Can the cultural sector rise above government agenda: cultural policy, influence and autonomy
In the second of our Editor’s blogs, Carrie Svinning discusses her thoughts on government cultural policy, decision-making and autonomy.
It has been an intense period of politics lately with Brexit, our new appointed Prime Minister Theresa May, and a notable set of cabinet changes. We as the cultural sector sit at the edge of our seats, waiting to hear of the transformation that will affect our lives and that of the nation’s culture. We observe the government’s new agendas and deliberate how their new policies will modify expectations and realign our focus. We consider how we can meet the new changes, and how we can work with the new funding criteria placed on us. We debate what programmes can be produced that will tick the right boxes and help us ward off the greater impact of the spending cuts. We consider our evaluation methods to produce enough evidence to prove our value, and to answer the funders’ questions convincingly.
I wonder if during this merry-go-round of changes in politics, new cultural, social & economic policies, arms length bodies’ restructures, and our scramble to fit in with expectations, we considered for a moment what it is we are trying to achieve in all this. Do we knowingly understand the effects of our intentions and actions, or are we unconsciously reacting to the funders and government’s requests? Do we have our own considered objectives or just working to achieve the government’s politic aims? Maybe as a sector, we need to stand back and collectively determine where we are at and how we found ourselves here. Is it possible to strip back all the assumptions that we work to, and make sense of where our goals are coming from? Maybe it is possible as a sector for us to reframe and set out our own agenda that sits outside of the government’s latest whim. For us to have a more sustained and self-governed trajectory we would need to take some ownership back.
So how is a sense of autonomy and self-determination achieved? We could build a campaign around our core beliefs, vote in representatives from diverse cultural organisations to represent us, create a collective to give the sector one voice. Although if this was possible how can we assure its success? If the purpose is to prove our worth, we could just delve into the abundance of research and evaluation we have produced to evidence what cultural value means to society. Although, when put under the microscope, would our evidence stand up to full scrutiny? The challenge with this comes from the multitude of variables, with such a wide range of methodologies and frameworks, funding streams and criteria, sample sizes, locations and audience demographics etc. Is it possible to provide a continuity of evidence to construct a robust conclusion?
If there was a sure-fire way of producing evidence that undoubtedly demonstrated our social impact and value for money, does the government actually listen? Does sector campaigns and evaluation have any real effect, or are government policy directives a result of other political agendas and sways? As Sara Selwood stated in her article ‘The Politics of Data Collection’: ‘Data Collection and analysis appear to have little to do with directing policy’ with funding decisions based on ‘expectation rather than “evidence”.’ If this is the case then what power do we have in making our own decisions? Maybe very little in real terms but as a democracy the government has to, at least to gain election, listen to its people. So is it them that we should be paying more attention to, actively listening to, physically involving, rather then concentrating on what the government and its funding bodies dictate and decide is the next course of action.
For the public to fight our corner we need to gain their trust, for them to embrace a deep relationship with their heritage and culture, to feel on the inside not outside of these places and spaces. The public in all its forms need to see it as theirs, as something of intrinsic value to them, as representing them and their culture. This comes with it its own set of opposing challenges; culture too often represents an elite perspective and a specific take on art, history and science, although the contrasting and at times contradicting nature of trying to represent multi-diverse perspectives at once has a feeling of impossibility to it. There is no easy answer, and as my many questions indicate, there may not be a simplistic set of solutions. Nevertheless, I do feel that unless we ask many more questions, review our situation, and debate where we stand, for whom, and what for, we are just blindly following the next political agenda.