Dorset's local authority arts service has just made the complex transition to a public service mutual. Lindsay Harrod shares the issues they faced and the benefits they are now reaping.
In July the Arts Development Company was born. It was the end of a long and complex process to ‘spin out’ of the local authority into an employee-owned community interest company. It is a new era in arts development provision for local arts organisations, artists and the community we serve in Dorset.
The team started talking about this over two years ago. Although Dorset County Council (DCC) has always been supportive of the arts, the future of local authority arts services in their current guise was, and still is, very uncertain. We were determined that the great work we have been doing should continue, and hoped we could achieve this by taking things into our own hands. This decision required courage, facing a challenging future and a whole new way of working. We were helped through the process by the Cabinet Office’s Mutuals Support Programme which helps public services ‘spin out’ of their local authority into what is known as a ‘public service mutual’. During the programme we began to realise our strengths and skills as a team, and learned how to pitch our services at potential new supporters.
Writing a new business plan and constitution has forced us to re-evaluate our mission, as has thinking about marketing and our brand
Our work covers that vague term of ‘arts development’ – championing artists, supporting arts organisations and undertaking strategic work to position the arts as essential to Dorset and the community. None of that will change, but a lot will (and already has) changed. The positive changes are already making themselves felt. Here are some of them:
- New horizons: We can work with new partners, including outside Dorset. For example, there’s demand to grow our arts and environment hub to neighbouring counties. We’ll also be freer to undertake contracts from other partners, such as our arts and wellbeing projects commissioned by housing associations and clinical commissioning groups.
- Less hierarchy and quicker decisions: In the new structure we will only have to answer to the board, which will allow us to be far more proactive and adaptable.
- Becoming more sustainable: We are fortunate to have a confirmed four-year service-level contract from the county council. We can now enhance our work by exploring new income streams previously unavailable such as social investment, corporate relationships and commercial rent income.
- Our new building: DCC is undertaking a £300,000 refurbishment of the Little Keep building in Dorchester, which already houses several arts organisations. We will be moving into this building and will become head tenants, paying off the refurbishment loan through rental income until eventually it becomes ours. DCC also has one less building to look after.
- Thinking about ourselves as a social enterprise: This means that we are always working towards how best to achieve our mission for the community.
Of course, there have also been challenges. We are among the first arts teams in the country and the first team within DCC to do this – and so the less travelled road was not straightforward. These were the main issues we faced:
- The legal process: It took a long time to transfer people out of a local authority, with a raft of issues around pensions, contracts and data protection.
- Communication: Sharing what is happening and why with our partners, stakeholders and audiences has not been easy and there has been some concern expressed by some who see it as a way of privatising arts services. Abating everyone’s concerns and promoting the positive is an ongoing challenge, especially since we are still finding our feet and settling how this all works.
- New mindset: We had to internally change mindsets towards a more commercial model. Cashflow is a new problem since we have always been able to count on support from council coffers. Writing a new business plan and constitution has forced us to re-evaluate our mission, as has thinking about marketing and our brand.
- Staff restructuring: Not least we are going to be undertaking a small staff restructure which has understandably added to the tensions of change.
So while it hasn’t been an easy journey, we are genuinely excited about the new possibilities available to us and for the future of arts development in Dorset. We are proud of our proactive move to secure the great work we do, and we would recommend this model to other local authority arts services looking to secure their future and take their work into employee control.