Sunday, 15 May 2011

Applicant time: what price service from the arts ecosystem?



I've pondered what, if anything, to say here about Arts Council England's national portfolio decisions, now that some time has passed for reflection. I don't really want to do a full dissection of what the more I look at it feels like a paradoxically conservative portfolio. (By that I mean that for all the former RFOs who lost their funding, and for all the new and exciting organisations brought in, the essential aim of the overall strategy seems to be conserving the key infrastructure/'front line'/status quo - depending on how you look at it - for achieving great art for everyone. It is by no means a wrong-headed strategy given the financial and political context, but it is not quite what may have been in mind originally.)

Many things strike me as very positive, even brave. Some things strike me as unfortunate and worrying for the future but understandable given the numbers (bumping the the audience development agencies en masse seems like a 'bugger, the budget still doesn't balance' moment kind of decision - I can only sympathise with people having to make out it's strategic and logical to not have those agencies in a portfolio that contains Faber & Faber). Some individual decisions are disappointing, a small number just odd. (I include in that one or two of the decisions to put organisations in, by the way.) I think individual artists' interests - in  literature, digital and visual arts particularly - have been hit disproportionately. But that's the nature of making a portfolio - you can't please all the people. In not taking on the theatre lobby that stuck it to ACE so effectively last time, and in the general communications, it has been much better handled in PR and relationship terms than last time.

I do, however, want to pose a question I've not heard put in this way yet, and which I think ACE need to consider. In the After Action Review that will inevitably be carried out at Great Peter Street, the assessment process which placed such a burden on relationship managers will no doubt be considered. But the burden - and benefit - of the application process for applicants also needs to be looked at. This is the first time those who wanted to be regularly funded had the chance to put their case properly, having thought through themselves what they wanted to do. I favour some kind of application process, and I also know the reflection most organisations went through is likely to have been a useful process whether they were funded or not.

However, there is a cost to this. At a time of restricted funding, and intense need to work hard on businesses, what was the cost of the NPO process to the arts sector as represented by the 1333 applicants? And what was the benefit - did it produce demonstrably better results for either ACE or the sector than previous processes, for instance? (It certainly didn't produce any great shift of resources from one region to another.) The back of the envelope on my desk says that if 1333 applicants spent 20 days staff time on this, at an average salary of £25,000 a year, the process cost applicants (or the sector) more than £2.5M. I suspect this is a highly conservative estimate, especially given the money spent on research, publications and consultants.

This investment by applicants - almost half of whom were unsuccessful - could be described as what the social -ecologists call an 'unpriced ecosystem service’. At least it's unpriced for ACE. I suggest they look carefully at this cost, what value it brings, and what impact it has on the resilience of the sector.  

2 comments:

  1. Hello Mark

    Good points well thought through - however accurate or inaccurate the figures are is sort of a moot point perhaps.

    To take a slightly different angle - For me the whole thing has an uneasy subtext which we may not be thinking about just now.

    ACE likes to consider itself an investor first and funder second. And yet the time taken to stand a chance of getting ACE 'investment' has to be balanced against the cost of building and submitting applications - this has been going on for years prior to the recent NPO thing - always arduous but certainly substantially easier for organisations who have a more stable funding base, perhaps even with in-house fundraisers.

    Investors seek out the investments they want to make and make it as easy as possible for the funds to flow - its the yield they are after - whether in arts or skills or in social terms.

    So in the spirit of debate - and given the inconsistency and subjectiveness which already exists in our present system - Dragons Den anyone - the paperwork can follow

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  2. I guess what investors also do is 'due diligence' which is arguably what the application process provides. But there are other ways of doing that. There are funders who've experimented with Dragon's Den style processes - basically pitch sessions. That may favour certain kinds of people over others, though.

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