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A UK first – evaluation principles for the culture sector

Woman pins a football to a world map

As the Centre launches our co-created Evaluation principles, our Associate Director Dr Beatriz Garcia puts this work in a global context.

Evaluating the impact and value of cultural interventions has become a widespread practice in the UK since at least the 1990s. Academic researchers and a fast growing number of specialist think tanks and consultancies have worked relentlessly to develop appropriate methodologies, balancing the pressures to prove the economic value of the arts and culture with the aspiration to evidence broader social and environmental impacts as well as cultural impacts and legacies per se. The latter, paradoxically, remains one of the least well-understood impact dimensions.

In 2021, culture sector stakeholders now understand that conducting some form of evaluation is a key expectation by funders and that it offers evidence of good practice. However, embarking on such a process has felt frustrating for many, particularly small and under-resourced organisations. Culture practitioners, funders and researchers have found it hard to identify a common language or shared conventions for evaluation. As a result, evaluation has at times been perceived as an imposition or a rigid exercise offering little room for exploration and learning. Misguided evaluation pressures have run the risk of curtailing creativity or getting stakeholders to prioritise the kinds of deliverables that are easiest to capture via standard indicators.

Working towards agreed evaluation principles and frameworks is thus a long overdue ‘must’ for the cultural sector in the UK.

Commonly agreed evaluation principles across the globe

All sectors, from health to education or aid agencies, have experienced the ‘evaluation turn’ over the last few decades – not only in the UK but across the globe. From UNESCO to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) or the Council of Europe, these bodies have embedded evaluation in all their procedures. In contrast with equivalent cultural organisations, however, they prioritised the establishment of standardised evaluation frameworks from the outset.

As an example, the OECD started testing a commonly agreed set of evaluation principles back in 1991 and has spent the last three decades revising them, with approval from all its international stakeholders (see 2010). UNESCO also regularly revises its evaluation conventions, building on frameworks established across the United Nations. These comprehensive exercises to codify evaluation practices have been time consuming but have significantly raised international evaluation standards – and the credibility of evaluation practices for all stakeholders.

Graphic showing UNESCO's evaluation standards

International evaluation standards and principles, as agreed by UNESCO (2014)

The arts and cultural sector has been lagging behind. But in 2020 the Centre, building on an open consultation process with UK-based stakeholders, determined that one of its key missions should be precisely to highlight the need for a focused conversation around evaluation needs.

The challenge was this: how to establish common principles and a framework that all major culture stakeholders could sign up to?

The importance of co-creation

I was appointed Associate Director at the Centre back in May 2020 and, together with Oliver Mantell from the Audience Agency, we were charged with the coordination of a nationwide co-creation exercise to identify key evaluation principles for culture.

Choosing to approach this venture as a process of co-creation was a significant and ambitious decision. Like other sectors and international bodies, we advanced this conversation by convening a dedicated group of evaluation experts; but in contrast to other sectors and bodies, we decided to co-create our principles through a series of interactive workshops. You can read more about how the principles were developed and the essence behind them in this blog.

Taking this approach has been both productive and meaningful, given the fact that all key culture stakeholders in the UK have had some form of experience with evaluation by now. They all have stories to tell and examples of successes as well as failures, either as organisation leads, artists, funders or evaluators themselves.

We are now able to compare our emerging priority areas of interest with the kinds of principles and frameworks identified by other well-respected bodies since the 1990s. The result of this exercise is a set of co-created Evaluation principles that we are ready and excited to share with you now.

Four ooloured boxes on a blue background. text in the orange box reads Beneficial, Committed to learning and/or change, Ethical, Applicable. The text in the red box reads: Robust, Rigorous, Open-minded, Proportionate. The text in the purple box reads: people-centred, Empathetic, many-voiced, Socially-engaged. Text in the green box reas: Connected, Transparent, Aware, Shared

The start of a conversation

This is just the beginning, as we do not believe we have the last word and there is certainly room for further refinements and developments. We want to attract broader reactions; we want feedback so that we can solidify a nationally-owned set of evaluation principles that can stand the test of time.

The concrete proposal we are presenting now has merit and is reflective of the needs of the UK’s arts, cultural and heritage sectors in 2021. It brings focus to this conversation and it is something to react to. But we expect that this list of principles will evolve over time – there is much value in remaining fluid and open to change as advocated in our principles.

We are working on a programme of engagement activities in 2022, so that the principles can be shared, owned, applied, questioned and enhanced. We will also welcome responses from international stakeholders. The ultimate goal is to advance towards a globally agreed – or at least, globally known and debated – set of evaluation principles for culture that stakeholders everywhere can adhere to.

A common language

Evaluating cultural practices is a valuable endeavour that should lead to learning; evaluation should inspire and provide space for self-reflection. The cultural sector in the UK, and around the world, needs a common language for evaluation and an opportunity to raise questions – as well as demands – about what evaluation is or should be for.

Please contribute to this conversation and make the evaluation principles as meaningful, representative and useful to all stakeholders as they are meant to be. We look forward to the next stages in this process.

Take a look at the Evaluation principles. You can also join the conversation on social media using the hashtag #TheEWord.

Image: Who Are Ya? Tate Exchange. Dan Weill Photography

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