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Talking cultural policymaking with Pam Johnson, Leeds City Council

Pam Johnson is dressed in black and sitting on a table against a white background. To the site is a plant in a terracotta pot.

Policymaking can seem to many a mysterious process. Meanwhile, the term ‘policymakers’ can conjure up ideas of a homogeneous group of bureaucrats.

Of course, in reality, public policy decisions relating to arts and culture are made by a range of people across different places and institutions, including national governments, local authorities, and different public bodies like arts councils.

At the Centre for Cultural Value, we believe cultural policymaking – in its many forms – should be underpinned by rigorous research and robust data. Yet, our Making Data Work report showed a crisis with harnessing and evaluating cultural data.

To explore some of the issues faced and how they might be overcome, our policy officer, Anna Kime, recently undertook a one-day-a-week six-month placement with Leeds City Council Culture Programmes Team.

In this Q&A, we sit down with Pam Johnson, Head of Culture Programmes at Leeds City Council, and ask how the decision-making process works. We also explore the value of policymakers, academics and cultural sector practitioners working together.

Pam Johnson and council colleagues are currently exploring the next steps for a renewed cultural vision for the city and recently launched a refreshed Leeds Cultural Investment Programme, both of which seek to capitalise on 10 years of development toward realising the city’s Year of Culture and the achievements of LEEDS 2023.

A former dancer, choreographer and teacher, Pam worked with DV8 Physical Theatre, Phoenix Dance and the Northern School of Contemporary Dance before joining Arts Council England in 2003. She became Head of Culture Programmes in April 2021.

Can you give a brief overview of where cultural policymaking sits within the council and how decisions are made?

I would say that all policymaking goes through a process of transparent decision-making. Local authorities are politically-led organisations with a balance of elected members and non-political officers. A key part of policymaking is consultation. We’ll consult with sectors or with the public on a policy proposal.

Policymaking involves a process of writing, creating and presenting reports. Decisions are then made or approved by our executive board.

Culture isn’t a statutory service; it’s a discretionary service. This means the council is not legally obliged by the UK government to invest in culture. So, the measure of its importance is how a local authority works with the cultural agenda. In Leeds, it’s particularly strong, and the evidence of that is the decades-long commitment to supporting cultural organisations and creative practice in the city and, more recently, to LEEDS 2023 Year of Culture. The strength of community voice and leadership through the 12-month programme has been amazing.

Why did you want someone from the Centre for Cultural Value to be embedded in your team on a placement?

We’re a small team with a huge agenda, so we’re always looking at ways to augment our capacity, skills and experience. Collaboration with academics and research centres is a key part of that. It enhances our professional development and brings us closer to our work. I think it boosted our understanding of evaluation and supported me in my role as a cultural leader.

The work with Anna became both a dialogue around cultural leadership and the context in which we operate. It had a very practical focus on evaluation, cultural impacts and how Leeds can build a framework that is relevant to the people of the city.

What, in general, do you think can be gained from local authorities and academic institutions working together?

Oh, a great deal. I’m regularly stretched, and there’s always more to do than we can deliver. We have a very limited opportunity to deep-dive into areas of learning or areas of practice, and having a policy placement can bring additional research and knowledge.

Collaboration is invaluable. I think the relationship between universities and local authorities is essential for policymaking. As demands on local government grow and national resources diminish, partnership and collaboration is the only way to deliver what we need.

A group of people grouped under yellow and pink ribbons
LEEDS 2023 Neighbourhood Hosts, Photo Credit JMA Photography)

Leeds City Council invests in the development and growth of the city’s creative sector through cultural funding programmes. Much of your recent work has been restructuring the cultural investment funds. Why did you feel it was important to do that now? And how does it link to your cultural strategy?

It has been a huge question, and I only have part of the answer because we’re still immersed in that journey. The sector is still recovering from a pandemic, and we’re all in a situation of navigating economic challenges and potential political change. It was really important that our cultural investment programme kept pace with where the sector was and where it needed to be. We may never be the biggest grant provider for culture, but we recognise the capacity for council investment to leverage additional resources.

The city recently refreshed its corporate strategy – Best City Ambition – with three defined pillars around inclusive growth, health and wellbeing, and zero carbon. We want to report on the impacts of our cultural investment and the contributions the creative sector makes to the corporate strategy.

The big reason behind why now is, of course, LEEDS 2023. We wanted to create a cultural investment programme as part of our post-LEEDS 2023 journey. We wanted to work toward increased transparency, democracy and accessibility. It was really about learning from the past, adapting to the present and preparing for the future. As before, we’re still immersed in this journey.

How important is it for local authorities to have access to rigorous cultural data? 

It’s absolutely critical. There is data everywhere, but do we just take data that’s been created in another context and for another purpose and apply that to culture?

I think culture has something distinct to say and to measure in terms of its value in society. Only a culture service can talk about the value of culture for culture’s sake. Without acknowledgement of and support for its intrinsic value, you cannot have effective instrumental value. It’s essential that we tell our own story of what culture does and what it can do for a city and not allow others to try to tell the stories for us. I think in a local government context, the relevance of culture within Leeds must speak to the people who create it and engage with it locally.

Silhouette of three people looking at a blue neon light artwork
Leeds Light Night at the University of Leeds

What would you say the challenges are to accessing relevant data?

The first is knowing what data exists and the context in which that data was collected. The second is having access to data and being able to draw it in and apply it in a meaningful way.

Working with the Centre helped us meet some of the time, capacity and knowledge challenges, and that’s why I think policy and research collaborations are so valuable.

If you could magically change one thing about cultural policymaking, what would that be?

I think it would always be to ensure that cultural policymaking remains locally relevant but nationally connected. It’s about the journeys we take to create cultural strategies. I will always think that there is more we could do to share practice (and data) across different local and regional governments.


Learn more about the Centre’s policy work on our website, and stay up-to-date with our news, research and events by signing up to our monthly newsletter

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