approaches, to talk and listen to each other. The Lincoln cultural sector partnership is building cultural capacity by doing just that. It is arguable that through this cultural planning approach, culture and creativity will grow and prosper as a result, and ensure that local authority support for this growth remains effective and sustainable in the future. Can quantitative tick-boxes really support and measure this? Or do we need a more creative and qualitative approach?
Matthew Blades is Programme Leader for the Foundation Degree in Cultural Events Management at Bishop Grosseteste College, Lincoln. Paul Kelly is Secretary of nalgao and Principal Arts Officer, Plymouth City Council.
To find out more about Lincolns Cultural Sector Partnership, contact Matthew Blades.
t: 01522 583717;
1 Bianchini, F. and Landry, C. (1995) The Creative City, DEMOS, London.