This week, I’ve invited David O’Brien, author of Measuring the Value of Culture (DCMS, 2010) Value and a contributor to the book, Museums and Public Value: creating sustainable futures, to discuss why the idea of public value has experienced an uneven reception in Britain.
Museums, like most cultural spaces, are contested sites. These contests manifest themselves in many ways, often over the content and purpose of museums. The contests focus on the value of museums. The value of museums is now a crucial way of arguing for funding in an era where, in the global West at least, budgets are being reduced. One influential way of thinking about value in museums has used a theory from public management, the theory of public value.
In the UK public value was highly influential in the earlier part of the 2000s and was closely associated with the New Labour administration of that time. It was influential for several reasons, chief of which was that it seemed to offer an alternative to the narrow focus on efficiency and economy that had come to dominate public management during the 1980s and 1990s.
However its direct influence was rather short lived. This was for three reasons. These three reasons illustrate both why public value was important for museums in particular and the cultural sector more generally, but also why it did not manage to capture policy makers in a permanent way.
First public value was an important way to capture the intangible aspects of organisations practice. In particular it aimed to explore how organisations did more than just provided goods and services. Public value showed how organisations created bonds of trust with local and national populations, moving beyond merely contractual or economic relationships. However in showing these aspects of organisations’ importance, public value didn’t fully specify how to measure or account for trust or relationships. This meant that what public value sought to highlight didn’t fit when the prevailing language of UK central government changed in 2010.
The source of much of this government language, irrespective of which party is in power, is the UK’s Treasury. Public value never had the full backing of the Treasury and as such was never fully embedded in how Whitehall thought about public services beyond the economic calculations. Public value was important for public bodies outside Whitehall, was influential with think tanks and was crucial to Prime Ministerial strategy for central government. However it did not penetrate the walls of the Treasury during its most influential time and, therefore, never really embedded itself in the way government, in the UK, thinks.
Finally public value was not used in a consistent way by the public bodies that adopted it. For the BBC it was initially a way of justifying funding and doing economic analysis. For the Arts Council, the UK’s main distributor of cultural funding, it was a method of doing market research with its clients and a rather limited range of ‘the public’. For the Heritage Lottery Fund, a distributor of heritage funding based on the UK’s National Lottery game, it was a means of measuring performance. These three uses were not the same and give an illustration of the range, and therefore lack of coherence, of public value in the cultural sector.
Museums must, therefore, be cautious before fully committing to accounting for themselves in the language of public value. The UK experience suggests that public value’s roots in American management theory leave it with an uncertain position if its political champions lose power and influence. Whilst its lessons have been important, public value may best be seen as one moment in a much larger conversation about the role and purpose of museums in contemporary society. It is a conversation that will only become more pressing in the coming years.