Laura Bailey explains how Kent County Council is aiming to integrate arts and culture into its commissioned services across the board - even in waste management.

Man holding skateboard
Jack Cant used old skateboards for graphic designs to explore the circular economy

Future Foundry

Since 2012 I have been leading Kent County Council’s (KCC) journey to embed arts and culture into commissioned public services to create more holistic and effective service models. The first pilot, where we worked with the council's Public Health team, supported by Artswork and Royal Opera House Bridge, took artists through the commissioning and procurement process, and delivery of an outcomes-based service model. This resulted in the Arts & Cultural Commissioning Toolkit and led to KCC becoming a national partner on the Cultural Commissioning Programme in 2014.

We need to concentrate resources on maintaining connections with other council departments so they all consider arts and culture as part of their service offer

Through this, we worked with New Economics Foundation (NEF) and the Public Health and Adult Social Care teams to address challenges with internal processes and to influence policy via the commissioning of a community mental health and wellbeing service. A strategic partner and delivery network model, and a shift to commissioning for outcomes, meant that the market could be opened to providers not traditionally engaged in public service provision.

So far at least nine arts projects have been awarded grants in this way, and while these are not part of the council's core offer, the hope is that those that are effective can move to longer-term delivery in the future. Challenges and lessons learned on this project feature in The Art of Commissioning published by NEF.

Social value in waste management

At the same time, we wrote the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012 into our Strategic Commissioning Framework. Roger Wilkin, then Director of Highways, Transportation and Waste, made a bold offer, making social value a scored element of the tender process for a £50m waste management contract, to test how the creative sector could support commercial business to deliver a social value requirement within a large contract.

Countrystyle Recycling won the contract and, after a call-out for ideas, an innovative proposal from social enterprise Future Foundry was chosen, because of its focus on the circular economy and creativity and its direct links to the waste industry. It highlighted that the creative sector is an untapped resource in transitioning from the current linear ‘take, make, dispose’ economic model to a circular model that aims to re-define products and services to design out waste, minimise negative impacts and build economic, natural and social capital.

Led by Future Foundry Director Lisa Oulton, a project was devised to introduce young creative people from deprived areas in Kent to the circular economy, entrepreneurship and behaviour change. Closing the Loop: Disruptive Entrepreneurs provided support for over 60 young people focused on developing work that benefits people, prosperity and the planet. Access to training, workshops and events, visits to recycling depots and a sustainable design studio has led to new products, services, artworks and employment, plus the first Circular Economy Youth Network in the country.

This young cohort of creative practitioners want to actively contribute to sustainable, resilient communities but feel powerless to make change on their own. This has led us to devise a longer-term programme of personal development and action learning to support groups of young people to realise their ideas and potential in becoming change-makers in their communities and beyond.

Future provision

One of the lessons we learned is that that knowing how to measure and evaluate impact for a range of partners and funders is crucial. So we have commissioned MB Associates, with Social Value UK and The Audience Agency, to deliver an action research programme to build a social impact evaluation framework for creative organisations in Kent.

The financial crisis in local government means that roles are disappearing, and it’s hard to justify spend on discretionary services. But equally, we know the arts, health and wellbeing agenda is gaining real traction. Kent was prominently featured in the All Party Parliamentary Group for Arts, Health and Wellbeing report Creative Health and the new Culture Health & Wellbeing Alliance South East group is in the process of getting up and running. Moreover, the environmental and sustainability agendas are growing in importance, and there is burgeoning evidence about the growth of the creative industries.

Moving forward, we need to concentrate resources on maintaining connections with other council departments, so they all consider arts and culture as part of their service offer. We need to work with the local Sustainability and Transformation Partnership (STP) to embed arts and culture in social prescribing, for example. We need to create more opportunities to deliver social value within big commercial public-sector contracts, making sure actual cash is allocated for the work, and we need to create the conditions for cross-sector partnerships to flourish.

Critical role

The creative sector is still considered peripheral to economic, environmental and social change, rather than critical. This is despite its ability to change attitudes and behaviours through powerful messaging and engagement, and its role in placemaking and innovation. There is so much untapped potential for arts and culture to benefit other sectors, but realising this will mean dedicating time and resources.

This financial year I have been seconded to help Ebbsfleet Development Corporation deliver arts and cultural projects as part of its NHS-funded Healthy New Town Programme, and to co-develop a Cultural Vision for the new garden city there. This has had an impact on the cultural commissioning aspect of the work. A longer-term solution might be for local authorities and other agencies, including ACE, to co-fund a local role to manage the work. In the current political and financial climate, the positive influence of arts and culture is needed now more than ever.

Laura Bailey is Principal Project Officer in the Culture and Creative Economy Service at Kent County Council and Cultural Development Manager at Ebbsfleet Development Corporation.

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Laura Bailey