Government can work! Seeing Culture is Digital come to life

At a time when confidence in  government is low and political cynicism is high, I wanted to share a story demonstrating that the public can still have a role in bringing about positive change through government (rather than despite of it).

Part I:  The Idea

It was close to three years ago when I was seated next Matthew Hancock MP at a conference after he had been appointed Minister for Culture and Digital at DCMS. We spoke briefly about about the challenges of adopting new digital technologies in the museums sector.  A few months later I was sent an advertisement for secondments to DCMS to work under Hancock to develop a digital strategy for the cultural sector. It was a unique model of working that I had never heard of and, as it turns out, was a new way of working for DCMS: inviting practitioners to help develop and draft policy.  I was selected for the secondment and fairly quickly got the opportunity to see the wheels of government turn up close.

In what would end up being called the Culture is Digital Project, my role was try to get to grips with the challenge and opportunities digital technologies presented in terms of skills, intellectual property and business models for arts organisations. I would have two days a week over six months to do this.

Desk research is the first port of call for any policy making endeavour – reading what is already written about the subject. Seems sensible, but what I might not be so obvious is that desk research only reveals what someone could been minded to write about.  HENCE, if you want your smart thinking to be noticed and to have influence in government, it has to be documented in some form or fashion – through articles, blogs, videos, SOMETHING. The bigger organisations have the resources to produce reports and attend conferences where their views are presented and recorded. Some very small organisations that were persistent in writing about their experiences got my attention. What’s important about this point is that there is a multiplier effect going on: desk research leads to interviews and invitations to events and other face-to-face conversations. And in-person conversations lead to more opportunities to INFLUENCE.

After compiling desk research, holding a series of interviews, online consultaton, roundtables and events aimed at understanding the needs of the sector, I was in the position to start proposing policy recommendations. One of the complexities of working in government is that there are other agencies and departments that are working on similar agenda from different perspectives. So you have to try to understand if there are synergies between those agendas, which may help advance your ideas or make your ideas redundant or, vice versa, conflict with your ideas and cause friction between departments or agencies.  There is no science to this vetting process. You try your best and prepare for the worst. I was really pleased to find that an idea I had around  up-skilling, for example, dovetailed with a new training programme that was already funded by the Intellectual Property Office.

I put forward a total of seven policy recommendations at the end of my secondment. Mind you, there was no budget allocated for implementing anything and a couple cabinet reshuffles meant that I was no longer working under Matt Hancock MP. I say quite honestly that I had no expectation that any of my work would end up in the final policy report.  My suspicion was that by the time my work had gone through the political machine, it would bear no resemblance to my original thoughts or intentions. With no expectations, I was happy to have had the chance to see how the inner machinations of government worked.

Fast forward 6 months later. I was sent a draft of the Culture is Digital report. I skimmed through the 30 page document looking for my recommendations. Three were there – albeit at toward to the end of the report.  I was surprised and quite frankly ecstatic. When the report was published, I was acknowledged in the report and was inundated with requests to speak about the report, both in the UK and abroad.

For about 4 months, I was on a speaking circuit talking about Culture is Digital report. This was the point where I got a taste of what it might be like to be politician or career policy maker. Some audiences were enthralled, others not so impressed.  I tried to keep things fresh by changing my presentation to fit each audience group, but after a while I started to feel myself sounding a bit robotic. I was trying to sell it as opposed to just having a conversation about it.

Part II:  The Implementation

Recommendations are just recommendations until some entity takes responsibility for implementing them. DCMS does not directly implement recommendations – the organisations it funds, such Arts Council England (ACE), National Heritage Lottery Fund, and National Museums do. During my time at DCMS, these organisations seemed rather reticent about the work we were doing – this was one of the reasons I had no expectation of actual implementation. However, it turned out that ACE had taken up my particular recommendations and were working towards implementing them.

Fast forward 1 year.  A high level position at ACE was advertised and my experience working at DCMS had made me believe that working in government – which for me, was about helping multiple organisations rather than one – was something of interest to me and something I could do.  I was selected as ACE’s first Director of Arts Technology and Innovation and started work there a year after Culture is Digital report was published.

What I discovered when I started at ACE was that the ideas I had generated had grown from concepts to real programmes. It is all well and good to have ideas, but there are people who work in government agencies who must make an idea and reality.

 

 

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