It is a real pleasure to introduce the latest contribution to this blog, partly becomes it comes from a colleague whom I have known for a long time, and had plenty of interesting discussions on questions of cultural policy, and the interface with research, but above all because Javier Stanziola is also an *actual* economist! Whilst he is playing wittily with my use of Peter Self’s (1975) label of ‘econocrat’ by claiming it for himself, I’m not so sure he ‘deserves’ the title. This site takes issues with the obsession with narrow econometric approaches to understand and measure value. It does so by suggesting that (as many economists too acknowledge) there are limitations to these methods, and by also arguing that economics-based methodologies are just one of the lenses through which the question of value can be explored, albeit one that seems to dominate cultural policy discourse (if not practice). Yet, this is not to deny that there is a role and place for economics in discussions of cultural value; economics is also a very large discipline indeed, which houses different theoretical and methodological approaches often in tension with one another. It certainly is not a consensual field of enquiry. The problem with economics-derived methods applied to cultural policy, most commonly to make the economic case for arts funding, is often a problem of ‘bad economics’. In other words the problem often is one of concepts and methods from economics poorly applied, often by non-specialists, to the arts and culture – as argued by Hasan Bakshi, Alan Freeman and Graham Hitchen in their report poignantly entitled ‘Measuring Intrinsic Value: How to stop worrying and love economics’, and by no other than prominent British economist John Kay on the pages of the Financial Times. So, I am really pleased to host Javier’s discussion of what data can be gained from the rigorous application of economics’ methods to the study of culture for the purpose of improving policy making – in this case, the provision of library services.
As an economist, I have always been baffled by claims that cultural policy making has been hijacked by economists. The notion that anyone at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) or at Arts Council England (ACE) is systematically using one of them scary economic tests to make policy decisions is as fanciful as it is comical. As I have written somewhere else, there are many institutional constraints that limit the ability of policy makers, artists and cultural managers to effectively engage with economic tools and thinking to inform their work. Not fully aware of these constraints, a comforting narrative has emerged in the sector where economics (and anything that sounds like evaluation, assessment, review or quantification) is vilified as simplistic and boorish.
At the same time, many policy makers at DCMS and ACE are deeply concerned about and looking for sensible answers to what Eleonora Belfiore calls “awkward questions”, “(F)or whom does the sector generate value? What do (cultural) organisations… do to live up to their status as public…organisations?…And are there ways in which the funding pie could be distributed differently that would result in a fairer and more equitable outcome?”.
These questions guided an exploratory piece of research I recently conducted with the support of ACE. It reviewed whether there was any variability in service provision by public libraries across England. The ACE was interested in expanding the language and approaches the sector uses to explore the value of cultural organisations. We aimed to do this by focusing on library service provision as a process, using a wealth of data on the sector and well-established and robust benchmarking techniques.
The analysis assumes that statutory funding allows local authority libraries to work outside the market to reduce the impact efficiency constraints would have on their work and their expected social and educational outcomes. At the same time, it acknowledges that libraries are required to manage limited resources to provide a comprehensive service to its users. In that context, a basic question for libraries, as organisations, is how they can maximize their service provision given the limited resources they are allocated and the assets they have. At a policy level, the question turns into issues of distribution. Does the level of library service provision vary significantly across local authorities? If so, is this variation due to organisational factors and decision making processes under the control of local authorities? Or does the variation respond to the different needs and demands of users in different geographical areas?
We assumed that the final social and educational outcomes libraries can produce are unlikely to happen without the active co-production of the intended users. This means that there is a two-stage process behind library service provision. Libraries have some control over the first stage: deciding on the offer, including the acquisition and maintenance of stock, the organisation of ICT classes and reading challenges and the purchase and management of terminals with internet access.
The second-stage, the take-up of the offer, requires active involvement from users. The study sees provision of public services as a participatory process where users play the role of co-producers. This moves us away from top-down processes where users are assumed to be captive audiences that merely consume the services that are given to them. Instead, co-production sees users as part of the public service production function. The media and academic literature have questioned the relevance, impact and real intentions of increasing the level of involvement in co-production of cultural services through, for instance, volunteering. In addition to concerns about quality, professionals question the additional value of co-production processes involving citizens with limited professional technical expertise and limited access to decision-making agents.
Once we have settled on a cultural production process to frame our analysis, what rule do we use to assess this process? For this study, we considered a number of techniques to analyse a wealth of data on libraries and users from CIPFA, DCMS and DCLG from 2006/07, 2008/09 and 2011/12. We chose partial frontier modelling using STATA commands. In simple terms, partial frontier modelling is a benchmarking methodology. It conceptualises levels of service provision as a relative indicator, just like other simpler benchmarking tools. The commands provide a clear set of rules to assess this provision and engages in randomized comparisons. This helps reduce some of the biases introduced by human discretion in simpler benchmarking techniques.
The results provided strong evidence of the efficiency of the public library sector. For the three years we studied, they had high scores for efficiency not only in terms of the offer, but also in take up. The results also suggest that efforts to increase co-production (in this case through volunteering) have a positive impact on efficiency by supporting the work of professional librarians and helping the sector understand better the needs and concerns of the communities they serve.
On the other hand, we found evidence that there is geographical disparity in the level of provision. Libraries in local authorities with a high population density and high proportion of young people find it more challenging to deliver their services efficiently. Surprisingly, expenditure per capita performs poorly in explaining variation in efficiency, suggesting that management and external factors are like to be key explanatory factors behind these disparities.
Finally, the study suggests that libraries provide a good range of complementary goods and services. However, income derived from “other services” is negatively related to libraries’ core offer. Since public libraries and the cultural sector are expected to diversify their funding sources even further in the future, understanding the effects this could have on their core offer is vital. If resources are shifted away from core services to finance new sources of income, the existing offer and take up could be negatively affected.
Measurement processes such as this one are plagued with courageous assumptions and disappointing datasets – just like most analytical endeavours. However, this should not stop us from engaging with different measurement techniques to explore the complex dynamics behind cultural provision and use. Together with other evidence (from content analysis to personal experience), this type of analysis could play a key role in ensuring awkward questions about cultural provision could be finally tackled.
Dr. Javier Stanziola is a cultural economist, novelist and playwright. From 2003-2009, he worked for one too many now defunct cultural quangos in England, prompting completely unfounded rumours of his role in their demises. He had a brief stint at the University of Leeds from 2009-2012, which he only talks about after a few drinks at a gastropub. To his surprise and many in the sector, he has managed to get quite a few academic and consultancy reports published on social return on investment, cultural policy and funding diversification. His latest novel, Hombres enlodados, is not about cultural value.