By Dawn

“…as a discussion in Clarke (2006:62) exemplifies, the need to fit the cultural sector’s understanding of value into central government’s standard framework for evaluating decisions is simply unavoidable. It is especially unavoidable given the increasing demands on decreasing resources expected across the public sector for the foreseeable future (Selwood 2010).”

I have wrestled with ‘Measuring the value of Culture: a report to the Department for Culture Media and Sport’ for several weeks now and I confess almost any distraction has taken me elsewhere. Having hit the above paragraph at the end of Chapter 3 ‘Values and Valuation’ I remained stuck there, initially too depressed to stroll any further. That is not to say it is a bad report. I think it is exactly what it set out to be a rigorous, multi-disciplinary literature review of methods for measuring the value of culture set within the context of HMT’s Green Book.

This probably locates it within a relatively specific readership, which is a shame because the challenge of measuring the value of culture really ought to be a sector wide debate. There is recognition that ‘culture is an intangible good that is hard to define’ but the report goes on to suggest that economic techniques have been applied to other intangibles such as environmental and transport policy making. Still I fight to get past the notion that this kind of measurement is unavoidable.

 I should probably show my hand at this point, if you haven’t already guessed it. I am a qualitative researcher and evaluator, issues of meaning making and experience are important to me. There is no doubt I, like others, apply a particular lens in looking at the matter of value and I recognise it has an impact. It does not mean, however, that I do not appreciate there are other approaches, many of which involve particular forms of measurement. I hope it makes me a constructive critic rather than an outright detractor.

 There is no doubt that Dave O’Brien has done his legwork, there are probably enough references here to feed my blogging for months to come. I find it a bit of a shame that the consultees don’t include any of the culture SMEs or micros that any development in this field is most likely to have an effect on, if nothing else to bring them into the debate. I am not suggesting it should have been a representative sample, let’s not get hung up on that one, just that I know of many good smaller culture organisations who are wrestling with these issues right now. And they too might have a view on why the cultural sector ‘is hindered by its failure to clearly articulate its value in a cohesive and meaningful way.’ (Scott, 2009: 198)

 At the moment, and this may change with further readings, the bit I find most perplexing comes on the second page of the introduction. I was encouraged when I started to read that while techniques from economics are the most useful for government decision makers who have to make judgements about cultural value, i.e. distribution of scarce resources (probably fair comment), ‘they must not be used in isolation’ (great, couldn’t agree more). The next sentence starts robustly, ‘first’, I am now primed for a valuable list of reasons why mixed methods are relevant here. However, only two emerge.

1.       There is a need to gain the support of the cultural sector

2.       The debate over economic valuation techniques being able to capture all dimensions of cultural value is on-going

 It seems to me these two issues are the crux of the matter, and they have been around for some time, it is good that they have been highlighted in the report though. It would have been even better to have them drawn out more in the recommendations.

 Overall, it is hard not to hear a message that suggests, ‘we’ve given you lot plenty of time to come up with your own methods and measures and you’ve failed to convince anybody, now let the grown-ups who can count take over.’ Or am I being too harsh/paranoid/cross/fluffy…?