Time is running out for the cultural sector to make the case for the impact of the arts and culture on quality of life
A Government-sponsored consultation seeking to identify the factors that influence national wellbeing makes no explicit mention of the arts or creativity, suggesting that cultural activity could be excluded from future statistical measures of quality of life. The consultation aims to clarify those factors that have a major impact on individual wellbeing, and six categories (described as ‘domains’) are proposed as forming a major part of the framework for measuring national wellbeing – our relationships, health, what we do, where we live, personal finance and education and skills. Yet in none of these categories is there specific recognition of the contribution that involvement in the arts or creative activity or access to the country’s cultural or heritage infrastructure can make to individual wellbeing.
The consultation proposals, prepared by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), reflect the outcome of a national debate on the nature of wellbeing which took place between November 2010 and April 2011 and was hosted by the ONS at the request of Government. In total, ONS held 175 events involving over 7,000 people, and the debate generated 34,000 responses to questions about “What matters to you?” These responses have formed the basis of the proposals for future measures of the nation’s wellbeing.
The domains now proposed by ONS reflect what was considered to be important by those who responded to the national debate, and a wide range of ‘headline measures’, based on data currently being collected across the UK, are suggested for each domain. Statisticians will aggregate these to compile measures of wellbeing for the UK as a whole, and these measures will be comparable between member states of the European Union in the way that economic measures of wellbeing such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP) are currently constructed to internationally agreed standards.
Prior to the debate engagement with cultural activity was recognised as an influencer on personal wellbeing, but there is currently no proposal to include measures of this in compiling the key indicators of wellbeing in Britain. The most notable absentee from the list of data to be used is the DCMS’s robust research on arts attendance and participation gathered through its regular ‘Taking Part’ survey. Such an omission has the potential to undermine efforts by the arts sector to embed the arts into the wider social inclusion agenda. At the launch of the national well-being measurement programme in November 2010, Prime Minister David Cameron said “ …finding out what will really improve lives and acting on it is actually the serious business of government… [the measurement programme] will help bring about a re-appraisal of what matters, and in time, it will lead to government policy that is more focused not just on the bottom line, but on all those things that make life worthwhile”. The absence of any measure that assesses public engagement with the arts and culture as part of a more general index on personal wellbeing could make it more difficult for arts sector activity to attract public funding from non-arts sources.
The consultation closes on 23 January, and Paul Allin, who leads the National Well-Being Project for the Office for National Statistics (ONS), is adamant that the consultation is a genuine opportunity for all voices to be listened to. He told AP that the views of the arts sector can still be very influential in shaping the way that wellbeing is measured in the UK: “The debate has been very valuable in helping us to shape the proposed domains, but so far we have only scratched the surface of the factors that help to describe them. I am aware of the impact of the arts on wellbeing and social inclusion, and encourage those involved in the sector to make the case for this by responding to the consultation. This will give us the most comprehensive evidence possible on which we can base the further development of the Wellbeing programme.”