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Animated Edition - Summer 2007
Considering our impact
John Holden, Head of Culture at Demos - the independent think tank and research institute - challenges us to ask how we know what we know and how we evaluate and communicate our impact
In considering the idea of the impact we make, the first thing that struck me was what an aggressive word 'impact' is. And then I started thinking about some of the other words that we use when we're talking about accounting for the arts and measuring them. There's another two right there - accounting and measuring. Then there's 'inputs' and 'outputs', and 'outcomes'. This is the language of business schools and management theory, so what does it have to do with us?

And what about targets? We are given targets, and what we are expected to do? HIT them! That is the language, not just of a sales drive, but of a military campaign. And the generals behind the campaign are very keen to tell us exactly how to score a bulls-eye. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport's (DCMS) Public Service Agreement (PSA) targets handed down to Arts Council England include the definition of priority groups, the precise percentage of increase in take-up that's demanded, and a list of things that do and don't count. So for example, if someone from a black or minority ethnic group goes to a mela, that counts, but if they go to a carnival, it doesn't. If someone who defines themselves as being in one of the lower socio-economic groups C2, D or E using the National Statistics Socio-Economic classification (and I am really not sure how self-definition sits with having to read the National Statistics classification criteria), if one of those people goes to English National Opera (ENO), that counts, but if they go to a poetry reading it doesn't. Oh, and if they go back to the ENO that doesn't count as a second participation, a second participation has to be in a different form, like taking photos for example - (BUT as long as the photos are artistic and not, and I quote, 'family or holiday snaps.') Oh no! But it doesn't say whether we are now out of the land of the self-defined. Who decides how snappy my snap is, me or an expert?

It would be interesting to spend some time asking how we got ourselves into this position of extreme micro-management by government, but the more imperative question is how do we get out of what is clearly a ludicrous mess. Because these measures tell us absolutely nothing about a central aspect of the arts or culture; they are dumb on the subject of quality.

Now it's easy, although actually very important, to poke fun at PSA targets, but on the other hand, we are enmeshed in a system where real decisions have to be taken, where a limited amount of public money is being spent and where accountability should be fundamental. So we do need ways to account for what we do. But they should be ways that make sense to everyone involved.

Where have we gone wrong? We can start by looking at the assumptions that underlie the notion of measuring impact. As my colleague at City University, Professor Sara Selwood has observed "we find ourselves assuming that the impact of the arts and culture can be identified; that it can necessarily be measured as a separate entity; that it can be demonstrated to be beneficial; and that the only - if not the most important - thing that the arts and cultural sectors want to ask is how to measure it."

I think that most people working in the arts would say that measuring the impact of what they do is NOT the most important thing in their lives. But for a long time they have had to adopt a restricted, reductive, and unsatisfactory language and set of measures in order to justify what they do. My plea is that we should establish a much better narrative, that encompasses the qualitative as well as (not instead of) the quantitative when talking about what the arts are for. We want and need to be able to tell our story honestly, in words that real people understand, not in jargon - a story about what participating in culture means to people - a story about the VALUE of culture.

So let's look at the types of value that culture can generate. It seems to me that there are three types of value that come into play.

The first is intrinsic value, which is the set of values that relate to the subjective experience of culture. It is this set of values that people are referring to when they say things like 'Music moves me', 'That painting's rubbish' or 'Dancing makes me feel good'. In some ways the term intrinsic is unhelpful because nothing has value in itself, the value is only there in the activity or encounter between an individual and culture, but it's the term that has passed into the language. Intrinsic value is notoriously difficult to describe, and the rational econometrics of policy-speak finds it very difficult to cope with, because this aspect of culture deals in abstract qualities like beauty, it affects our emotions, and it involves discussions about taste and quality, discussions that are themselves wrapped up in issues of class and power. It really doesn't fit with the hard-headed machismo that is supposed to dominate in business, politics, sport and the media. And if you can't count it, then it doesn't count. To paraphrase the management guru Peter Drucker, what doesn't get measured doesn't get managed, but how do you measure something like a piece of contemporary dance? If we are going to talk about impact sensibly, I think we need to be able to talk about individual emotive experience, just as much as about 2% increases in audiences. Recently, people have started to look at new ways of narrating these aspects of the arts. Late last year I heard a presentation in the US about a piece of research that hasn't been published yet, that measured audience expectations against experiences at a range of performances. It seemed to me a crude start, with possibly disturbing implications, but I think it had one virtue, and that is that it asked people about their own views. In all the measures of impact we are talking about there are basically two approaches - the objective, where we look at what's going on as a detached observer, and the subjective, where we ask people what they think. In economic studies of the arts for example, the former - the objective approach - would take the shape of looking at job creation, business start-ups, tourism spend and so on. The latter - the subjective approach - would ask people how much they are prepared to spend, in other words what value the art has for them.

In a field like the arts and culture, where so much depends on personal experience and individual reactions, we need to take much more account of the subjective and the qualitative. Not to dismiss the objective and the quantitative, but to add to it.

The second type of value that we can see in culture is instrumental value, where culture helps achieve some other aim - such as fuelling the creative industries, or improving exam results, or speeding up patient recovery times. These are the knock-on effects of culture, looking to achieve things that could be achieved in other ways as well. This kind of value tends to be captured in output, outcome and, yes, impact studies that are often, but not always, expressed in figures. The problems in trying to pin down and quantify the exact connection between culture and these instrumental benefits are well documented.

Going back to the assumptions that I mentioned earlier, we assume that it's possible to capture these instrumental effects of culture, but we certainly don't know how to do that comprehensively, comparatively or consistently. The DCMS itself, whilst setting out targets for others, acknowledges that it needs, (i.e. it does not have) 'a common way to measure the social, economic and environmental impact of transformational projects.'

The problems are very well known: most of the methodologies that economists and statisticians use generate estimates based on proxies, while personal experiences are generalized into effects on whole communities. It is almost impossible to prove cause and effect between an artistic event and an outcome that is remote in time and space, and an outcome that is also affected by a whole set of extraneous factors. On top of that, as a sector we haven't been very good at generating good long-term evidence of correlation - not least because the aims of policy keep on changing.

My own view is that there is increasingly persuasive evidence about the instrumental effects of culture - especially in education and in health. Indeed I have recently written a report with Sam Jones for Museums Libraries and Archives called Knowledge and Inspiration, that pulled together a huge quantity of evidential material. We have to keep at the job of collecting numbers, writing up case studies, and presenting reports.

But we also need to recognize a number of things: first, that there is great confusion between where evidence stops and advocacy begins - and in my view, that line will always be blurred; second, that despite all the protestations by politicians about evidence based policy, decisions about funding are not taken on evidence alone but are affected by a wide range of other factors, from political horse-trading to raw prejudice, and third, that the further up the political food chain you go, the cruder the evidence needs to be. A local authority elected member may take the time and trouble to come to a performance, an arts officer may read a report, but by the time you reach the Treasury, we are into the simplistic world of the PSA targets that I described at the beginning.

The third type of value that I think we can identify is what I call institutional value. This is closely related to the idea of public value, and it is all about the way that cultural organisations act. They are part of the public realm and how they do things creates value as much as what they do. In their interactions with the public, cultural organisations are in a position to increase - or indeed decrease a whole range of public goods - such things as our trust in each other, our idea of whether we live in a fair and equitable society, conviviality and the like. So the way in which organisations go about their business is important. Things like opening hours, how people are greeted and welcomed, providing opportunities to grow and learn - these are not simply about customer care as they would be in the commercial world. No, they are much more important than that, they can act to strengthen our sense of a collective society. Public value and institutional value are emergent concepts, and the ways that they are measured and talked about are not yet fully formed. But a few organisations have latched onto the idea and are taking it up in practice - most notably in the case of public service broadcasting at the BBC, and it is transforming the way that they work.

It's important to realise that these values that I am talking about - intrinsic, instrumental and institutional - are not baskets of different types of value, but rather different perspectives; different ways of looking at what is going on in a cultural encounter. Let me give you an example: when a schoolchild goes to a gallery she or he may really enjoy looking at a picture and feel moved or uplifted, she may learn about the artist and reproduce that in an exam and get a better mark, and she may feel more rooted in her locality through the visit. All the values come into play here, but it helps to look at them in these different ways, because that helps us to see where we can create more value, and to see where value is lacking.

So, we can now think about and understand the value that culture can have in society, but what about the context in which these values play out? This used to be a simple set of relationships. In the 1950s people voted for politicians, who decided the policy framework for culture - censorship, the licensing of premises and so on as well as the financial resources that they were prepared to commit. The cultural professionals then got on with what they did - the Director of the National Gallery told everyone which pictures were beautiful, and what fine brushwork was involved, and the public either turned up to see them or stayed at home. And nobody much worried about it.

Clearly things have changed enormously. For one thing the public can no longer be thought of as a homogenous mass or divided into a simple set of classes. We, the public, are a set of diverse interests where everyone is in a minority. Technology and new means of communicating are transforming the possibilities for the public consumption and, crucially, the public production of culture. Higher levels of education and more exposure to culture at school are making many many more people comfortable with what used to be called high culture; and in any case high and low culture are becoming redundant terms as the two elide. The public is also becoming less deferential, more consumerist and assertive.

But let's go back to our value triangle and ask what it is that the public values about culture. I would suggest that the main thing the public values about culture, the reason people spend their time and money engaging with culture is because of all the uplifting, thrilling, frightening, comforting, funny, terrifying, transcendental things that culture can do. In other words, the public cares most about Intrinsic value. The public also cares about institutional value: we don't like being treated badly by our cultural organisations: we object to overpriced drinks, uncomfortable seats, unhelpful opening hours or over-inflated claims about performances.

The public treat culture as something individual and personal to them. But politicians, by contrast, care about mass social outcomes. The American writer Philip Roth put it like this when he said that "Politics is the great generaliser and literature the great particulariser, and not only are they in an inverse relationship to each other they are in an antagonistic relationship. How can you be an artist and renounce the nuance? How can you be a politician and allow the nuance?" That's what he says. Lenin put it another way when he said that he hated listening to Beethoven because it made him want to caress people's heads when he should be banging them. On top of that, Governments like order, and one of the jobs of the arts is to challenge the current order.

So, what we have here is a complete disconnect between the practising artist's idea of culture as a matter of potentially disruptive innovation, the public's idea of culture as an individual concern, and politics' desire for culture to produce social goods at a macro level. I would venture to suggest that, although the public may be very much concerned about the economy, crime and education, they don't think about culture in those terms at all. Mostly, they want a good night out, or to take their children somewhere interesting and improving. They certainly don't use the kind of language that politicians and cultural professionals use when it comes to culture. Nobody sits in a darkened auditorium thinking: "I'm so glad the price of my ticket is helping with crime reduction and the cohesive communities agenda."

But because politics is concerned about the economic and social effects of culture, the temptation for the cultural professionals is try to prove that culture delivers the political agenda - whatever that may be at any one time. In the UK, we have spent millions of pounds arguing, first under Thatcher that culture benefited the economy, and later, under Blair, that it helped achieve a range of social outcomes from community cohesion to adult literacy. But interestingly, all that evidence of impact has not delivered what the cultural professionals wanted. It hasn't established culture as a public good in its own right, nor even as something central to the concerns of politics. And that is because politicians will never be able to give the desired level of financial and rhetorical support to culture, unless and until there exists a more broad-based and better articulated democratic consensus. In other words, what I am saying is this: that, in a Democracy, the only satisfactory answer to the question "why should culture get state support?" is "Because people want it", not because it's good for the economy, or because it helps hit government targets, or because it has some mystical arts-for-arts sake appeal.

Armed with this understanding, I think that we can set about improving matters. The first thing to realise is the size of the opportunity. The value of culture to the public is unlimited and infinitely expandable. The public is getting better educated and more interested in culture. In fact I would go so far as to argue that culture is becoming of absolutely fundamental importance to people, because cultural participation is taking the place of work and nationhood as the primary means by which we identify ourselves. It is becoming more central to people's lives. I have no doubt that the public does value culture and will value it more and more.

The analysis that I have offered to you presents a challenge. It means re-thinking what we mean by impact, and the way we tell our story.

The word 'impact' seems to me to be inadequate to talk about the full range of values that culture generates for a number of reasons. Describing impact is most obviously relevant when we are trying to get objective assessments of mass outcomes, but it feels less comfortable when talking about individual emotional experiences. There's another problem with it. The whole notion of impact suggests linear progression and an inert subject. It implies that we are the sole actors and that we have an effect. But in culture our subjects are far from inert. We don't deliver culture to people, we make it with them - the culture is found in the interaction between the activity, event, object or experience, and what individual people themselves bring to it. Culture is co-created not consumed. We are not impacting on people, we are making an offer to which they respond.

So when we are talking about impact we need to readjust our sets, and stop thinking of impact as only being about proving to funders objective evidence that we are helping to achieve their economic and political goals. That is part of the picture, an absolutely essential and vital part, but it is just as important that we recognize, and articulate the way that intrinsic value affects individuals. Let's not just talk about how many schoolchildren have seen a performance, let's also talk about the impact of deepening people's emotional responses through art.

Let me finish, then, by summarizing what my argument means for measuring impact. First it stresses that we do need to measure and narrate what we do, because we are spending public money, and we want more of it, or at the very least, not less of it. Second, it stresses the need to account for value in three ways: by looking at the intrinsic, instrumental and institutional value of what we do.

Third it recognizes the limitations of any one way of looking at things, for example the difficulties of expressing intrinsic value, and inadequacies of a reductive econometric approach. Fourth, it maintains that we should not look at impact not only in terms of objective assessment, but also in terms of subjective experience. We need to create the space for the voice of the public to tell us why they value what we do. In the end, that is the most persuasive political argument. Finally, in thinking about impact, we need to focus on what practitioners themselves see as their criteria of success. Impact is not just about collecting data for other people. All of us want to feel that we have made a difference - had an impact, if you like, and we need to be able to judge, in our own individual terms, when we have made a difference.

contact john.holden@demos.co.uk

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Animated: Summer 2007