//
you're reading...

Uncategorized

A view from one of them econocrats: Efficiency and public libraries in England by Javier Stanziola

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.

 

BIO

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.

Discussion

4 Responses to “A view from one of them econocrats: Efficiency and public libraries in England by Javier Stanziola”

  1. When I was a lad, libraries were where you went to lend books for free…

    ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…’

    Dickens, Charles, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, Chapter 1, 1859

    There was a time when life seemed simpler, when public services were dull grey and reliably quiet. Our libraries epitomised this sense of safe social security. They were ubiquitous; full of books that were falling apart, impossible to find because they were often misfiled, not a computer in sight, and the silence was deafening. It was a case of ‘seek and ye shall find’ (or not) and that made going to the library, whether local or city central, like an expedition – one where you’d always leave with a sports bag full of brilliant books and a dog eared card stamped to within an inch of its literature-lending life. Intrepid days like this brought me into contact with Blake, Wilde, Huxley, Dostoyevsky, Marx, Jung and many, many more. I often kept the books too long. I got fined but even the penalties were manageable.

    Library life has changed. There are now two types of library: run-down local ones, staffed by well-meaning volunteers and open a couple of hours a day; and big, high-tech central ones, where computer space and coffee shop seems more important than books on shelves, where exhibitions and events and workshops attempt to lure ‘new customers’ who presumably aren’t just tempted by the prospect of ‘borrowing’ books for free. Twenty-first library life is remarkably similar to the beginning of Dicken’s seminal ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. Austerity is the name of the game. A game of two halves: the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’. Little libraries are closing in poor areas, being taken over by the ‘great and the good’ volunteers in well-off places, and being ‘enhanced’ in central mega-libraries where local councils seek to nestle all their literary eggs in one big, fancy glass-fronted basket – ‘learning zones’. In this time of austerity, economics has been crowned a new cultural king – a vestige perhaps more akin to ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’. Libraries have a new mission: to maximise profit and efficiency and diversify sources of income. They are apparently privileged because, as Saviola claims, ‘statutory funding allows local authority libraries to work outside the market’. But what if public libraries and indeed public services in general were not and should not be perceived as being part of ‘the market’? What if this drive for libraries to declare their value and, in so doing become part of ‘the market’, is a drive towards a homogeneous service that attempts to define itself in terms of ‘maximising provision’ and ‘distribution’? Perhaps then libraries are not really about lending books anymore?

    These are challenging times for libraries, arts, culture, and indeed every aspect of our lives. We are still struggling to escape the gloom of a deep economic recession. To do so we are told we must make drastic financial savings wherever necessary. Only then might we usher in a shiny new economic future. Belfiore is right to point out that we face ‘awkward questions’. The DCMS and Arts Council England are apparently looking for ‘sensible answers’. Where? In reports by economists. But don’t worry, says Saviola, we’d be wrong to think ‘cultural policy making has been hijacked by economists’. Really? ‘Cultural policy’ in the UK was created by Keynes – an economist – and Arts Council England was created to deliver this policy. Indeed, it may be fair to suggest that every aspect of our lives has been ‘hijacked by economists’. So it is that we pray before the same alter of economics that created our current ‘season of Darkness’ in the hope that economics will breathe forth a new ‘season of Light’.

    So, back to libraries. They’re not places where you lend books or read books, they’re places of ‘co-production’. This is where their value lies: in the ‘provision of public services as a participatory process where users play the role of co-producers’. Indeed Saviola assumes that the ‘social and educational outcomes libraries can produce are unlikely to happen without the active co-production of the intended users’, especially volunteers. Let me be clear, I do not doubt that involving people from all areas of our communities in developing and delivering publicly funded library services is key to ensuring we meet the needs of ‘service users’. I also know that the value of volunteering is immense and can always show positively in terms of economic efficiency – not least because volunteers don’t get paid and therefore offer real savings over staffing costs. I am just a little concerned that the coarse language of economics and its fetishisation of ‘measurement processes… courageous assumptions and disappointing datasets’ IS invading our cultural landscape, ‘remapping’ cultural activity to create a hyperreality so convincing that we all believe that economic data is our culture. Saviola (living in ‘the epoch of belief’) suggests that ‘this should not stop us from engaging with different measurement techniques to explore the complex dynamics behind cultural provision and use.’ I live in ‘the epoch of incredulity’. I understand economics but I don’t believe such over simplistic and reductionist approaches will ever ‘play a key role in ensuring awkward questions about cultural provision could be finally tackled.’

    Perhaps we should look for the answers in books, in libraries? Ask people, listen to protests about cuts, and provide adequate funding. Maybe public libraries are last bastions of ‘the best of times’? Places where we found ‘the age of Wisdom’. Let’s not lose them under the economic snow of another cultural ‘winter of despair’.

    Posted by Stephen Pritchard | October 21, 2013, 10:48 am
  2. When I was a lad, libraries were where you went to lend books for free…

    ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…’

    Dickens, Charles, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, Chapter 1, 1859

    There was a time when life seemed simpler, when public services were dull grey and reliably quiet. Our libraries epitomised this sense of safe social security. They were ubiquitous; full of books that were falling apart, impossible to find because they were often misfiled, not a computer in sight, and the silence was deafening. It was a case of ‘seek and ye shall find’ (or not) and that made going to the library, whether local or city central, like an expedition – one where you’d always leave with a sports bag full of brilliant books and a dog eared card stamped to within an inch of its literature-lending life. Intrepid days like this brought me into contact with Blake, Wilde, Huxley, Dostoyevsky, Marx, Jung and many, many more. I often kept the books too long. I got fined but even the penalties were manageable.

    Library life has changed. There are now two types of library: run-down local ones, staffed by well-meaning volunteers and open a couple of hours a day; and big, high-tech central ones, where computer space and coffee shop seems more important than books on shelves, where exhibitions and events and workshops attempt to lure ‘new customers’ who presumably aren’t just tempted by the prospect of ‘borrowing’ books for free. Twenty-first library life is remarkably similar to the beginning of Dicken’s seminal ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. Austerity is the name of the game. A game of two halves: the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’. Little libraries are closing in poor areas, being taken over by the ‘great and the good’ volunteers in well-off places, and being ‘enhanced’ in central mega-libraries where local councils seek to nestle all their literary eggs in one big, fancy glass-fronted basket – ‘learning zones’. In this time of austerity, economics has been crowned a new cultural king – a vestige perhaps more akin to ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’. Libraries have a new mission: to maximise profit and efficiency and diversify sources of income. They are apparently privileged because, as Stanziola claims, ‘statutory funding allows local authority libraries to work outside the market’. But what if public libraries and indeed public services in general were not and should not be perceived as being part of ‘the market’? What if this drive for libraries to declare their value and, in so doing become part of ‘the market’, is a drive towards a homogeneous service that attempts to define itself in terms of ‘maximising provision’ and ‘distribution’? Perhaps then libraries are not really about lending books anymore?

    These are challenging times for libraries, arts, culture, and indeed every aspect of our lives. We are still struggling to escape the gloom of a deep economic recession. To do so we are told we must make drastic financial savings wherever necessary. Only then might we usher in a shiny new economic future. Belfiore is right to point out that we face ‘awkward questions’. The DCMS and Arts Council England are apparently looking for ‘sensible answers’. Where? In reports by economists. But don’t worry, says Stanziola, we’d be wrong to think ‘cultural policy making has been hijacked by economists’. Really? ‘Cultural policy’ in the UK was created by Keynes – an economist – and Arts Council England was created to deliver this policy. Indeed, it may be fair to suggest that every aspect of our lives has been ‘hijacked by economists’. So it is that we pray before the same alter of economics that created our current ‘season of Darkness’ in the hope that economics will breathe forth a new ‘season of Light’.

    So, back to libraries. They’re not places where you lend books or read books, they’re places of ‘co-production’. This is where their value lies: in the ‘provision of public services as a participatory process where users play the role of co-producers’. Indeed Stanziola assumes that the ‘social and educational outcomes libraries can produce are unlikely to happen without the active co-production of the intended users’, especially volunteers. Let me be clear, I do not doubt that involving people from all areas of our communities in developing and delivering publicly funded library services is key to ensuring we meet the needs of ‘service users’. I also know that the value of volunteering is immense and can always show positively in terms of economic efficiency – not least because volunteers don’t get paid and therefore offer real savings over staffing costs. I am just a little concerned that the coarse language of economics and its fetishisation of ‘measurement processes… courageous assumptions and disappointing datasets’ IS invading our cultural landscape, ‘remapping’ cultural activity to create a hyperreality so convincing that we all believe that economic data is our culture. Stanziola (living in ‘the epoch of belief’) suggests that ‘this should not stop us from engaging with different measurement techniques to explore the complex dynamics behind cultural provision and use.’ I live in ‘the epoch of incredulity’. I understand economics but I don’t believe such over simplistic and reductionist approaches will ever ‘play a key role in ensuring awkward questions about cultural provision could be finally tackled.’

    Perhaps we should look for the answers in books, in libraries? Ask people, listen to protests about cuts, and provide adequate funding. Maybe public libraries are last bastions of ‘the best of times’? Places where we found ‘the age of Wisdom’. Let’s not lose them under the economic snow of another cultural ‘winter of despair’.

    Posted by Stephen Pritchard | October 21, 2013, 1:13 pm

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] A view from one of them econocrats: efficiency and public libraries in England – Javier Stanizola at the Cultural Value Initiative explores the notions of value and efficiency as applied to libraries […]

  2. […] post is a direct response to a recent contribution to the Cultural Value Initiative blog entitled ‘A view from one of them econocrats: Efficiency and public libraries in England’ and […]

Leave a Reply

The #culturalvalue Initiative Archive