Thursday, 30 April 2009

Rotten Borough: a play about Hackney in how many Acts?

The Times' Business pages is not the first place you would look for an article about Hackney, but Ian King's column today described the borough as 'the success story that Labour is writing off'. Ian charts Hackney's rise since the meltdown of the 1990s to become the 'poster child for new Labour': vastly improved public services, a benign environment for businesses to flourish; a place where a diverse range of people want to live. He then makes the strange assertion that 'at a time when Mr Brown is hurtling back towards old Labour ideology, they (businesses) are flourishing in a borough run very much in line with the modernised approach that the Prime Minister is junking.'

I can't think of a single Brownite policy, piece of legislation or regulation that should impact negatively on the success of small businesses in Hackney (beyond the general economic mess we are all blaming each other for). However, for Hackney to continue to thrive may require some new thinking from the centre of government.

Every party, in very jargonistic terms (anyone for 'new localism' or double-devolution?) talks about the need for the centre to let go. Not necessarily to town halls, but out and down, to the rims of various wheels.

Given the experiences of the last twenty years, if government can let go in Hackney, it can let go anywhere. When Tony Blair talked about the 'scars on my back' from forcing change onto public services, his experiences in Hackney in the 1980s were as damaging as his Prime Ministerial predicaments.

But do we really understand what happened in Hackney, or other London boroughs, during that strange period of ratecapped neglect after the GLC was abolished? To move on, double-devolve, give power away in the way we need to, the story of Hackney's 'rotten borough' period seems worth telling. Amidst the chaos and corruption, there are bound to be some individual stories that can reveal the human experiences and emotions, the quiet and loud victims of political processes.

We probably all agree we don't want to go back there, but do we really understand what 'there' was like, and how it can be avoided?

Today I asked Hackney Archives about their records from that period. They revealed a gap in their collection of council minutes, from around 2003 for about three years. Any gap is an incentive to dig. Who does Hackney think it is?

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Why Arms Length?

Personal and political. After 15 years with various institutions, I finally have a whole year when I am at arms length from all of them - on nobody's payroll. I have been very lucky in that none of these institutions have been particularly constraining. At school, as long as the kids were relatively quiet, you could close the door and get on with it - the national curriculum, ofsted and the rest of the paraphanelia were often just smokescreens for neglect and autonomy. At ippr, my team was always solvent and relatively productive, though only sporadically influential. Cue for more autonomy. And even at Creative Partnerships, managing huge budgets, I certainly received more autonomy than attention.

But the arms length feeling is with me anyway, as I deinstitutionalise my brain and body.

Arms length is also supposed to define the relationship between the UK state and the arts. My fellowship, in cultural policy, will explore this relationship, hopefully ask some new and relevant questions about whether 'arms length' is still a useful and meaningful concept, and maybe even recommend a new paradigm to shape the state-citizen-art trinity for the next sixty years.

Now if that isn't an arrogant aspiration, my next one certainly is.

Cultural policy in the UK over the past 60 years has not been without its failings and difficulties, but overall has contributed significantly to the success of the UK’s cultural sector. Through a combination of accident and design, we may have stumbled upon a set of policies, processes and relationships that go with the grain of wider societal changes, and could therefore have wider application. Through a critical analysis of how the UK state’s ‘arms length relationship’ with culture has worked and is working, cultural policy could provide a model that could influence all other policy areas, and inform new thinking about the state-citizen relationship and the role of the state. Anyone for an arms-length state?

Monday, 27 April 2009

The Arts in a Post-Bureaucratic age

Although dealing with the downturn is important, the arts sector should probably be spending as much time preparing for a Conservative government.

David Cameron, despite his dislike and careful avoidance of jargon, is using the phrase 'post-bureaucratic age' to summarise his approach to government and public services.

What does the phrase mean, and what might it mean for the arts?

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Sustain...the quangocracy?

At Friday's conference on 'maximising the importance of arts and culture throughout the downturn', the Arts Council announced its response to the recession.

Sustain, '
a £40 million, open application fund will provide extra support for organisations under pressure as a result of recession. 'This is not a fund for failing organisations, but a way that we can sustain artistic excellence in the context of the economic downturn'.

In a period when it is supposed to be shrinking, ACE will now have to create a totally new application process, using a combination of artistic and economic judgements, and resulting, as always, in more losers, each of which will be more noisy than all of the winners combined.

Although the details are not yet there, existing criteria already seem random. Commercial organisations cannot apply; nor, bizarrely, can any organisation less than three years old. Might it have been better to give Grants for the Arts a £40M boost, possibly with an additional recession-related remit.

Maybe ACE just felt it had to be seen to do something, but I predict many difficult headlines that will outweigh the apparent good news on Friday. Besides, might such a funding stream promote moral hazard in the cultural sector - why deal with the recession, when you can wait for a funding application decision?

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Thoughts from YSP #2: Cultural Service Stations?

YSP is two hours from London by train – not as far away from London or expensive as Germaine Greer claims. Wherever you wander in the park and nature reserve, you hear the roars of the M1. Junction 38 is five minutes away.

Four years ago, halfway to a campsite in North Wales, we found ourselves on the M6, needing a pee and petrol. 15 minutes later, we were at New Art Gallery Walsall, emptier than your average service station, with better coffee, views, and toilets. The petrol would have to wait.

Could we market a network of cultural service stations? Venues within a 15 minute drive from any Motorway junction, and happy to welcome tired travellers for short bursts? Could this be a way to attract new audiences, those the arts council's 'segmentation study' calls 'time-poor dreamers' or 'a quiet pint with the match'?

It would be an amusing step too far to ask these venues to provide petrol, but, given the tat in most venues' gift shops, how about branded travel sweets, tissues and maybe even the odd bit of chammy leather?

So, please give your ideas for for cultural service stations here – if enough emerge, I may be forced to do something with them…

I know nothing about arts marketing, but I know what I like. My favourite ever is Devon's Barometer World Museum - 'the hobby that got out of hand'. And the worst: 'Bradford: A surprising place'. Surprisingly what?

Thought from Yorkshire Sculpture Park #1: we are not all curators now

Early this month I spent two days in Yorkshire Sculpture Park to walk the last five years out of my system, and talk to curators about what they do. The curators described the process as 'just project management', but this underplays the role's uniqueness and value.

The long lead in times seem extraordinary, but gives a veneer of detailed long term planning that hides the usual story of last minute activity, decision making and haggling.

Curators could teach civil servants something about project management, partnership building and, above all, how trust conquers all. They have to trust the artist, whilst being assertive about their knowledge, especially of the space.
I was reminded of a Clore discussion about curation after seeing the war and medicine exhibition at the Wellcome Trust. People were moving towards the 'we are all curators now' position; "In editing a magazine, I curate the space of those pages". I silently disagreed. Curation has a specific meaning and value which needs to be learnt from rather than colonised.
Noguchi was the YSP's current star. Told chronologically, the final room was dominated by huge blocks of stone. According the Claire Lilley (the head of programmes) all sculptors turn to stone, or at least wood, in their dotage. Even Damien Hurst will move that way one day. An obvious quest for immortality?

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Dusting off my medals, thanks to Google

If there is anything more egotistical than googling yourself, then Narcissus needs to know about it. As well as confirming that there is Only One Joe Hallgarten, the 1,000-ish entries are guilty of repetition, hesitation, and deviation, in several languages. Dig deep, and you can discover what my worst ever Christmas present was. Here is a selection of other highlights.

My memories of teaching are still more resonant than of any other job I have done. I once said, to my new bosses dismay, that once you have worked in a school, everything else feels a little soulless. My first ever published article described pupils' predictions for Ambler School in 2098. Later,
a journalist somehow found out I was an ex-teacher, and following an article in the Independent where I claimed "I was scared I would be stuck for life", I received a regular stream of requests, including a GLR radio car parked on my street, asking me to moan about the joys of teaching.

On my first day at ippr, I was asked to write a literature review, so rang my mum to ask her what a literature review was. The project, on parent-school relationships, led to the publication of Parents Exist OK!, a terrible name for a book that I am still proud of, and resonates with many current policy debates around parents and schools. It was probably better at predicting than shaping the future, despite being translated into braille for David Blunkett (then Secretary of State for Education), a short TES article, and getting the TES' 'book of the week'.

I was also asked to finish editing a collection of papers on citizenship education, tomorrow's citizens. asking the question 'Will the class of 2007 be true citizens?'

At the height of the UK's teacher shortage, my favourite ever bearded colleague Martin Johnson and I began a project on The Future of the Teaching Profession. A few articles, proposing a greater flow between teaching and other professions, a new approach to professional development -'beware of the cowboys', and a piece on supply teachers.

Martin and I also collaborated on a project on Schooling in London, supporting the creation of the DfES' London Challenge.

With Jodie Reed (a beardless wonder), I wrote a paper and an article on school league tables which I wasn't allowed to call '20,000 league tables under the sea'.

Damien Tambini and I edited a collection of papers on ICT and Learning, under the tiresome title @School.

Prolific if not always coherent, I also wrote about:
My last year at ippr attempted to change us into an 'act tank' as well as a think tank, with limited success. The SchooLets project had great potential, but was undramatically unsuccessful. If I ever start a cock-up club, it's the project I would talk about. Maybe someone, somewhere is finding the handbook useful. More fruitful was the 'I was a teenage Governor' project, and its contribution to the debate on pupil voice.

At Creative Partnerships, it was more difficult to write what I felt about the education world swirling around me. Sticking to various scripts, I wrote tentatively about Creative Partnerships,
more confidently about the role of partners in transforming the curriculum, and somewhat stridently about how the programme was
harnessing the power of half-formed ideas.

After our successful Ofsted report, a Guardian article in 2006 contained much of our recent thinking about the future of the programme. I also began the Teaching Outside the Classroom programme.

In 2007, at Gordon Brown's creative peak (just before he became PM), with whispers growing around the development of a "talent agenda", I attempted to define what it all might mean - Talent Nation.

And in the midst of leading
Find Your Talent, I tried to explain the programme's rationale and vision in this article.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Public Servants, Private Squalour

My first post; bitter already.

Beyond the damage each case is inflicting on the government, one other fact links Jacqui Smith's Husband to Damien Mcbride. Both were public servants, yet neither were appointed through any kind of public, open recruitment process.

The vast majority of MPs appear to recruit their assistants without any kind of application procedure, let alone advertising the vacancy. Many of these jobs simply go to family members, from Jacqui Smith's husband to Derek Conway's son.

Similarly, special advisers are recruited privately from small cohorts of loyal wonks. An industrial tribunal case ruling warned against the discriminatory effect of 'word of mouth' recruitment, but did not rule that these posts needed to be brought within normal civil service standards.

Politicians talk the language of opportunity and social mobility but, given the rare chances to put their principles into practice, they retreat into nepotism. Political or not, any job paid for by public money should go through a public recruitment process.