Values, evidence and public policy

Calvin Taylor

It is now an established aspiration for policy making to be based upon sound evidence and research principles, and the fields of cultural policy and the creative industries clearly demonstrate this. In reviewing the last fifteen years, however, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the role of evidence in cultural policy making has become dispiriting and frequently worthless.

For many, the whole enterprise has come to be synonymous with the reductive instrumentalism that characterized so much public policy-making after the 1998 White Paper Modernizing Government. As the economic imperative increasingly crowded out other concerns, evidence at best simply provided a retrospective justification for decisions already made and, at worst, colluded with the regressive politics of those decisions. The belated re-discovery of culture, under the equally stifling politics of excellence, only reinforced the view that research and evidence couldn’t do anything other than replicate the unstated assumptions of the policy status quo.

Other areas of public policy, such as health and environment, have more successfully maintained a critical dialogue between policy and research.  The reason, I think, is that neither can be reduced to utilitarian arguments without losing their fundamental purpose. We support investment in health because we consider physical and mental well being as essential to what we regard as a meaningful human life – and, increasingly, we are taking a similar approach to the environment and natural world. No amount of evidence could, in itself, convince us of this for they are fundamentally questions of value. Evidence, evaluation and research are tools for helping to achieve these values, but do not ultimately decide them.

By contrast, culture has found its purpose delegitimized in a policy system that only recognizes utility as its objective and measure. As the philosopher Bernard Williams explained over forty years ago, such a system works against human activities that are linked intrinsically to human wellbeing:

Again and again defenders of such values are faced with the dilemma, of either refusing to quantify the value in question, in which case it disappears from the sum altogether, or else trying to attach some quantity to it, in which case they misrepresent what they are about and also usually lose the argument, since the quantified value is not enough to tip the scale (Williams 1993 [1972], 88-89).

Many of the arguments made on behalf of culture, and much of the associated research, has been a studied compromise with the latter born out of fear of the consequences of the former.  This has had a distorting and disorientating effect on policy itself, and contributed to the now perilously disorganized state of cultural policy research, in which research pathologically oscillates between policy subservience and policy irrelevance.

We cannot begin to make sound cultural policy unless it is preceded by a serious concern for the fundamental role that culture plays in our lives. While the value of that role cannot itself be decided by evidence, research can help us to understand how to achieve it.  To do this, research needs to be sensitized to the actual processes of public policy-making, but be independent of it. This will require a major shift in how we think about cultural research in practice, to which the following would be an important start:

  1. Create a jointly supervised ESRC/AHRC/DCMS Cultural Policy research programme with a minimum life of four CSR rounds – to ensure the potential for longitudinal study.
  2. Fund this programme by ring-fencing and then stripping out the research budget lines of the DCMS NDPBs, and requiring mandatory adherence to peer review, user review and open access protocols.
  3. Create a national repository of openly accessible Cultural Policy research to be managed by the British Library.

Calvin Taylor is Professor of Cultural Economy and Director for Research and Innovation in the School of Performance and Cultural Industries, University of Leeds


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