Culture Shock: a starting point for change

Sam Jones used a year-long fellowship to examine the evidence relating to participation in culture and sport. His conclusions, published by Demos and the subject of The Leisure Review lecture, represent a significant contribution to the debate shaping policy for the cultural realm and issue a number of provocative challenges as a starting point for change.

By adapting to new circumstances, institutions and individuals have not only been able to be successful, innovate and retain integrity

This essay is part of a joint Demos and CASE (Culture and Sport Evidence Programme) fellowship examining the evidence currently available in relation to public participation in culture and sport. The purpose of the fellowship is to generate independent policy recommendations as to how policy might be developed. This document sets out some principles by which that might be done. It has been written independently and so cannot be taken either as a policy statement, or to reflect government opinion. It has also been written at a time at which the public sector as a whole is facing cuts on a scale unprecedented in recent history. However, with a more lasting view, it addresses a long-standing need to review the purposes and mechanisms of cultural policy. To this end, it proposes a series of provocations to prompt the thinking and change that policy-makers and the cultural sector alike will need to meet this need.

Cultural policy needs to be reviewed because social and technological changes have brought the importance of culture to the fore and because that has implications across governmental policy. Engagement and participation with cultural forms is at the heart of a new economy, both as products in themselves, and as stimuli to creativity and creative enterprise – the latest estimates put the DCMS sectors’ contribution to GVA at 10 per cent. At the same time, participation in culture and sport is rising and, on the basis of curricular participation by young people today, this will increase in the future. Through technologies such as YouTube or as a result of increased travel or migration, people can now access, encounter, create and share the products of cultural creation on a scale previously unimaginable, and regardless of the publicly funded cultural sector. This brings the different opinions expressed in such cultural production and activity into closer and more intense contact, which creates new challenges for society. Meeting these challenges will require new capabilities of individuals and means new responsibility for cultural policy. From a democratic perspective, cultural policy must focus on the equitable distribution of the capabilities by which individuals can take part in shaping the culture around them and interpret the expression of others. This will require thinking anew about what form the government agencies responsible for culture take, and how they are run. Because the DCMS is the governmental arm that responds to this environment, its role and relationship to policy concerns across Whitehall departments must also be reconsidered.

The changing nature of people’s attitudes and behaviours in relation to culture also demands change in cultural institutions and professions. Recognising and making the most of the social importance of culture is not incommensurate with creating work and providing people with experiences that are both great and rewarding. Many examples from the cultural sector demonstrate that, by adapting to new circumstances, institutions and individual professionals have not only been able to operate more successful enterprises but, importantly, have been able to do so in innovative ways that retain integrity to their practice (examples cited in this essay range in size from The Royal Shakespeare Company to the small theatre group, The Red Room). Such enterprise opens new opportunities and demonstrates the reach that cultural practice can have into policy areas across government. This paper therefore calls for change in cultural policy and its function and delivery, seeing the work of cultural professionals in new light in relation to the social, technological and cultural contexts in which they now operate.

Wider change in cultural activity and practice will be catalysed by the financial crisis and the austerity measures put in place to reduce public expenditure. In the immediate term, cuts of the scale proposed will change the operating environment of public agencies in all sectors, irrevocably. Tinkering around the edges of public policy delivery and sticking with current assumptions about what needs to be funded, to what extent and how, will not suffice. The cuts will be too severe for many organisations, institutions and individuals who currently receive public funding to survive if they rely on extant models. The cumulative effects for those that do not are likely to be equally significant as markets are disrupted, the public’s cultural education and awareness is affected and, in the long-term, skillsbases are diminished. However, the cuts must also be seen as a starting point for change. A period of public sector growth is over, and policy-makers across government need to review and prioritise what policy in their sectors is for and what it seeks to achieve. Culture will be a part of that, and this paper sets a framework within which that long-term change can be tackled. As well as making specific recommendations, it poses questions that must be answered as cultural policy is reinvented and redefined.

A change of understanding

Governmental involvement in culture has long been a contentious issue. Why should the state get involved in culture, and if so, how? Traditionally, government has funded certain forms of culture on the basis that they are a public good, with intervention justified by the principle of market failure. However, that involves an assertion of what type of culture should be available to whom. A new concept of legitimacy in public policy relative to culture is needed. From the basis of evidence gathered in the CASE programme and elsewhere, this paper puts in place an understanding with which policy-makers and cultural professionals can form it. It distinguishes between two connected meanings of ‘culture’.

‘Culture’ in a wider sense as being an elemental and fundamental part of social and public lives; culture is not synonymous with the traditional definition of culture as ‘the arts’. It is the result of cultural choices and activities and the sum of attitudes, heritages and histories, beliefs and opinions expressed in cultural and sporting activity. This more anthropological understanding of culture emphasises the wide and deep-seated significance of activity in what can be termed ‘the cultural realm’. As the means to consume, produce and create culture becomes more widespread, the impact of cultural activity is becoming far more evident in other areas of policy. Localism, in particular, places new emphasis on people’s expressions of commonality and autonomy, and these are made manifest in culture. Culture is a formative part of society: it is therefore the concern of a government to be sensitive to it, and provide the means by which people can access and take part in its manifestation.

The ‘forms’ and ‘institutions’ that constitute culture; activities, such as making videos, viewing clips online, playing cricket, skateboarding, visiting museums or football matches are the means by which members of society shape and access ‘culture’. As this list shows, these activities can be those that are currently seen as being cultural as well as those that are seen as being sporting: an individual’s decision to play a given sport is ultimately social and cultural. These activities also cut across outmoded distinctions of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture. Exclusion from and failure to represent these forms in the culture that is displayed and promoted can be detrimental to society and can also detract from individuals’ sense of well-being. Cultural policy itself is a statement about culture and must equally be considered a cultural form. A government should see cultural forms – both those it currently funds and those that it does not – not as being culture in and of themselves, but as providing people with access to the cultural realm.

By distinguishing between these two concepts – culture as a basic and inalienable continuum of human life from which society is continually refreshed and regenerated, and the forms that provide the manifestations and touchpoints of beliefs and opinions about culture – it is possible to articulate a rationale for governmental intervention in relation to culture that is more legitimate than one based on a pre-determined association of certain forms with culture. More widely, a capabilities-based approach, espoused among others by the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, argues that a just society and well-being depends upon giving people the capabilities to lead the lives that they want to lead. This has strong implications for culture. Cultural policy must be seen as providing members of society with a logical framework and the capabilities by which to approach, understand and participate in the changes around them and this is why cultural forms are important. People get a sense of society, a sense of place and a sense of identity by interpreting and participating in the culture around them. Cultural forms and institutions provide them with an environment within which to do so and the skills with which people can act with confidence as citizens of the cultural realm. However, when the cultural realm is prescribed according to certain forms, this sense of fairness and society is diminished.

Not only does this offer a new rationale for intervention, but it also suggests new reasons as to why policy-makers in other government departments should concern themselves with culture and the ways in which it is accessed, especially at local level – cultural policy is not just about funding a museum or sports club, it is about something that is foundational to society. The more an individual participates in cultural activity, the more benefit he or she will accrue. The more individuals participate, the greater the benefit of overall participation to society. The wider a cultural institution reaches by connecting what it does to the public, the greater its role in society. However, with cuts looming, there is a real risk that cultural activity will be forced to draw back from reaching so widely. At the same time, it should be remembered that not all within the cultural realm can be considered beneficial to society: cultural content can sometimes offend and distance. This makes both the capabilities by which people can read and respond to the cultural stimuli around them, and also the importance of policy-makers taking cultural effects into consideration, paramount. Culture can impact on a range of areas, from communities to foreign policy, and so policy-makers from the Departments of Education or Communities and Local Government to the Foreign Office take into account the need for cultural capabilities and the impact of activity in the cultural realm.

The problem is that, hitherto, policy has conflated culture and its forms and it has proved difficult to meet the need to provide cultural capabilities without imposing set ideas about what forms represent culture. The end result is that cultural policy has sought to ensure the survival of forms and institutions, and not support the wider importance of culture in society and this extends to the machinery of cultural policy itself. Cultural policy must move away from so institutional a definition of culture. Doing so will strengthen the role of culture in policy-making more widely, focusing it on cultural capabilities. This does not diminish the importance of cultural expertise and the merits of individual practice, but rather sets it in a new context in which public funding can be justified without resorting to the fraught need to prioritise one cultural form over another.

The implications for cultural policy

At the moment, the DCMS is among the smallest of government departments, both in terms of budget and also the importance attached to it. Cuts will make it smaller still and threaten to make what power and influence it has, hollow. However, because culture has bearing on areas of policy far beyond what is currently thought of as the DCMS domain, its importance must be reflected. CASE, for instance, has demonstrated the connection between cultural and sporting activity and well-being and has shown the potential effect of sporting activity in diminishing government expenditure on healthcare. Policy must be based on the understanding of culture as being elemental to social and public lives. As cultural policy seeks to respond to both the changing role of culture in society and a restricted funding environment become clearer, several questions will have to be answered:

The principles outlined above will be important in answering these questions. Changes to culture and the public spending environment mean that policy-makers and cultural professionals are about to enter a period of long-term change. The settlement at which they arrive must be developed and refined through a process of debate that includes the public too. Below, a number of provocations are proposed to stimulate that debate.

Provocation 1 – Reinventing the DCMS:
DCMS could be reinvented, ultimately as a smaller department, to focus on the importance of expression in the cultural realm and how culture relates to different policy areas. It would be empowered to represent culture across government, identifying areas in which other government departments could beneficially spend on culture and championed as such by the Secretary of State at Cabinet level. It would be responsible for and further supported by the allocation of cultural responsibilities to ministerial briefs in other, relevant departments, such as Education, Business, Innovation and Skills or Communities and Local Government, and Work and Pensions. The ministers would be tasked with representing the importance of culture in other areas of government and with working with the Treasury to secure allocations of funding, maintaining the integrity of publiclyfunded cultural practice. Central government’s concern should be with the cultural realm as a whole and this should be the responsibility of the Secretary of State as a voice and champion for cultural concerns at Cabinet and public levels. The new department could be tasked with identifying areas of concern to government departments – including both those with ministerial representation for culture and others on an ad hoc basis – in which culture must be taken into account, negotiating funding from them accordingly. Critically, this would require that other government departments recognise the importance of the cultural dimension to their policy area. At the moment, they do not, and it would be essential that the cultural department provide the evidence and arguments to persuade them to do so and that the Secretary of State leads it in doing so. A further task of the central department would be to communicate to the sector policy concerns across Whitehall, identifying further areas in which the work of the sector contributes to policy concerns. In the long run, this department would be smaller than the existing DCMS, introducing some of the efficiencies that the current financial situation requires. Functions could be divided between relevant ministries (an example might be cultural diplomacy and the Foreign Office), and a Council for Cultural Expression (see Provocation 2); an example might be the management of such issues as the import and export of cultural goods. It should be the objective of policy to support the cultural sector while developing a position in which this is possible. However, in the short term, government should not dramatically reduce the DCMS in size and leave a vacuum for cultural policy. To this end, there should be a transition period during which the profile and importance of culture is raised in other departments and, as a result, cultural functions can effectively be transferred to the new briefs of cultural ministers in other departments. This process could be monitored independently by an appointed commissioner, working in tandem with the National Audit Office.

Provocation 2 – Establishing a Council for Cultural Expression:
 the rationale and mechanism for centralised public funding for culture should be reconsidered. As it stands, the arm’s-length principle by which cultural forms are managed is designed to ensure both integrity of practice, sporting, artistic, cultural or otherwise, and accountability. In principle, this is an important failsafe, ensuring that political concerns do not interfere with culture, and hence the authenticity of cultural activity and its legitimacy as a constituent part of the public realm. It is important that a wide array of cultural forms is championed as providing for the expression achieved through people’s cultural choices and cultural practices: certain forms cannot be privileged over others. The arm’s-length bodies as they currently stand could be combined to form one organisation with a remit to ensure the delivery of cultural and expressive capabilities and opportunities throughout the country and represent the value and narrative of that expression to government: The Council for Cultural Expression. It would focus on forms as providing such capabilities within the public realm, rather than forms in and of themselves. The Council would be responsible for the allocation of the funding negotiated by the central governmental department. This model would diminish neither individual forms nor expertise, but would emphasise the need to relate them more directly to the public. Equally, it would underscore the need for policy-makers to recognise and take into account the relationship of cultural forms to society more generally. The Council would allow for independent expertise to be brought into the decisionmaking process and, for this reason, would be necessarily separate from the central government department and with an independent status that would allow them to act publicly as a cultural body, rather than an arm of government. Via the National Audit Office, the Council could be answerable to the Secretary of State and ministers in relation to its management and the efficiency of its business in managing the resources allocated to it.

Provocation 3 – Seed-Funding Cultural Activity:
Cultural funding from the Council could be delivered as seed-funding. Freeing cultural institutions and professionals from a regime of targets would allow them to respond to the cultural realm and generate it anew. This entails accepting the element of risk that is inherent to cultural practice and would require that the basics of their operations (fixed capital and running costs) are secured, enabling them to concentrate on developing innovative practice and allowing them to cater to and generate markets afresh. In seeking to make savings, government must first ascertain the basic running costs of cultural activity that it needs to fund, and free professionals and organisations from targets in undertaking their work. To this end, the seed-funding would be oriented to achieving outcomes, agreed with the Council according to its remit that cultural operators feel confident that they can identify, meet and track for themselves. This funding should provide for a set number of years, after which it could be either renewed, renegotiated or, if necessary, withdrawn. The Council for Cultural Expression could also be tasked with researching and developing different models of funding (such as crowd-sourced funding) on a small scale that can act as a test-bed for the future. At the same time, it would be necessary to keep checks on the expenditure of public money. Accountability would be achieved by smaller organisations and cultural practitioners bidding for funding from the executive body, which could be tasked with fixing the duration of funding allocations, decided according to its remit. In turn, the executive body could be held accountable to the central government department, parliament and the public by being required to produce a regular (biennial or triennial) report on ‘Culture and Expression in the UK’. Based on the model of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, this could follow a period of public and professional consultation. It could be accompanied by a concomitant review, commissioned and managed by the National Audit Office that would examine both the efficiency of the body’s activities, its distribution of public moneys and its management and public service. Overall, this would differ from the current system of funding because it would encourage social innovation on the part of cultural professionals by virtue of responding to cultural consumers, with the vital caveat that that innovation is achieved in accordance with integrity to the institution or practitioner’s sense of practice. Of course, a cultural professional or institution might wish to be exempt from this and hence public funding, but that would be their individual choice and the success and sustainability of their contribution to the cultural realm would be determined within a market to which they would have to respond.

Provocation 4 – National Cultural Organisations:
Large-scale, national institutions should be gathered in one body within the Council for Cultural Expression. They occupy a different role in society – similar in many respects to smaller cultural organisations and practice – but different in scale and representative responsibility. Because they are national, they have a responsibility to serve the interests of people in the UK as a whole; in the case of national museums, they also have unique statutory responsibilities in relation to collections. National institutions provide a logic to the cultural realm, providing paradigms of excellence, representation to different cultural forms and a framework for the delivery of capabilities, either by their own practice, or by supporting smaller institutions through providing additional representation to their work, programmes of collaboration or loans and, in many cases, resource provision that already exist. The separate body would be similarly constituted to the Council for Cultural Expression with the aim of securing opportunity for expression, ensuring a network of practice between large museums, theatres, concert halls, sporting institutions and other organisations. This group could be accountable through a board of trustees, representing the public, the specific policy interests of different government departments and cultural experts, tasked with judging the performance of the nationals and distributing moneys accordingly. The group could report publicly and in a similar fashion to the Council to the Secretary of State and also be subject to an independent review by the National Audit Office.

Specific recommendations

Alongside the above provocations, this paper also makes some specific recommendations for cultural policy that will help policy-makers answer some of the questions above. Change in the perception of culture on the part of both policy-makers and professionals would bring a revolution in the way that the sector works. Government has the obligation and, in terms of the important role that culture will have in the future, the necessity of supporting the sector in reforming itself. For their part, cultural professionals must take on a new agenda, reconceptualising the relationship between culture and society, putting in place the structures that can support a cultural realm. To bring this about, this paper makes the following recommendations:

Taking the Cultural Pulse of a Nation
 Government should monitor cultural activity, taking the cultural pulse of the nation in a way that gives both regional specificity and a national overview. The legitimacy of cultural policy can only be ensured by a continuous understanding of cultural activity and its outcomes. Evidence should also be gathered that demonstrates the relevance of cultural activity in different policy areas. Taking Part must be continued, asking a broader set of questions relating to the cultural realm, covering activity that is both publicly and privately funded and gathering longitudinal data about the effects of cultural participation. The data should distinguish between publicly funded and private cultural enterprise and so provide evidence about the efficacy of cultural policy in representing and serving cultural activity as a whole. Networks of practice must also be formed that collate information at the local level that will allow local authorities to commission them in strategic ways (the example of Manchester’s Magpie project [see p.37], shows how this can be effective). This should be collated to generate uniform data that can contribute to a national body of evidence. At the same time, the market and social research that larger institutions gather individually should also be collated to contribute to an overall body of knowledge about cultural activity. Part of the funding requirement for cultural organisations should be that they collect and contribute information relevant to and commensurate with their practice and mission to the executive body. This should contribute to the establishment of social return on investment (SROI - see below) data for the cultural sector, which will help in encouraging philanthropic and CSR investment in the future.

Developing new organisational structures
User- and employee-led organisational models, constituted to draw on non-users as well as users of cultural services as currently perceived, could have the potential to provide ways of managing the cultural sector that are both more efficient and more democratic. This could be achieved by focusing on the wider role of such organisations in the cultural realm, rather than on the values of the cultural forms in which they specialise. Successful examples from the sector – particularly around fundraising for specific projects – demonstrate that the potential of these models should be investigated, especially in relation to smaller organisations, notably crowd-sourced funding. In order to understand the wider market of non-users, these organisations should be able to draw on the wider knowledge-base provided by Taking Part.

Thinking anew of the relationship between culture and a sense of place and working with local government accordingly
Culture has a significant part to play in localism and the Big Society championed by the coalition administration. Cultural organisations and local government should partner to realise this value. This should be coupled with a concerted effort on the part of the central government department to support the role of culture in place-shaping, and coordinate the development of an evidence base that will promote the importance of culture to local authorities, demonstrating the potential and importance of cultural activity from the point of view of business cases. To this end, a minister within the Department for Communities and Local Government should be tasked specifically with representing the role of culture in society and supporting partnerships between local government and cultural practice.

Championing culture in relation to corporate social responsibility (CSR)
Because culture is so important to society, it should be an integral part of the CSR activities of organisations. A task of the new central government body should therefore be to make the social case for culture more strongly and ensure that culture is represented to these organisations. In particular, the department should relate more closely to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) in relation to CSR and ensure that culture is represented in the advice given to organisations in this respect.

Establishing measures of social value for the cultural sector
In wider public policy, funders and commissioners are turning to measures of social return on investment (SROI). In the cultural sector, these should be developed in line with the description of culture outlined in this report, and in ways that are commensurate with the missions of different sized organisations. The central government department and the executive body should collaborate to form a set of measures that would allow for comparison between different funding bids. In turn, this would help the central government department to champion cultural causes in relation to CSR.


Sam Jones will be presenting The Leisure Review lecture as part of The Leisure Review symposium, which is being held at Wadham College, Oxford from 31 March to 1 April. Full details of the event are available via the events page.

Sam Jones was recently on secondment at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. His interests include the arts, museums and galleries, and creativity. Sam's primary interests are culture, the arts and international and intercultural communication.  He has written on Global English and conservation and the material world, the UK Film sector and the role of conversation in the public realm. Sam sits on the UK Executive Board of the International Council of Museums.  He has also worked with the BBC to investigate TV arts audiences, and has three years experience of brand and consumer consultancy.  With this experience, he brings an understanding of people as people and how culture might fit into their lives more generally. He has a double first in History from Cambridge and an MA in the History of Art from the Courtauld Institute of Art.

This pamphlet is part of a year-long fellowship tasked with using evidence to contribute independently to policy thinking in relation to culture and sport. The fellowship is hosted by Demos and the Culture and Sports Evidence Programme (CASE) that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport runs jointly with Arts Council England, English Heritage, the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council and Sport England.

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The Leisure Review, February 2011

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“This paper therefore calls for change in cultural policy and its function and delivery, seeing the work of cultural professionals in new light in relation to the social, technological and cultural contexts in which they now operate”

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