Creative Quangos

David Adam

On taking power in 2010, the Coalition government moved quickly to implement its much-publicised ‘bonfire of the quangos’ – the abolition or merger of more than a hundred non-departmental government bodies, whose remit ranged from the direct delivery of services, through to research, investment and regulation. The creative sector was by no means exempt from this, with the shutting down of the screen agencies, the UK Film Council and the regional development agencies, many of which had been significant investors in creative industries clusters around the country. Other bodies, such as the BFI, Nesta and the Arts Council, took on new responsibilities and underwent significant organisational restructures.

But, four years on from the bonfire, what is striking is not so much the absence but rather the number of creative industries bodies established by this government. A digital media business considering what help or funding it can receive from the public sector is once again facing the proverbial alphabet soup of acronyms and sector-specific agencies: Creative England, Innovate UK, Connected Digital Economy Catapult, Tech City UK, NCUB, the Open Data Institute, IC Tomorrow, Knowledge Transfer Network, the Creative Industries Council – none of which existed four years ago. The regional bodies may have gone, but there would seem to be more agencies – particularly national ones – than ever. When it comes to the creative industries, it seems that the government hasn’t presided over a process of reduction or rationalisation but rather proliferation and muddle.

In this regard, the government hasn’t been so different from its predecessors. The concept of specialist government agencies as distinct from ministerial departments was largely initiated by the Conservative governments of the 1980s and 1990s, a period which saw the establishment of organisations ranging from English Heritage to Business Link. On becoming Prime Minister, Tony Blair promised to ‘dismantle the quango state’ only to oversee a major expansion of such bodies, founding many of the creative industries support agencies that would be abolished a decade later.

The familiar cycle of new government initiative followed by strategy, delivery, review, restructure, rebrand, re-launch, restructure, merger, abolition is a dismaying one. For creative businesses themselves, not to mention those working to support them, this continual organisational churn has resulted in paralysis, confusion and exasperation. As with those working in sectors such as health and education, the frequent plea heard even from those dissatisfied with current arrangements is for no further rounds of innovation, reform and change.

With a general election just six months away, there is an opportunity to break the cycle and approach things more thoughtfully. This should start with an acknowledgement that quangos will always need to be part of the policy and support landscape for a sector as dynamic as the creative industries. Facing the choice between centralised government systems and market mechanisms, quangos represents a valuable middle ground, which, at their best, can remain answerable to government while also responding to business need.

So we shouldn’t be asking if there are too many or too few quangos, rather it’s a case of whether the ones we have are doing a good job or not, and how can they be helped to do it better. We shouldn’t be looking, as a matter of course, to reduce them. Nor should we be setting any new ones up, as if they are the solution to any policy challenge. Governments, and the think tanks that advise them, may love to shake things up and launch initiatives, but often what creative businesses themselves most want is stability and continuity. The following won’t have the same headline grabbing potential of either establishing or scrapping an agency, but might get better results:

  • Implement a much more joined-up approach. Something like digital media crosses the ministries of culture, business, education and much more. Instead of establishing new agencies, there should be a behind-the-scenes process of getting politicians and senior officials together to co-ordinate action. This won’t result in any grand new strategies or reports but rather aim to reduce duplication and prioritize investment.
  • Quangos need to be as innovative, responsive and fast moving as the business they support. This means that they need to be established with confidence, and to be given the freedom to take risks and make autonomous investment decisions. Governments will always face political pressure, but over-managing and continually tinkering with delivery agencies only undermines their effectiveness and credibility.
  • Give powers and funds to cities and local authorities rather than national bodies. Local government has already demonstrated in places ranging from Nottingham to Hackney to Dundee that, even with limited resources, they can grow creative industries clusters and successfully establish genuinely business-led agencies to deliver the comprehensive support that entrepreneurs require.


David Adam, Global Cities

Growing the UK Film Industry – an Investor Perspective

Martin Smith

What’s wrong with the UK film industry? At first glance, it might appear not much. Great directors, great actors, great producers, great production facilities, world beating special effects, one of the world’s best film schools, and record levels of inward investment. No less a figure than Harvey Weinstein, speaking before the 2014 Oscars, declared “It’s the best period for British film I’ve seen in my career.” Continue reading

The Creative Workforce: Improving Standards, Improving Culture

Marice Cumber

Growing the size of the creative industries has been a stated ambition for government for more than fifteen years now. But why? To boost employment is the most obvious answer, but ultimately all sectors and businesses generate jobs. When it comes to the creative industries we should be asking not whether the sector generates jobs, it clearly does, but whether those jobs are any good or not, and whether they reflect an increasingly diverse population. Continue reading

The Creative Industries and the Big Society

Julian Sefton-Green

It might be hard to believe now, but the advent of a government headed by David Cameron was something which many in the voluntary sector met with, at the very least, cautious optimism. After all, the concept at the heart of the vision of modern Conservatism was the Big Society: a political philosophy that gave voluntary, community and grass roots organisations a central role in how public services were delivered, citizens interacted and the vulnerable supported. Continue reading

The Other March of the Makers

Jocelyn Bailey

George Osborne should be pleased with himself for coining the phrase ‘the march of the makers’. He has certainly rolled it off his tongue plenty of times, and it has usefully reminded us all that we shouldn’t forget about manufacturing, which has for so long been cast into the policy wilderness. But the government’s support for the ‘makers’ has been more about attracting investment in the automotive industry, rather than bolstering an army of craftspeople tinkering in sheds. For the creative industries, the term ‘makers’ signifies something quite different from what the Treasury might think. Not steel magnates, chemical suppliers or factory owners, but artisans and inventors. Continue reading

Digital Infrastructure: Getting the Provision Right

Iain Bennett

Ten years ago, discussions around creative industries infrastructure were focused around artists’ studios, production facilities and performance venues. Affordable workspace might remain a problem, but no one today would exclude issues around access to digital technology and, in particular, high-speed internet. And yet, although recognised as crucial to the future of the creative economy, there are still major flaws in how government, and policy debates more generally, are addressing this. For all the hand-wringing over market failure, rural provision and local monopolies, the real challenge is being missed. Continue reading

Creative Regeneration Renewed

Alexandra Jones

In a cash-strapped climate, those working in the creative economy need to make their case for investment against competing demands. As pressure on public resources grows, this will require the creative economy to become increasingly sophisticated in the case it makes and in the role it plays in a wider strategy to help places become more resilient, able to survive, adapt and grow in the face of ongoing economic change. Continue reading