How competitive funding harms the arts – A Queensland perspective

One of the big challenges is that governments, in their concern to avoid any perception of corruption, require a great deal of transparency and formality from grant-giving processes. Expert peer review, sign-off by two or three layers of oversight, capacity for review of decision-making processes—these are all standard paraphernalia. The Auditor-General also maintains a close interest in any grant-making scheme: in the seven years I was in Arts Queensland, the grant program was subject to five separate audits, either by internal audit from a large and sceptical host department, or from the Auditor General, such is the anxiety about this area of government activity. It made not one whit of difference that Arts Queensland was found by the Auditor-General to be a ‘best practice’ agency in its management of grants.

This is the domain of rational and analytical thinking and decision-making. Responses to perceived weaknesses are likely to lead to more steps being added to the process, tighter and tighter rules, increased oversight, and more and more refined criteria giving the appearance of more and more refined decision-making. The greater the element of scarcity, the greater the pressure to have convincing grounds to exclude applicants. This is professionally and personally testing for public servants, and can lead them to hide behind the ‘rules’, even to the point where good projects are excluded because of a poor fit with the prevailing taxonomy. While we tried to avoid this at Arts Queensland by not tying funds to an art form, and forcing a moderation process across art forms at the end of the initial ranking process, the need to retain a capacity to view outcomes in terms of equity remains a consideration for any government body. These considerations are often not welcomed by staff who are driven to defend the decision-making process they have constructed and implemented.

Sometimes, these rational processes produce unhelpful results, because of how they are managed in the agency or in exchanges with the Minister, but more often because a company is itself in a phase of change, self-review, or short-term difficulty from which it needs time and support to recover. It needs more than a rejection slip and ‘apply again in three years’ time’. It can be difficult and risky for government officers to step outside the formal processes to recommend additional funding, to extend a timeline for reporting or completion of reforms, or to respond to unexpected opportunities, even if it would bring about a better outcome. Someone else is always on the waiting list for funds, and of course there are critics of such actions.

Keeping a pool of flexible funds enabled some funding decisions to be made outside the constraints of the formal funding rounds. It was helpful to have a Minister who believed that if you want to exercise strategic influence, you won’t do it through grant rounds alone. However, this approach attracts allegations that the agency exercises too much power, or plays favourites. Long-standing Arts Queensland staff talked about being judged by government to be ‘too close to the sector’ and by the sector to be ‘too locked in their ivory tower’. Where does the optimum distance lie? Obviously, it shifts, depending on the client, the program and the matter at hand—and possibly needs to be re-examined for every interaction. Ironically, it may be that the more attentive the agency is to process issues, the less able it is to respond to its clients, and the more invasive its processes become in their work and thinking.   Two incidents stand out as examples of these concerns.   I was approached by the CEO of a successful medium-sized company for a courtesy discussion of plans and staffing changes. Out of the discussion emerged a sub-text—a frustration with Arts Queensland over a particular decision. I expressed my surprise that it had never been raised with me, and was told that they had feared that to do so would influence other funding decisions—in fact, they feared retribution. Over time I heard this concern repeated in the context of relationships with other funding bodies, and came to understand that it was not a concern unique to an individual officer, or to Arts Queensland. I was horrified by that view of funding bodies as quixotic gods who had to be propitiated, and whose ire must be avoided; a view that had the power to obstruct attempts to create a proper partnership with the sector. I was also horrified to find so little understanding of public sector decision-making. There is always a capacity for a more senior officer to review a decision, and that officer is bound to do that disinterestedly and professionally. I am still shocked at what that story reveals about the interface between the sector and government, and the fragile understanding each has of how the other works.   These issues were not unique to the small-to-medium sector. I was equally horrified to be asked by at least two larger companies, ‘What is Arts Queensland’s vision for this company?’ Clearly, the Government’s arts agency will have some role in shaping the vision for any government-owned company, but for companies that fall outside the Government’s ownership, the task of articulating a vision and executing it are the province of the company itself. The need to ask this question speaks volumes about that company’s relationship with government, and the need to feel secure about its future. What appalled me was the disabling effect of a system and culture in which companies feel bound to satisfy a set of conditions and considerations imposed by the bureaucratic requirements of a funding agency, and which have little to do with enabling that company to identify and pursue its own best opportunities.   Over two cycles of competitive grant rounds for the small-to-medium sector, which occurred in conjunction with similar cycles from the Australia Council, I started to question whether the processes of rationing funds through competition on a three-yearly basis was not the antithesis of what is good for arts companies, and whether the requirement to interact with the rational, detailed, reductionist, and process-driven culture of government was not actually harmful?

***       The idea of competition as a way to ration funds is well entrenched in our collective psyche, and so long as the pool of quality proposals outstrips the pool of funds, it’s hard to see how else it could be. However, I believe we need to develop a system which more effectively balances competition with a willingness to nurture existing infrastructure and investment. A company should not hear news of dissatisfaction with its work for the first time through a funding decision, and a company that does get that news, and makes every effort to respond appropriately, should not find that its efforts have gone unrecognised and that it is out in the cold for three or even six more years.

My preference would be to move to longer funding periods for established companies (at least six years, as some programs have started to do). After all, many have been continuously funded for ten or even twenty years! There is nothing in the structure of government which makes this impossible. A longer funding period should be accompanied by a requirement for a review in the fifth year, commissioned by the company in consultation with the funding body. The review would give the company advice and information about its achievements and standing, and help it shape its own strategic vision and planning, and identify areas for improvement. I am thinking here of the faculty reviews which are standard fare in the higher education system, and which are used as much for developmental purposes and to create a culture of continuous improvement as they are for management oversight. The cost of the review process should be built in to the initial funding commitment, and the report would form part of the evidence available to the funding body in the context of the next funding round. This would considerably reduce the churn of paperwork, it would give much improved financial stability to companies, and above all, it would put them on the front foot in their relationship with the funding body.

This article is an extract from Platform Papers 34,  It’s Culture, Stupid! Reflections of an arts bureaucrat, published 1 February 2013 by Currency House.  Platform Papers is a quarterly series of single essays raising debate on contemporary  issues affecting the health of the performing arts.

Leigh Tabrett | editor@artshub.com.au

Leigh Tabrett was Head of Arts Queensland and Deputy-Director General of the Department of Premier and Cabinet from 2005 to 2012.

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