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Culling data geeks is a short-sighted policy

Theatregoers gather at Shakespeare’s Globe, London – but will the same people be back next summer? Photo: Sourav Niyogi Theatregoers gather at Shakespeare’s Globe, London – but will the same people be back next summer? Photo: Sourav Niyogi
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Last month, a bunch of us stats geeks assembled at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport for a rather niche celebration: the Taking Part Survey’s 10-year anniversary. Since 2005, it has been the official government measure of England’s cultural and sporting life. It wasn’t an entirely happy meeting. George Osborne was an absent yet effective party pooper.

Earlier in July, the Treasury asked DCMS to model savings of up to 40%. In this climate, the survey could be for the chop, and those of us who care about these things are pleading for a stay of execution. It is incredible to think that the government still spends hundreds of thousands of pounds each year collecting data on the cultural habits of its citizens.

But I can assure you that Taking Part yields an invaluable dataset, and one that will repay its investment over time. But for that to be the case, the government and Arts Council England need to pay proper attention to what it’s been telling us. Sometimes it’s an inconvenient truth.

I struggle to remember where I was last week, let alone 10 years ago. But for around 28,000 people a highlight of 2005 might have been their 40-minute chat with a laptop-wielding researcher. Under the instruction of DCMS and its arms-length bodies, an army of interviewers was sent around the country to ask people about what arts, sports, heritage, museum and archive-related activities they had been up to in the last 12 months.

The push to collect this data was not part of a benign government initiative to answer a set of burning research questions. It was to measure progress against targets. In the arts, that meant to increase engagement by 2008 among three under-represented groups: ethnic minorities, the disabled and the socially excluded. Frustrated that unprecedented levels of investment and a renewed mandate from the electorate weren’t making sufficient impact, the Blair/Brown Labour government used targets as a way of forcing change through departments that were resistant or simply inert. Many were sceptical that government could shift the cultural behaviour of a nation in three years, and by the start of 2009 they had to admit defeat. Taking Part data showed that engagement hadn’t shifted far enough in the right direction for those target groups.

Fast-forward to 2010 and the coalition arrived with a promise to do away with targets. It did this by renaming them ‘impact indicators’, and its attention turned to philanthropy and the Big Society. Taking Part trundled along, collecting data year after year. This was about the time I joined ACE for a three-year spell in its research team. Along with colleagues at DCMS, English Heritage, Sport England and the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (RIP) we added a longitudinal element to the survey. This summer has seen the first results from that initiative – and they are fascinating.

For most of its history, Taking Part has been a ‘cross-sectional’ survey. This means a nationally representative sample of people is randomly selected to participate. Since 2011, around 5,000 people have been revisited a year later for another set of questions. Ideally they are then followed up year after year and quizzed in an ongoing way about their cultural activities.

It’s a rather blunt headline statistic, but ever since it began, the survey has consistently reported that about 77% of people had ‘engaged in the arts’ in the previous 12 months. It would be wrong to assume that these people are consistent year-in, year-out arts engagers. What we now know from the longitudinal data is that this masks a churn – 10% of people go from non-engagers to engagers, and the same number of people move in the opposite direction. Since cultural policy is largely about changing people’s behaviour, the motivations and life events of these ‘transitional’ people are crucial to understanding what can be done to increase arts engagement.

I want to highlight two key findings generated by Taking Part. The first is that there are discernible patterns in the way people engage (and, indeed, don’t engage) in the arts. We like to think we are all individual. But the data show that isn’t true.

The second key finding comes from a huge collaborative research project between the DCMS and its arm-length bodies called the Culture and Sports Evidence programme, which mined Taking Part data to discover that in order to bring about a meaningful increase in the number (and diversity) of people engaging in the arts it is more important to build demand than it is to increase supply (it’s less about getting art to people, rather making them interested in what might already be available).

This is reinforced by the new longitudinal results showing that people started to engage in the arts after their interest had been aroused or their friends were doing it, while others stopped engaging because there were other things going on in their lives or their interest waned. The cost of attending or taking part was barely mentioned as a factor.

It’s incredibly difficult to collect precise statistics about the nation’s cultural life. Can we rely on people to recall accurately what they did in the last year? Can they distinguish between Peppa Pig and The Crucible when responding to the rigid survey questions? These are challenges to overcome as the survey evolves.

And evolve it must, since we can’t just rely on ticket-buying data. Taking Part is the only thing out there that captures the habits and opinions of everyone, whether or not they already engage in the arts. Not everyone cares about the factors that prevent disadvantaged people from coming through the doors. But politicians eager to put subsidy to good use and taxpayers keen on social justice do.

Have policymakers been paying attention to all this? I’m not so sure. Public money is still tipped into schemes to make arts experiences closer by, free or cheaper. All of which can simply be expensive ways for us to collectively foot the bill for people who would come along anyway. Meanwhile, core funding for audience development agencies has dried up in the attempt to protect so-called frontline arts organisations.

No doubt there’s more us data types could be doing to ensure Taking Part can look forward to a possible 20th birthday.

A simple and intuitive portal taking us straight to the data would be good. And a real commitment to evidence-led decision-making would increase its currency in political circles.

With many people looking to protect their patch in the forthcoming spending review, I ask you to spare a thought for Taking Part. With ongoing refinement, it could be something robust and long-standing, holding government and the arts council to account, perhaps informing your next programme or campaign, or simply providing the answer to your next “what do we know about…” question. You’ll miss it when it’s gone.

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