Matthew Evans: Regulation is the enemy of culture

From the 'New Statesman' Arts Lecture, given by the chairman of Resource: the Council for Museums, Archives and Libraries
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"Culture" is a word that is difficult to define. It defeated TSEliot, so what chance do I have? In his tellingly titled book Notes Towards the Definition of Culture published 53 years ago, Eliot attempted to define culture but actually ended up describing it. He said, in a well-known paragraph, "the reader must remind himself, as the author has constantly to do, of how much is here embraced by the word 'culture'. It includes all the characteristic activities and interests of a People – Derby Day, Henley Regatta, Cowes, the 12th of August, the Cup Final, the dog races, the pin table, the dart board, Wensleydale cheese, boiled cabbage cut into sections, beetroot in vinegar, 19th-century gothic churches and the music of Elgar. The reader can make his own list."

Eliot goes on to take a sly dig at politicians who have become interested in culture: "We observe nowadays that culture attracts the attention of many men of politics. Not that politicians are always men of culture, but that culture is recognised both as an instrument of policy and as something socially desirable, which it is the business of the state to promote. The fact that culture has become, in some sense, a department of politics, should not obscure, in our memory, the fact that in other periods, politics has been actively pursued within a culture." Eliot is making the important point here that culture is not something over there, as it were, self-contained or separate from us. It is not a department of politics. It is part of us, we are all part of it, as is the political process.

We need to sweep away the climate of excess accountability. In the name of protecting the taxpayer it threatens the quality of our public services. As Christopher Frayling once put it: excess accountability is like pulling a plant out of its pot every day to check its roots and then being surprised when it withers and dies.

Instead, we need a framework based on: long-term contracts between public bodies and the Department of Culture; fewer, clearer targets based on outcomes rather than outputs – on actions rather than structures. That requires politicians to set a clear vision for what they expect from the cultural sector – and perhaps other sectors as well – but it also requires for them then to remove themselves from day-to-day management.

More attention and investment from within the institutions to: strengthen their managerial competence, open up their governance, set themselves high standards of performance and quality to which they will be held, with a clear expectation that poor performance and failure will be tackled decisively.

This Government, over the next few months, has a historic opportunity to reinvigorate our public services so that they can play a more central and dynamic role in national life. We will not achieve that if the regime of accountability and targets, initiatives and inspection, is simply intensified in what would be a mistaken and counter-productive effort to make the creaking machinery of state work faster. Instead what we need, in this as much as in other areas of public service, is a new framework of trust in which improvements in performance are rewarded with greater freedom from central control. This is a plan designed to revive and restore the standing of the public sector. To give it more independence and scope for imagination but also more responsibility. It is not a recipe for privatisation but for renewal from within. And it is based on trust, once that trust has been earned.

From what I understand such a framework is beginning to take shape in education and health and for the regional development agencies. We need just such an approach in the cultural sector. If we can put such a framework in place then, I believe, our museums, galleries, libraries, archives and cultural educational institutions can play an absolutely central role renovating the possibilities of British society in the age of the economy of imagination.

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