Blog – can we talk about the governance of cultural organisations?
I am interested to hear about your experiences of governance. Is the governance of cultural organisations generally working well from your perspective? What are the most successful models of organisational governance you have experienced? If you have thoughts on this, I’d love to hear from you: please leave a comment and I will read and respond. Feel free to be anonymous if you prefer as governance can be a sensitive subject.
From my perspective, I do not think it’s working well. The conventional governance model for not-for-profit organisations often includes a Board and an Executive and has been adopted by many cultural organisations. It is now the preferred model for Arts Council England (ACE) which expects National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs) to adopt this approach. Why? In my view, the model holds organisations back. I’d even argue that it is responsible for sustaining substantial and unhelpful inequities across the sector. To be honest, I think it requires a rethink and a reboot.
So that’s what this blog is about.
It’s about governance.
It’s quite long.
The new ACE national portfolio
I am guessing that hundreds (thousands?) of people in England’s cultural sector have spent the first part of 2022 battling to keep track of all the open tabs on their browser. If you have submitted an NPO application to ACE then best of luck with what happens next. During the first stages of the pandemic, I proposed that ACE should completely reimagine its national portfolio to benefit thousands more independent artists, community groups and community venues; distributing cash for culture more equitably across the country. Others have made similar proposals over many decades. But to date, ACE has shown little appetite to challenge the supremacy of large cultural institutions, the hungry beasts that roam its portfolio at the top of the cultural food chain. Over the last two years, the primacy of these beasts, in a weakened sector, has been reinforced on steroids by the government’s Cultural Recovery Fund (CRF).
Despite this, part of me feels optimistic about the outcome of this NPO round and the possibility for much needed change. For the first time, organisations will be selected under the influence of ACE’s new Let’s Create strategy which on face value describes a different kind of funded cultural sector; one that is inclusive and relevant to more people. While I expect ACE’s application templates will have been criticised and cussed by many, I hope they will enable ACE to score organisations more fairly against Let’s Create when assessing applications, as well as justifying change to those who resist it; legally if necessary. Because if you are not excited about delivering Let’s Create, it is quite hard to hide in one of those templates. The templates will also give ACE a more manageable mechanism to ensure that NPOs do what they say. For too long, it’s been too easy for organisations to make grand promises in funding applications about progress and partnerships, making attractive sounding arguments to ACE with little accountability. This time it feels like ACE has the tools to ensure that organisations follow through.
I was part of an advisory group for Let’s Create in 2018/19 and, at the time, I remember thinking that ACE’s team was more serious about leading change than at any other time in the previous two decades. This is one of the reasons I have grounds for optimism. I also welcome the government’s directive to ACE that will have an influence on this NPO round; Levelling Up for Culture Places 2022-26. It will require ACE to distribute more of its regular funding to areas which have experienced little benefit over decades. On any measure of basic fairness, this is a positive step.
The downside is that the timetable (driven by the timeline for the next election) sees ACE become less of an arm’s length body and more of a direct instrument of government. Consequently, ACE’s delivery model appears rushed and clunky: instead of investing every penny directly, or in development programmes to grow local capacity, ACE is offering some London-based organisations the chance to relocate to under-served areas (pages 6-9). This feels less like Let’s Create and more like Here’s One We Made Earlier. It is also regrettable that the friction caused by this debate, about regional versus London investment, is likely to mask an equally important levelling-up issue: about whether ACE redistributes funding to more artists and community groups instead of large cultural institutions, wherever they are based.
My optimism about Let’s Create and my fragile hope that we will experience a wave of change are tempered by a feeling of confusion. ACE has had a long-standing and sometimes tempestuous affair with large hierarchically dysfunctional organisations. I am now confused about why this looks set to take a turn for the worse with its new portfolio. In amongst the pantheon of supporting documents for applicants there was a rather depressing one about “good governance”. The document sets out ACE’s preference for every regularly funded organisation to adopt the same governance model that has been nurtured by most major cultural institutions in recent decades; with a Board and an Executive. This model has, in my view, done a huge disservice to many of these large institutions and to the cultural sector at large; so I am disappointed and baffled as to why ACE is now imposing the model on the whole funded sector, especially to deliver a strategy such as Let’s Create.
Before I explain what I mean, I should make it clear that I do not think good governance is depressing, it is one of the most electrifying and exciting things on the planet. Good governance is as an effective model of authority and accountability. It is an environment in which good decision-making thrives which balances the needs and desires of today with those of tomorrow; whether for a project, an organisation, a nation or beyond. Good global governance could help us save the planet; it’s essential stuff. It is clearly positive that ACE is placing such a strong emphasis on good governance for the organisations it funds. Not least because well governed organisations have clearer lines of accountability which will make it easier for ACE to hold any failing organisations to account.
Good governance for cultural organisations
So what’s the depressing bit? It is that ACE’s preferred model of good governance is one in which organisations have an Executive (Exec) and a Board:
“For the Arts Council, one of the characteristics of a ‘well run’ organisation is that it has a board or oversight group that is independent of the executive and can take responsibility for ensuring the efficient and effective delivery of the organisation’s funding agreement with us.”
ACE goes on to set out the trappings of a conventional Exec/Board structure, consistent with the governance model of many cultural institutions in England. By choosing this preferred model of good governance, with an Exec/Board structure, ACE is choosing to shape the power dynamics and hierarchies inside hundreds of cultural organisations in England for the next four years. Because when a staff team reports to an Exec which in turn reports to a Board, it signals where power sits inside the organisation: at the top. And this rarely includes artists or members of local communities or indeed anyone who does not already have power or privilege in the current funded ecology.
Now, before I make a nerdy critique of the Exec/Board model, and argue why we need to be more creative about organisational structure and good governance, I want to acknowledge that there are lots of great people who are members of Execs and Boards across the country. In my own experience, when I worked at Battersea Arts Centre, the organisation benefited from inspirational Exec colleagues and brilliant Board members; people who improved or literally saved the organisation on multiple occasions. So in offering a critique of the Exec/Board model and proposing an alternative, I want to acknowledge and celebrate the value which many people contribute to Execs and Boards. I actually think there are ways to retain this important value, indeed magnify it, without conceding to what I perceive as the negative influences of the overall model and structure. I will return to this point later.
Also, just before I do my best to give the structure a good kicking, I want to acknowledge that as well as great individuals there are also great organisations which have created positive versions of the Exec/Board model; that do give voice to artists and community members. I know that many newer organisations think carefully about the role of their Board and there are also long-standing organisations like Contact in Manchester that use the model effectively and give power and voice, in their case, to young people. But unfortunately, these organisations are the exception rather than the rule.
The issues with the Exec/Board model
The Exec/Board model creates a working environment inside organisations which has many disadvantages. It exacerbates hierarchy, impedes collaboration and resists change. If you multiply this across hundreds of organisations in the cultural sector, the consequence is a deadening effect on the sector’s ability to transform itself and make progress. I fear that ACE’s preference for this governance model will actually diminish the sector’s appetite and willingness to deliver Let’s Create. I will explain what I mean. Plenty of what follows is geeky and nuanced and more importantly does not offer a panacea to fix everything. [If someone has written that blog, please post the link below!]
The Exec/Board model means that lots of power, across the sector, sits with directors and trustees at the top of a hierarchy inside cultural organisations. Board members are the ultimate leaders for hundreds of cultural organisations in England. They often have successful professional careers in culture, education, management, commerce, law, human resources, marketing and so on. Their role as Board members is usually unpaid and voluntary. The professional networks of existing Board members play an important role in recruiting new ones; new members are often chosen by the existing Board after a recruitment process; while many do not have an open recruitment process.
All of this contributes to the problem that the model fails to be inclusive and tends to self-perpetuate. Board composition is seldom representative of the communities and artists which cultural organisations were often established to support or serve. Instead, in most cases, people with professional experience get to sit on Boards, alongside people who have shared similar kinds of success. This creates a kind of feedback loop which tends to generate an establishment view of what success looks like: both for Board members and for organisations.
The Boards of cultural organisations are like the sector’s version of the House of Lords but without the expenses budget. Boards are where successful, often middle-class, often privileged people, wield significant power over the destiny of the sector. Because the life experience of many Board members is relatively narrow, Boards often struggle with proposals which challenge organisations to change or to think differently from expected norms; norms that the people who sit on Boards have often been part of constructing.
Over the last decade, there has been a growing consciousness about the gulf between Boards and the communities their organisations serve. Some Boards and Exec teams have worked together to agree policies and practices to change the mix of Board membership. But the problem goes deeper than representation. Boards tend to operate using a cultural code which has often been established, over time, by the people with the most power on Boards. The knock on impact is that attempts to diversify Board membership begin at a disadvantage because the main framework of Board conduct, process and language has been established by people with particular lived-experience of professional success who largely come from a limited range of backgrounds.
This means that while artists and community members, for example, may be invited to join Boards, they can spend a significant amount of their time, and energy, while sitting on the Board, having to learn and navigate its cultural codes. Think for a moment about the best facilitation or participation process you have experienced, and the power of that process to enable everyone in a space to engage equally in a situation. It is rare for Boards to adopt these kinds of inclusive approaches. Instead, they prefer to use their own corporate codes, often used to make conversations and meetings move more swiftly and efficiently. This is quite understandable when everyone is volunteering their time. But there is a cost to this approach. When meetings follow formal codes it creates a more intimidating experience for newcomers who are trying to make a contribution, while unexplained conduct and behaviours can make meetings less accessible. If it becomes difficult for a Board to be challenged to think differently, then there is a danger that the Board becomes a fortress against change rather than a forum for listening, rethinking and reimagining.
Boards obviously play a significant role in defining the future of their organisation: from appointing each other to appointing the organisation’s most senior staff. They also assess the organisation’s progress, review and shape its future strategy. In the new NPO funding round, ACE expects Boards to be accountable for the delivery of their organisation’s funding agreement with ACE. I question whether it makes sense for all this power to be held by volunteers. Most cultural organisations have finally recognised the deeply unjust consequences of unpaid internships as a mechanism for entry in to the sector. This is because voluntary internships massively privilege anyone who can afford to accept one; at their peak they contributed towards a self-perpetuating posh club inside cultural organisations. Given this, are we all fine with the idea of volunteers carrying out the most powerful functions and making many of the most important and impactful decisions at the top of funded organisations? Isn’t this voluntary model of governance just as likely to be problematic and damaging for the whole sector?
And the problem is not just about the inequities and barriers that are created by a voluntary model of governance, the problem is also its practical implications. It is sobering to remember that many Boards will hold all their accountability in a framework of just four meetings each year. This means that Boards must adopt and maintain a strategy for their organisation, monitor risks, review finances, develop policies, and now be accountable for funding agreements, while spending as little as one or two days per year actively working for their organisation. Some organisations will also have Board away-days and Board members may also join subcommittees which increases the time commitment. But it is rare for a Board member’s commitment to an organisation to reach double figures for the number of full working days each year. This is not a criticism of individual Board members, it is simply the way the model practically works; it is natural for volunteers to be able to offer organisations just a few days of their time each year.
I do not understand how it is possible, in all good conscience, to support an organisation in a meaningful way, in such a short amount of time. How can you be a custodian for an organisation in around 50 hours a year? The time limitations also drive the need for time-saving codes of communication which are often inaccessible to people who have not previously sat on Boards. In reality, one or two members of each Board, often those who occupy the role of Chair or Treasurer, will volunteer much more of their time each year than the rest of the Board. The rest of the Board will often look to these individuals on matters where a deeper understanding is required for decision-making. This means that power is even more concentrated with an even smaller sub-set of volunteers who are able to give additional time.
It consistently surprises me that some people, who already have full-time employment, find themselves on several Boards at once. It just goes to show that the time commitment can be very light and that we have created a governance model which favours Board professionals; people who leap nimbly from Board meeting to meeting. My question is whether these Board members can put their hand on their heart and say that they understand the organisations they are leading? I think it is important to ask this question because a Board member holds so much accountability and can define so much of the future for an organisation. Collectively, Board members shape aspects of the cultural sector as a whole. Is it right that they have so little time in which to do this?
Another weakness of the model is the way conversations are conducted between Execs and Boards and how decisions are made. I have already mentioned accessibility as a challenge but there is another aspect which is equally problematic. The expectation of the model is that the Exec will think through issues and make proposals to the Board to decide upon. This could be as simple as ‘here is our budget for the coming year, would you like to comment on this and/or approve it?’ Or the proposal might be more complex or nuanced such as ‘we would like to change a feature of our business, would you like to discuss this proposal and/or approve this change?’ In other words, Boards tend to receive worked-up submissions by the Exec which are for debate and decision. This means there is little room for deliberation at Board meetings.
Debate is different to deliberation because it tends to be more binary; one argument wins over another. Whereas deliberation is when we work together to weigh up different options, we try to understand different perspectives and consider what these mean for the decision we have to make. Deliberation requires us to weigh up things as a whole. I think if ACE wants cultural organisations to change in response to Let’s Create then the Boards of organisations are going to need to get a lot better at weighing up things as a whole.
If an organisation’s Board has subcommittees, that look at specific areas of focus, these tend to enable more deliberation because there is more time to focus on some of the detail and nuance. One of the most useful features of subcommittees is that they can ‘co-opt’ members of the group who do not carry the authority of Board members. This can introduce new and different perspectives and help to open up more dialogue about an issue. However, by the time the issue reaches the Board group, it will invariably have become a proposal, ensuring that the organisation’s highest authority, its Board, sticks to debating rather than deliberating.
Some will say that it is the Exec’s role to deliberate and take their findings to their Board for discussion and decision. I say that this approach is a problem because the most important decisions an organisation makes are not subject to deliberation by the people who actually make the decision. In my view, this directly leads to conservatism because Execs carefully consider what they think their Board will or will not accept which has a dampening effect on progressive ideas; and Boards do not have the time, and often the diversity of experience, to weigh things up as a whole. This has consequences for the sector as a whole.
I am conscious that I have painted a picture of the Exec/Board model that especially relates to cultural organisations with more than a handful of staff. Smaller organisations often generate less formal working environments; everyone has to do a bit of everything to make things work. Consequently, Board relationships can be more informal, sometimes more functional, though in my experience, some of the same challenging traits I have described will continue to show through. I also want to acknowledge different kinds of voluntary governance in the cultural sector. For example, some Boards may not be made up of members with extensive professional success; sometimes Boards are more representative of a community interest group which the organisation serves. Here the challenges can appear to be completely different with Board members sometimes struggling to see the edges of their voluntary roles, blurring lines of accountability with their Exec or staff team. In this situation there can be unresolved conflicts of interest because of the proximity of Board members to the day-to-day work of the organisation. This can create particular stresses for the Exec or staff team if they are not fully empowered to run the organisation. But for Boards such as this, while the problems appear to be different, the causes, I would argue, are the same…created by a model of governance which gives a small group of volunteers the power to shape the narrative for an organisation.
A voluntary model of governance
I think the act of volunteering a number of days each year and placing yourself in service to a cause is often brilliant, inspiring and valuable; for both the volunteer and the organisation. But the act of volunteering a number of days each year to become a leader of that cause, as you do when you join a Board, is a much more difficult challenge to get right. In the former, your time and skills are put to good use; you are usually directed by someone who fights for the cause year-round. By being in service to their cause and strategy, you are freed to confidently offer your skills and experience.
In the example where you join a Board, you also give your time and skills but in this case you are put in charge of the cause as a Board member. Now, it is your responsibility, as a volunteer, to oversee people who work for the cause year-round. It is even your responsibility to occasionally review the cause to assess whether it continues to be the right one. You help to set strategy, policy and monitor progress. You must do all this as a part-time volunteer. This tends to create all kinds of imbalances between the Board and the organisation’s staff: in terms of time, knowledge and power. For this reason, the relationship can be challenging and because everything is held in such a delicate balance things start to go unsaid or unquestioned.
For example, despite the significance of their role and ultimate accountability, Board members in the cultural sector are often invisible to the public who come in to contact with the work of their organisation. Why is this? For organisations with more than a few staff, Board members can also be unknown to the people who work for the organisation. This contributes to a sense of mystique about the way Boards operate because they have power but it is not entirely clear who they are or what they do with their power. Even if they work hard, as many Board members do, volunteering more of their time, meeting more employees, they will remain as figures in the background to most people who come in to contact with the organisation. This is no criticism of individuals, it is just a characteristic of the Exec/Board model; in which the Exec and staff team run the day-to-day while the Board oversees their work in the background.
How many times have you witnessed Board members participating in sector debates or conferences, in their role as a Director or Trustee? Or writing articles, blogging or using social media, as Board members? Is it written down somewhere in a rule book that Board members should avoid engaging in this way or is it just the unspoken custom and practice of the model? Is it because of the understandable constraints on their voluntary time? Or is it a bit of all these? I think, when you take a step back, it is quite strange that some of the most powerful people in the cultural sector are largely invisible and that we rarely get to hear what they think as Board members.
Of course, it suits most Exec teams that their Board takes a back seat. In the hierarchy of Staff, Exec and Board, the Exec is highly unlikely to want Board members to be constantly popping up and representing their organisation in public because this may compromise the Exec’s leadership role with both their staff and partners. So it tends to suit members of an Exec team that the Board exercises its power, directly with them, in Board meetings, behind closed doors. This is because, in turn, it mandates the Exec to exercise its power day-to-day, ensuring that the Exec remains the public face of the organisation, both internally and externally. This is just the accepted way the model works.
A consequence is that most Exec teams will become quite good at ‘managing their Board’. By doing this effectively, the Exec is better able to control the decisions that their Board makes. This may sound Machiavellian but in fact it is just common sense. Why would the Exec of an organisation want a group of volunteers, who have very limited time, as brilliant as they might be as individuals, to have a ten minute conversation in a Board meeting, which decides the future of something extremely important about the organisation’s future? The Exec is more likely to direct the Board towards matters of general direction and strategy which leaves plenty of room for the Exec to manoeuvre. After all, it is the Exec’s role to support and lead staff, to work with partners and to help shape the organisation’s future. So most Execs take to their task of managing (and consequently protecting) their Boards with great zeal.
Part of Exec’s role of managing the Board is to tell the story of the organisation. This is so that the voluntary and part-time Board can appreciate the work that is happening and understand how it relates to the organisation’s purpose and values. Good storytelling enables the Board to make decisions which support what the Exec and staff team are trying to achieve. In most organisations, this happens every three months as part of a quarterly meeting cycle. The Exec writes Board papers, reports and analysis on the organisation’s progress; the risks it faces and its plans for the future. It presents these to the Board with the hope of receiving positive feedback. It is like a regular production in the organisation’s cultural calendar: writing scripts, learning some lines, rehearsing and performing; all intended to receive the oxygen of the Board’s appreciation; and to benefit from their insight and feedback.
One downside of this quarterly performance is that it encourages organisations to spend a huge amount of time and energy telling stories about the organisation internally; talking inwards rather than facing out and listening to the views of people away from the centre of the organisation. Because many of the crucial conversations about the organisation’s future happen behind closed doors in a Board meeting, there can be a kind of information vacuum if you are not inside that storytelling bubble. The internal dialogue between Exec and Board is often intense because it defines a power sharing deal between them; in which Boards have ultimate power but where the Exec gets to exercise that power day-to-day. The fact that they usually choose to meet in confidence adds to a lack of transparency and impenetrable decision-making processes. I think if organisations spent less time focusing on confidential internal dialogue and management, and more time engaging people in the real world, the sector would become more open, connected and representative.
Another downside with this time-poor voluntary framework is that it struggles to embrace complexity. It tends to prefer analysis of an issue and accompanying solutions which can be quickly understood and appreciated in the context of a brief item on a Board meeting agenda. I think this is particularly frustrating in the cultural sector because it is directly at odds with it core substance; human creativity. We know that our creativity can cause complexity but it can also help us interpret it. The cultural sector is itself a complex ecology but we have adopted a voluntary governance model which craves simplicity and immediacy. If we are to progress the work of the sector and to take on many of the complex challenges we face, then we need governance models which are capable of nuance, vulnerability, openness and strength. The current Exec/Board structure mainly delivers on strength; and even then, not always.
I worry about this model of governance as a match to deliver Let’s Create. The new strategy is about listening, learning and changing. It is about embracing complexity to devise and invent new ways of collaborating. It is about the unexplored and the unexpected. It is absurd to think that we can transform the work of the sector without transforming the way it is governed and the way it operates. So why are we pinning our hopes for delivering Let’s Create on a ‘good governance’ model which is, in part, responsible for where the sector finds itself today? I don’t get it.
To be fair to ACE, the governance model they describe is accepted by most funders and government departments. It is pretty much standard. ACE concedes that organisations that do not have an Exec/Board model can have independent Advisory Boards. And elsewhere in their NPO guidelines there is a list of eligible legal entities which includes structures which do not align with the Exec/Board model. So perhaps there is a little light there? Let’s Create is a marathon not a sprint; as time goes on, hopefully ACE will recognise the need for more open, creative and fit for purpose approaches to governance rather than trying to impose a one size fits all solution.
So what are the alternatives?
I said this blog did not offer a panacea and what follows is certainly not that. But I want to make some practical suggestions for approaching things differently in case these are helpful for anyone who has also been thinking about these things. And if you have examples of practice or models please do share through the comments.
1. A different model of governance
In summer 2020, I joined the Board of an organisation which works in the democracy sector called the Sortition Foundation. I started off attending Board meetings as a Director in which the Exec team reported to the Board on the progress of this young organisation. I began to recognise some of the same frustrations that I had previously experienced in the cultural sector; frustrations for everyone involved in the process of governance and management. The organisation wanted to change its structure and after a series of discussions, a working group set about tackling its voluntary model of governance; reshaping its governing document or Articles of Association. After the changes, the company’s overall structure remains a not-for-profit company limited by guarantee. But the governance and management model has shifted from a Board/Exec structure to an organisation which is led by its staff in the mould of a cooperative.
Beyond the new Articles of Association, the organisation’s staff, who are also now the company’s members, have worked together to create a set of ‘secondary rules’. These transparently define how decisions are made, providing process and procedures to get stuff done. Because the secondary rules are written down in plain English (unlike the legalistic Articles which are harder to get your head around) it means that all members of the team can access them; to see how things work, how decisions are made and how to contribute. I have remained with the organisation in a new role as an Independent Director with two priorities. Firstly, with my fellow Independent Directors, to review and assess staff recommendations on remuneration for all staff. This provides oversight of an important area of the organisation’s operation which funders are especially keen to be independently reviewed. Secondly, I volunteer my time in a way that directly helps the organisation to deliver its purpose; the staff team direct me in this pursuit.
This means that almost all the time which I can give to the organisation (which is not very much) is now spent using my skills to help the organisation tackle specific challenges. For example, I have been fundraising to support the organisation’s research and campaigning work. I mentioned earlier in this blog that there are ways to magnify each Board member’s support. I think this model of an Independent Director is one way to do this. Rather than wrestling with a semi-detached leadership role, by overseeing all governance matters as a Board member, it is possible to offer unfettered service and support to an organisation to help achieve its purpose; this could be strategic, commercial or people related support. If you are interested in this approach, you can access the new Articles of Association that we developed here.
A criticism of this approach could be that it simply passes accountability from one relatively privileged group of people (the Board and Exec) to another (paid staff). But if the rules of the organisation clearly prescribe that all staff have a say in how the organisation is run, then I think that is likely to have a considerable and positive impact. For example, I wonder what the cultural sector’s response to the pandemic might have looked like if more of our leading cultural organisations were run in a more cooperative way?
2. A different model of management
In 2012, I was working at Battersea Arts Centre with David Micklem as Joint Artistic Director. We had been thinking about how the structure of the organisation could be more creative; so that it worked more fluidly; more like the Scratch approach we used in the programme. We began working with Sarah Preece who came on board as a project-based Executive Director to tackle this challenge. Sarah had spent time with companies like Unilever and Mother Advertising learning about their project models which tended to structure their teams and business plans around active projects and goals rather than around departments and professional territory.
Sarah worked with the staff team to develop and implement a model of project working. I think it played a leading role in enabling the organisation to transform itself over the rest of the decade. In our version of project working, everything the organisation did was described in a Project Log. Each project had a Shaper who was ultimately accountable in terms of how the project connected to the organisation’s purpose and its financial performance. There was also a Project Manager to lead and deliver the project and a Project Accountant to support its financial administration. Every project had a net financial contribution to make to the organisation by the end of the year; which could be a target surplus or a target deficit; depending on the nature of the project. Each year, we would mix things up and make changes to the Project Log. This increased opportunities for staff to explore new avenues but it also meant we could reimagine activities to better support the organisation’s cause and purpose. Most small organisations work like this anyway; they are often much more dynamic. In Battersea’s case, project working simply brought this dynamism to a medium-sized organisation.
It was not intended to be a Utopian flat structure: every Shaper reported their project’s progress through to the Artistic or Executive Director; we had an Exec/Board structure in place. But I think project working could work very successfully in a more cooperative environment too. It was good at breaking down some of the previously unhelpful and inbuilt hierarchies between different parts of the organisation. We stopped thinking of some people as money spenders and others as money earners, some as creative and some as administrative, some as community focused while others commercial. Everyone was part of the whole team effort. The structure gave younger members of staff a stronger voice and it created an improved team spirit. It also linked everything we did much more strongly to our purpose; helping us to stop doing some stuff and start doing new stuff which was more relevant.
Crucially, it enabled the organisation to move more quickly, responding to opportunities and challenges more effectively. The organisation’s swift response to losing half its building in 2015, due to a fire, was enabled because of project working. If you are interested in this approach here is a template Project Log which gives you a visual flavour for the way that the model worked. The great thing about the Project Log is that it enabled you to see everything the organisation was doing on one piece of paper along with who was doing it. It acknowledged the complexity of the organisation’s work while making this accessible to anyone who was interested to find out more.
3. Citizens helping to design the future of organisations
Over the past decade, citizens’ assemblies have been used by local authorities and national governments to advise on areas of policy. Examples include the 2016 assembly in Ireland which paved the way for the Irish referendum on abortion, and the 2021 citizens’ jury in Jersey on assisted dying which has led to new legislation being prepared. There are three key characteristics of most citizens’ assemblies. Firstly, citizens are invited to participate through a process which ensures the group is representative; in terms of things like gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity, disability, socio-economic background, geography, religion etc. Secondly, the assemblies use deliberation which means that citizens have access to a wide range of information and arguments, often from very different perspectives on a particular topic. Citizens are then independently supported to deliberate on what they have heard and are encouraged to weigh up all the issues prior to working on their recommendations for a way forwards. A third characteristic of these assemblies is the high level of responsibility taken by the citizen participants, who often feel they are representing fellow citizens and take the proceedings, the deliberation, and their role in making recommendations, extremely seriously.
Could cultural organisations be using deliberation with citizens as a tool to help design their work and priorities for the future? This could involve ceding some power to people from outside the bubble of the organisation. This does not mean having to go to the full extent of a large citizens’ assembly. When it comes to cultural organisations, what about inviting citizens to deliberate on how to deliver aspects of Let’s Create? Or how to rethink activity programmes? Or to help reimagine a cultural building? Instead of relying on flawed voluntary governance models, to review the future of an organisation, how about making a concerted effort to do more design thinking with citizens? Not a poll, not a consultation, not a tick-boxing exercise; but a way of designing strategy and activity to help organisations to choose a different path.
Let’s Create embraces a more open approach to supporting creativity and culture. It provides an opportunity to break down some of the longstanding definitions and hierarchies in the cultural sector. These barriers have hampered innovation and ensured that some communities have not had access to funding for culture. At its best, Let’s Create smashes open a narrow definition of “great art” and prioritises human creativity and community culture. I think we should also be prepared to break open our governance models. For too long, Boards have lurked rather than led and protected rather than progressed. It’s great that ACE is giving governance such prominence in its new funding agreements but we need to open up a conversation about what actually is good governance for cultural organisations?