Colloquy 2



The Question of Evidence

Newpark Hotel, Kilkenny, 12th August, 2013


NCFA Colloquy #2 from NCFA on Vimeo (Photographs by Patrick Moore)


This session followed the first National Campaign for the Arts colloquy on public engagement in May and sought to think about and through, understandings of the concept of evidence as it related to cultural or arts policy formation. In recent decades, evidence has become increasingly important as a way of proving the need for, and value, of all public policies, and more particularly in the arguably weaker government sector of cultural policy. The question of evidence, therefore, has become more acute following the latest global recession and the unprecedented reduction in public spending as well as increasing pressures on arts organisations to quantify and qualify their work. As Ireland seeks to emerge from the most severe recession since the foundation of the state, this session was particularly apposite. There were two presentations followed by a series of simultaneous round table discussions and concluding plenary.

Following introductions, Dr. Dave O Brien from the City University, London, spoke about the UK experience of the politics of evidence and cultural value. Specifically, Dr. O’Brien discussed the erstwhile role of New Labour in evidence-based and managerialist (through techniques of problem solving) policy making, through the use of market logic and market principles (customer service models etc.), pioneering an economic emphasis on ‘returns’ from state investments into culture (social cohesion etc.). This was contextualised by a consideration of what the state seeks from cultural policy (by definition, policy seeks an outcome), and problems with the various policy processes used to judge the efficiency (rather than effectiveness) of policies as well as the unproductive (or unpalateable) nature of economic evaluations of culture. Finally, the limits and realities of evidence-based policy were summed up in a quote from policy analyst Alex Stevens: “

“Policy-makers want to know what the costs and effects of a policy option will be, and on whom they will fall. It is rare for research to provide definitive answers to these questions – evidence was far more likely to be used if it fitted with the story that was already being told; a story that usually emerged from a complex interaction of the evidence with the interests of the politicians, special advisers and civil servants who were its joint authors” Stevens (2011)[Accessed 15 August, 2013].

This presentation was followed by a short riposte from Professor John O’Hagan from TCD, who concentrated on the need to use arguments outside of the economic, particularly given the view that cultural policies will never deliver economically when competing with other sectors, including the commercial or creative industries sector. Prof. O’Hagan urged Ireland’s policy makers to follow cultural policy models that were less centralised than the UK (which Ireland had traditionally looked to) and cited Germany and Northern Europe as possible models. In making the case for the funded sector not to concentrate on economic impact arguments, he emphasised his view that the social impact of the arts was stronger and made a more unique case for funding the arts and that the German concept of bildung, or general educational capacity of an individual might be a useful paradigm. He added that there was a difficulty with the kind of evidence or data being produced in the arts sector which tended to be misleading and therefore undermined trust in the sector. He concluded by stating the importance of lobbing as evidence of the value of culture in and of itself and for the arts to always recognise (and be seen to recognise) the competing demands of policymakers in representative democracies.

Tables and plenary

Feedback from the tables was detailed, complex and very rich, and included the following summarised views: more information on participation in the arts is needed; though we are predisposed to prefer qualitiative data, quantitative data is important too, though we may not like the information it delivers; how do we effectively collect data; how to measure impact?; the arts sector needs to decide what they want research to consist of; there needs to be a clarity of purpose in any research question/project; we need to know who our future audiences are (this might be a research project); we need to avoid skewed data; we need to use the language (of evidence) better; we need to make more use of the National Household Survey and other data sources; we need greater coherence in the sector and in identifying needs; we need leadership; we need to balance government with local demands; we need research that meets the needs of all of the sector; evidence is tailored to meet the needs of those requesting it, this is not necessarily and bad thing; we need comparative evidence; there needs to be self-assessment; we need to track the impact of awards on artists; evidence does not necessarily mean change; we should acknowledge that we are following the UK model; who is the audience for this evidence?; we need more information on the use of libraries; there is not enough protest or lobbying from the arts; in these discussions about the sector and the use of the word ‘we’, who is the ‘we’? are we sure we know and or agree?; we should use the GAA model in relation to culture; the government needs to know more about the footfall in relation to arts events; cultural tourism is also very important to the government; there needs to be regulation in the arts; who arts funding is for.. tourists or citizens?; we need reliable statistics that work for the Dept. and that they can use; many events are poorly attended though many are well attended, we need to understand difference and reason; what is the role of the third level sector in data gathering and research?; there is a question as to how seriously decision makers and policy makers take any evidence... do they pay attention?; to whom is evidence directed ? or is evidence being ‘sold’?; we need to acknowledge the long-term process of the sedimentation or bedding in of arts data, many reports from decades ago are still relevant and only properly used in later years; evidence is subjective and personal.

To conclude, the question arose again of whether there is any point in providing evidence if decisions are made for budgetary or pragmatic reasons and of who the sector is thought to comprise of (arts practitioners, artists, policymakers, politicians, the public/s), i.e. who is the ‘we’ in this conversation and can there truly be a ‘we’?

AUDIO from this event can be downloaded HERE

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