Edition number 14; dateline 31 October 2008

Bullshit tennis: playing the game to win

A recent discussion among some leading lights of the cultural sphere threw up the story of a major construction project involving a government department that wasn’t the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and a government department that was. The story goes that the representatives of this non-culturally focused department put figures on the table that proved, according to the mandarins with the manila folders, that their contribution to the scheme would deliver £200 million of economic benefit to the nation. In order to ensure the viability of the project the DCMS was challenged to demonstrate that its investment would be able to do the same. This, so the story goes, the DCMS was not able to do and as a result the project was shelved, to the significant detriment of one of the nation’s major heritage sites.

The story may be apocryphal but the scenario is sufficiently familiar from press reports and conference papers to have the ring of credibility. It also strikes a chord with that perennial bugbear of the cultural sector, proving the worth of investment. We have made great strides in recent times, not least in the general acceptance across the whole leisure and culture sector that such evidence is both desirable and necessary. The IDeA’s work in the sphere of culture and sport, which has included the development of the Towards An Excellent Service (TAES) initiative [see TLR passim] and other improvement tools, has demonstrated a willingness of local authorities and national agencies to enter the fray. There is also a general acceptance, particularly in the context of a mature and less munificent national lottery, of the financial realities of sustainable projects. Outside the cultural milieu there may even be evidence of a growing recognition that motivations and justifications other than money are valid. With the global banking bubble now burst and everyone reaching for their copies of JM Keynes, it may even be that culture’s star could be rising.

However, the inference that culture’s figures are at best lightweight and all too often non-existent is still common. This is particularly frustrating when the figures that are given credence within Whitehall are so often shown to be based upon wishful thinking, sectoral self-interest and private profit. The figures regularly rolled out, for example, from the transport lobby regarding the economic benefits of investment in roads are at best imaginative and at worst misleading and mendacious; yet figures for the cost to the economy of a minute of delay in motorway travel, the lost opportunity costs of not building another extension to the nation’s network of major roads, the financial imperatives of putting half of Middlesex under Tarmac to build another runway are presented with a seasoning of academic rigour and swallowed whole.

Is it not time that the DCMS and the cultural sector began to recognise the game it is being asked to play and equipped itself appropriately? While the efforts of our sector to meet the demands of the modern political environment do us credit for their integrity and commitment to improvement, it may be that phoning whichever university department does the work for the transport lobby and asking them to apply the same principles to high-profile cultural projects will be more effective. It may be disheartening to think that the game culture is being asked to play is in fact bullshit tennis but if that is the game let us at least go on court with a big enough racquet.

Jonathan Ives



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