Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Putting the C into the CSR

All parties are going for some rhetorical slash and burn to prepare voters' minds for the spending cuts ahead. Lord Mandelson yesterday announced that "everything is going to have to be examined".

It was less than two years ago that we reached the end of the last Comprehensive Spending Review, agreeing budgets for 2008 to 2011. Comprehensive it wasn't. For all the macho talk from civil servants about tough choices and total line-by-line examinations of Departmental budgets, ultimately nobody really suffered. If there were any major losers, they didn't shout too loudly. This contrasted with a concurrent Arts Council portfolio review that did dare to make some unpopular choices, although its communication and justification of these choices were more than flawed.

Any government genuinely committed to cuts in public spending will
need a new language to admit its limitations, a polite way of saying that shit happens. I remember one Minister came close when, commenting on a couple of train crash deaths, he compared this to the numbers killed on roads. He was heavily criticised, as was Boris Johnson when responding with justified humour to the transport problems caused by last Winter's snow in London.

A recent
DCSF Press Release on youth crime proclaimed: "Ministers are clear that there is no room for failure when it comes to protecting the public from crime". No room? None at all? Does this mean that whenever a crime happens, some part of Government has actually failed?

George Osborne this weekend praised Tory Councils for providing us with fully itemised details about how our money is spent. Would it be possible to start this openness earlier, to render more transparent the decision making processes about how our money is allocated, well before it's actually spent? The opacity of the current process, conducted in spreadsheet-filled rooms, feels archaic. We need an honest discussion between politicians and voters about why and where cuts might happen. As an addition to recent debates about co-production of public services, is there time and space for some thinking about co-reduction?

Monday, 7 September 2009

research, reuse, recycle

I got back into some kind of post-holiday swing by reading Mark Robinson's Arts Counselling blog, celebrating the Gulbenkian Foundation's republishing of their 1959 report Help For the Arts. Mark's summary and analysis cut through the differences in languages (is it time for the regions to reclaim the word 'provinces'?) to show how little has changed in the key debates around arts funding.

Later, inspired by a brief family visit to the Eiffel Tower and a quick fleecing at the gift shop, we all watched The Lavender Hill Mob, the kids still grasping their solid-metal souvenirs. Filmed in 1951, mainly in the heart of the bomb-damaged City of London, the film provided a beautiful visual accompaniment to the Gulbenkian Report.

If it's really true that, chastened by climate change and the recession, we are all cutting costs and darning socks, we may also benefit from taking the same approach to the way we make and shape policy debates. Rather than rely on fresh-faced glossy pamphlets which blithely describe the 'pace of change', maybe we'll all start looking backwards, and learning far more.

Everyone thinking about policy should try out the wonderful
History and Policy website, which "works for better public policy through an understanding of history". And if someone out there wants to discover what the current Building Schools for the Future programme might learn from the last wave of school building in the 1960s, I can give you a copy of my wife's Masters dissertation.

Here is something I recycled earlier; an extract from
John Berger's Ways of Seeing that has extraordinary resonance to current debates around art, technology and power relationships.

“If the new languages of images were used differently, it would through its use, confer a new kind of power. Within it we could begin to define our experiences more precisely in areas where words are inadequate ... that is to say the experience of seeking to give meaning to our lives of trying to understand the history of which we can become the active agents.

"The art of the past no longer exists as it once did. It authority is lost. In its place there is a language of images. What matters now is who uses that language for what purpose. This touches upon questions of copywright for reproduction ... As usually presented, these are narrow professional matters. One of the aims of this essay has been to show that what really is at stake is much larger. A people or a class which is cut off from its own past is far less free to choose and act as a people or class than one that has been able to situate itself in history. This is why – and it is the only reason why – the entire art of the past has now become a political issue."