Hessenius Group on Policy FormulationHello everyone.
"And the beat goes on.................."
This month's discussion is on "policy"-. We bandy about terms like "policy" and "policy formulation" - but what do we mean by those terms, how does it relate to what we do, and why is it important?
Participating this month are group members:
Anthony Radich, and
Webster's Dictionary defines policy as:
a) a definite course or method of action selected from among alternatives and in light of given conditions to guide and determine present and future decisions;
b) a high-level overall plan embracing the general goals and acceptable procedures.
I ask the group to consider these preliminary questions as we get into our discussion of specific policy questions:
1. What is "policy" in the context of nonprofit arts and culture organizations?
2. How do we distinguish between broad based 'cultural' policy and specific 'organizational' policy (e.g., K-12 sequential, curriculum based arts education for every child as example of the former, and diverse board of director composition - the latter)? If we use definition "(a)" above do we equate "strategic planning" as synonymous with policy formulation? Is it the same?
3. How specific an area should be governed by "policy" (if policy involves definite action(s) that guide decision making?
4. How do we formulate policy in our sector? Is the process open to all? Is it often done by default? Is there a process or protocol we go through to get universal buy in?
5. How do we distinguish between "policy" that amounts to not much more than a suggested 'guideline' vs. policy that ought to carry the weight of a mandate? How could we possibly enforce policy mandates?
6. What's right or wrong with how we go about formulating it? How should it work?
7. What do we stand to lose if we don't get better at policy formulation? What might we realistically gain if we do get better at it?
8. What areas in our sector desperately need (or at least would enormously benefit from) the formulation of policy to set "a definite course or method of action selected from among alternatives and in light of given conditions to guide and determine present and future decisions"?
9. Have we created 'policy' without even knowing it, and has that helped or hurt us and in what ways? Has our policy formulation been consistent?
You've started us on a discussion about cultural policy by posing a crucial question: What exactly is it, and how is it formed? In the nonprofit arts, unlike other sectors, a lot of what we consider to be "policy" is actually borne out of field practice rather than field planning or accumulated knowledge or a sense of common destination. I'm not being critical of this pattern, mind you, just observing it. What's bad about making policy this way is obvious: it tends to be ad hoc, short term, driven by special interests (good and bad), and is rarely benchmarked or evaluated. So there's always some degree of frustration in any conversation when the "P" word comes up. But there is some good news, too. Three things in particular strike me as plusses in the current scenario:
1) Leadership can pay big dividends. We have seen many examples of individual foundations, civic leaders, arts institutions, artists, and other catalysts who have taken a lead role in defining a specific community problem and innovating solutions that can benefit the broader arts community at large. The recent Irvine Scoping Study on the arts in California is a good example of this, I think. We need to identify and track individual leadership efforts more consistently, and on a fieldwide basis, so that there is maximum opportunity to engage in dialogue and learning about what's working, and what isn't, in our field.
2) Technology and use of the internet makes it possible for cultural policy to be more democratic. This is huge, of course. As recently as six or seven years ago it would have been hard to think of a MySpace or MoveOn.org having the capacity to organize millions of individual participants into communities of interest. Imagine what kind of impact this could have on development of arts advocacy and cultural policy. And finally,
3) A next generation of artists and arts leaders will soon be in charge. Like it or not, within the next ten- to fifteen years most of the current senior leadership in the arts field will have been replaced by younger leaders. This will create the opportunity for new practices (and policies) to emerge, using more advanced technologies, and more widespread participation. So ironically, not having a very well established system of policy development or gatekeeping leaves the door wide open for a whole new wave of outside voices and innovative practitioners to step in.
The more I learn and teach about cultural management, the more I'm struck by the strange and dysfunctional disconnect between the advancement of the arts and the discussion of ''policy.'' In almost any conversation where the word comes up -- at conferences, in board rooms, in communities, among arts leaders -- ''policy'' is perceived as something OTHER PEOPLE do. We know there are policy makers. We know there are policy analysts. And we're quite confident that we are neither. In that assumption, we are tragically wrong.
Part of the problem is that we never get past the definition of what ''policy'' means. Websters isn't much help, as its definition reinforces what so many believe to be true -- policy is dry and dull and primarily about control. The creative spirit abhors such things.
But in my own work in arts and culture, I have slowly come to realize that policy is at the center of everything. Policy is NOT solely the determined action of elected officials and the cryptic prose of research wonks. It is the collective choice of a thousand different players in a thousand different games. For arts managers, policy is the net result of our decisions about audience engagement, ticket pricing, organizational structure, business planning, financial management, marketing strategy, human resource development, fundraising priorities, and community outreach. Policy is the architecture that defines and confines what we can do.
In short, I've come to frame the issue this way:
Policy is constraint on behavior.
Constraint is the essence of art.
We all construct policy all the time -- whether we know it or not.
And we are all influenced by it -- whether we recognize it or not. We can either embrace those truths with curiosity, focus, and intent. Or we can be continual victims of the prevailing tide.
What is the "cultural policy" for the arts? What do we need - one over-arching policy that guides our actions or a patchwork quilt of mini- policies on varying issues? If the former, how do we insure widespread participation in its formation? If the latter, how do we synthesize multiple mini policies into something whole around which we can all coalesce? How should it work?
Ideally, were we really a cohesive field, we would begin with a broad national cultural policy that speaks to a strong set of cultural values....quality, inclusiveness, organizations and the individual artist or cultural practitioner. The policy would be the center piece that state and communities would use to formulate locally based policies, They wouldn'g just be about money, but a broad range of cultural issues that encompass the variety of unique needs of this vast "field."
I would hope we could talk about a cluster of cultural policiesâ€”multi-polar policies--rather than a single overarching cultural policy--or even a highly coordinated cultural policy. What policy multi-polarity does is increase access. What I mean by this is that, when constructing cultural policy, we need to ensure that individuals and organizations are not locked out of acting because an overly tight policy construction does not allow for a diversity of approaches to a set of issues. I believe that what private foundation funders want and should do about the current situation in the arts may--and perhaps should--be quite different than what the public sector funders in California elect to do. A multi-polar policy strategy can still be linked in places; however, I would argue against an effort that seeks too strong an alignment of public and private sector cultural policy actions.
Any consideration of the development and/or rebuilding of more robust public-sector policymaking structures must more effectively consider the context in which to develop such structures. Currently, at the state level in the West, there exists a strong consensus that government should be small and provide only essential services. In this context, the vision of the state functioning as an ATM for the arts is not viable. Another current construct of state government that is an increasing challenge for arts entities embedded in them, is their lack of nimbleness due to excessive accountability requirements and antiquated personnel practices. Increasingly, public sector entities that elect to be nimble seek ways to meld into public-private entities and thus greatly increase their capacity to design and implement creative responses to field needs in a timely manner. Just how cultural policy can be most effectively organized in state government, or by a body that remains strongly related to state government, needs to be informed by an effective understanding of the state government environment and its implications for the entities that must operate within it.
For a very long time now, our conservative and policy-tepid field has not been very active in the area of imagining alternative organizational and policy scenarios for the arts. Ten years into a conversation about fundamental change in the field, we should be discussing a wide range of alternative policy scenarios. Also, at this point, we should, be reviewing the outcomes of pilot projects and experiments spun out of a variety of scenarios. To date, underinvestment in the development of policy options for culture has resulted in the nonprofit arts field standing at the edge of a cliff and not having a clue as to what to do next. No single answer will do but a more concerted effort to support research that arrays the potential policy options would be most helpful.
Without a doubt, the nonprofit arts are currently facing immense challenges. More work in the area of cultural policy can only help. I believe that the investigation of new ways to make the public sector aspect of cultural policymaking more robust is a very important element in addressing the overall policy challenge. I also believe that the generation of an array of policy options should be multi-polar; and that the public sector arts actors need to collaborate, but not conflate their policymaking with private sector foundations and other interests. An open system of cultural policy development will provide the most robust array of policy options and we need those options sooner rather than later.
Is it time for a wholesale re-inventing of policy in the arts? And if it is, how then should we proceed? If we need to involve more sectors of the field in its formation, and make our diversity an advantage and an asset - who or what has been controlling it so far? And how do we formulate a concise, workable policy that embodies the essence of all the agendas out there? Is that possible? Where do we start?
Cultural policy has been the de facto domain of public and private sector arts funders. The primary reason for this is that funders have had the luxury and the reality of grantmaking budgets and stature to enable them to do so. Mirroring the decentralized nonprofit arts sector field, arts and culture policy has been decentralized, place-based, and pragmatic in approach, typically responding to the perceived critical needs in the field, as opposed to an articulated comprehensive policy accompanied by a sharp analysis and clear blueprint for action. It is only in recent years that there appears to be an increased interest and discussion among funders and thought leaders in the arts about cultural policy as indicated by The Pew Charitable Trusts and Wallace Foundation supporting policy research and advocacy related initiatives and the establishment of arts policy centers such as the Vanderbilt University's Curb Center. Perhaps most importantly, this growing interest in cultural policy development is an extremely positive development in a maturing and rapidly morphing nonprofit arts sector. Looking ahead, I would like to ask the wisdom of those who have worked on the national policy front such as Bob Lynch (who I know is participating in this conversation) about their opinions about the pros and cons regarding the formation of a comprehensive national cultural policy and how optimally we should go about constructing such a policy.
I think in this day and age being engaged in a conversation about policy formation that just speaks to the "arts" and our traditional support structures is out of date and context...as Cora spoke to the notion of technology, and Andrew spoke to policy formation not being the exclusive realm of "elected officials and the cryptic prose of research wonks," the implications of popular culture on the masses and how the non-profit arts function in that realm have to be part of the converesation.
OK - let me ask you all this: Whether by design or happenstance, whether orchestrated by a few leaders in key positions, or the result of untold numbers of people acting independently - Do we have any generally accepted cultural / arts policies as of this moment in time.
And if, for example, the consensus in the arts sector is that we are all striving for K-12, sequential, curriculum based arts education in every school in the country - is that lofty goal, by itself - a "policy"? Every country in the world ostensibly wants world peace - but is that a policy? I mean, if a funder said: "we don't fund any organization unless they have an educational outreach program to local schools in their area" -- that would be a policy, wouldn't it?
As I read this, I'm reminded of a comment made at the recent meeting -the arts are like a multi-national corporation with 4000 branch offices, but no headquarters. I'm wondering if the policies we're talking about might be both policies that we'd recommend to our external environment - authorizers as well as policies and priorities that we might develop for ourselves.
For example, we might think about egalitarian and equity based policies and protocols that would demonstrate to the world that we are not elitist. If those were developed (think about the Kyoto protocols), who might sign them and who wouldn't?
Sure we all have policies that drive our decision making, goal setting, etc. etc, but seldom do they extend beyond ourselves....often mirror what our colleagues have done but probably change in character as a function of implementation. My sense of the deeper discussion is that we are all starving to some degree for a kind of understanding that serves to answer questions of our sheer existence, our patrimony, our reason for being vested in the preservation of culture.
Do we have any generally accepted cultural / arts policies as of this moment in time? Of course we do. But they're almost all implicit, and many of them are counterproductive to a vibrant cultural ecology. Here are a few implicit ''policies'' have consistent and nationwide traction, but are likely doing as much damage as good:
1) Only incorporated nonprofit organizations are worthy of focused philanthropy, and of these, professional entities are more worthy than avocational. This is a general policy of most foundations and government arts agencies, which has led us to have more 501c3 nonprofit organizations than we might need, and fewer informal, individual, and temporary organizations to ensure rich and diverse expressive opportunities for everyone.
2) Buildings are more worthy than programs, and programs are best covered only at their incremental cost (that is, without overhead). This implicit policy has led to overextended cultural organizations, and an industry-level inability to understand true operating costs.
3) Commercial entertainment companies should not be subject to cultural analysis or governmental policy. This policy has led to foreign ownership of some of the United States' most profound contributions to world culture (archives and copyrights to seminal bluegrass, folk, jazz, classical, and other recorded music; important American films). Former NEA chair Bill Ivey has become champion of this cause, and it's a big one.
4) Copyright is a matter of commerce, not culture. This policy has constrained creative artists from exploring and reconceiving a whole spectrum of expressive works...from Barbie dolls to corporate logos to popular culture to works that should now be in the public domain.
I could go on, but I won't. These just strike me as a few examples of how the most influential elements of ''cultural policy'' are lost in a narrow definition of the term.
I'm just trying to move the discussion along so that everybody is talking about the same thing as it were. So how do we go about identifying which policies may be counter productive - causing more harm than good, and policies which would be valuable and thus are ones we should try to formulate? How do you open the process and balance all the competing voices to achieve a balanced policy that has consensus support, or as Anthony suggested should we focus on mini policies that allow for some decentralization?
The word policy is used in many different ways in our sector and in general. My comments here deal primarily with cultural policy rather than organizational policy. Organizational policy for me is the set of methods, actions, procedures (the words used in the Webster definition) that each organization comes up with to govern how it will run itself in all areas whether program, staff, board, audience, or written policy documents like the organizational plan, the bylaws, the articles of incorporation etc. Policy exists whether you do it consciously and formally or whether it is simply de facto because that is how it always has been done. Informal or historic organizational procedures have the weight of policy because they guide and determine present and future decisions.
My own theory about the creation of policy is that policy is created on an ongoing basis as part of a cycle that starts with an idea followed by research that leads to a position. This position then needs to given visibility, and advocated to whomever the appropriate decision maker might be. But policy does not exist until a decision has been made or a de facto decision is in place. This cycle is repeated on an ongoing basis as policies are tweaked or changed or renewed. I think that many people erroneously call ideas, research, positions, and the advocacy process policy. But without a decision there is no rule to guide and therefore there is no policy.
Cultural Policy is a term that is used differently by almost every sector that uses it, the academic world, the public policy world, the arts world. It is as confusing as the word culture itself. Culture embraces the arts but a whole lot more. Even the subset of cultural policy which we could call arts policy would need to be about the gamut of arts activities from non profit, to for profit to unincorporated along with policy as it relates to artists and to art education in my opinion. So I will limit my thoughts here to an even smaller subset, that of non profit arts policy. Non profit arts policy is similar to organizational policy because it exists as a set of guidelines and boundaries. However the rules pertain to a broader set of organizations and stakeholders and the control is not in any one organization's hands. Non profit arts policy for me is the sets of methods, actions, and procedures made by decision makers at the national, state, and local levels both public and private, that affect any and all arts organizations in their budgets, their content, their hiring practices, their 501c3 status, their governance structure etc.
Many people say we do not have a national arts policy in America. I feel differently. I believe that minimally we have a national non profit arts policy of individual institutional self determination. Why? Because American non profit arts organizations unlike those in many other countries worldwide do not and cannot depend on any one resource area for primary support. On average American arts organizations get half their money from earned income, over one third from the individual donor, less than ten percent from foundations and corporations, and less than ten percent from government at all three levels. Because of this no outside financial policy set by a government agency or a private funding source can determine the fate of a single arts organization. It is a fragile eco system of support as I have said many times but allows a great deal of freedom of choice for a single arts organization while at the same time providing no guarantees for survival for any arts organization. However there exist multiple policy decisions for every part of the ecosystem that collectively make up the environment in which these single organizations thrive or falter.
So while a single organization creates its own destiny it does so within a support ecosystem that is bounded by rules and constraints, policy positions such as requirements of 501c3 status, eligibility by size of organization, type of art, makeup of leadership etc. And of course the amount of resources allocated by the decision makers to the arts both public and private is perhaps the largest policy boundary.
In order to have an arts policy at any level there needs to be a decision by a decision maker. I see policy as the actual decision which becomes a rule or guide made by the federal government, state governments, local governments, as well as single or collective corporations, foundations, and individuals. That set of decisions of course is just about the money. But these decision maker entities have an influence on much more such as content constraints or freedoms, zoning laws, workplace giving and volunteerism policies at corporations just to name a few.
In the non profit sector we have always valued independence because of the overall national policy of institutional self determination. That makes the task of pulling together sector wide policy efforts historically difficult. However it has indeed happened many times from the creation of the national endowment for the arts in 1965, to the sector wide united efforts in the mid nineties to save federal arts funding from extinction, to the current national efforts of the Cultural Advocacy group, a quiet coalition of one hundred national arts service organizations which meets regularly and annually results in a dozen federal policy planks which are advocated by a united front, some with success and others still waiting for success. This same pattern is repeated in many states through state arts advocacy groups some with more success than others and all undercapitalized.
Here are some thoughts about how I think my own organization has tried to affect national non profit arts policy. For more than 45 years, Americans for the Arts has worked to increase private and public sector arts support, and advance policies that create a climate in which the arts can thrive. Our Research & Information Department publishes annual reports about local arts service and funding organizations and partners with scholarly institutions to study funding trends and investigate how the arts address social, educational, and economic development issues. Our Arts Policy Information Center provides the timely and trusted information needed by arts and community leaders to inform decision-making about the arts. An online database offers 8,700 abstracts of arts policy and research studies dating back to 1960, program profiles, online publications, and samples of enacted policies and legislation. In an effort to broaden domestic connection to policy ideas we elected to fund and continue the free distribution of the Cultural Policy Listserv created by the now defunct Center for Arts and Culture and that listserv reaches 6000 policy interested readers weekly. In an effort to broaden the exchange of international arts policy information, we sponsor the free U.S. distribution of IFACCA's Arts & Culture Online Readers News Service (ACORNS). Every year we sponsor more than 100 convenings as part of our National Arts Policy Network conferences that enable government and business leaders, scholars, arts agency directors, and others to network and share their knowledge. The pinnacle of these meetings is our National Arts Policy Roundtable, a forum of 50 distinguished national leaders who will meet annually (beginning in fall 2006 in collaboration with Sundance) to recommend public and private sector policies and initiatives critical to the advancement of American culture. By combining this work with our visibility and legislative strategies, we endeavor to turn these positions into arts-friendly policies: government laws, funding and operational guidelines, and private sector practices.
I think that we have a sector wide need to invest more time and resources in each of the steps of the policy production cycle I began with above. Not much specific support is targeted to these areas these days and so the work in this area is often done with whatever extra energy already tired arts administrators and volunteer leaders can muster. And yet the creation of policy decisions is the long term solution to advancing the arts in America. Once a policy is put in place like the creation of a city percent for art program or a designated revenue policy such as a sales tax or bed tax for the arts, the mechanism automatically keeps contributing to the arts until the policy is removed. The opposite is also true. If a policy is put in place like the restriction on the direct funding of artists through the NEA that restriction stays until another group of decision makers makes a new and different decision. The actual policy decision is in the hands of these public and private decision makers but the power is actually in the hands of the arts leaders and citizens who when focused and mobilized have proven to be very effective.
Whew! That's a lot to digest Bob. Andrew and Anthony have a point in dicussing policies (conscious or defacto) that have done more harm than good (add to those that Andrew lists: an unspoken policy of reluctance on the part of major cultural institutions to spend their political capital on anything that doesn't directly benefit them short term (irrespective of its potential benefit to a wider purpose); and the policy that insures that rural state agencies are essentially tied to the apron strings of the NEA because they are one of the exceptions to the rule Bob cites where income is fairly split between earned, donors and corporate / foundation / government (many small state agencies get the bulk of their budgets from the NEA per the state distribution.)
Most of you seem to be on the same page in acknowledging that policy is, for the most part, not consciously created, but rather the result of more informal action (or inaction). Should policy formulation be much more of a conscious effort - whether an overarching cultural policy for the nation, or indiviudal orgnization's policies on a variety of subjects? And to the extent the field does create (or attempts to create) policy consciously, what about who is forming that policy -- how can the process of who is included be democratized and made more egalitarian? Or is that a good idea?
I believe there should be a conscious effort to create a "cultural policy for the nation," Barry. For the reasons I stated yesterday.
It is the fragile eco system that Bob referred to that should be of primary concern to us. So the question for me is how do we create the critical mass to effect the establishment of a policy or set of policies that ensure a sustainable future for that eco system and all its individual parts; how do we ensure that it transcends political whim, economic instability, or dogmatic assault?
In the last analysis, I guess I agree with Rick that we ought to try to formulate a national arts & culture policy that would guide decision making within the nonprofit arts sector. And I think we ought to do that consciously and purposefully rather than allow it to develop ad hoc and by doing nothing at all. Such a national policy would have to be comprehensive - in that it would need to address all of the primary areas in which the sector is engaged -- from arts education to generational successsion and the involvement of the next generation of artists; from maximizing community access to the arts to celebrating and integrating the full range of diversity within each community; from fostering a field that elevates coalition building over indiviudal organizational territoriality to realistically understanding marketplace dynamics; from lobbying and political paticipation to funding and revenue stream protection - and as much more as we could address that lies in between all of these issues.
Secondly, the formulation of this policy would have to tap into all segments of the arts sector - consensus would need to be achieved by having input into the formulation of policy by any and everyone who wanted their input to be heard. The best and brightest of our thinkers could be invaluable in framing the issues and suggesting what the policy might look like and how we might achieve it, but there would have to be some way for more voices than just our best and brightest national leadership voice. A true meaningful national arts and culture policy will need to come from the bottom up, not the top down.
Third, as Anthony argued, we would need stakeholder and outside our sector 'voices' - including elected leaders, including businesses (particularly the ones operating on the edges of our own efforts - e.g., hollywood et. al), including foundation leaders - so that the final policy would have some real chance of being implemented across the board. If all we do is come up with some policy that works for us, we will be doing nothing more than continuing to beg the question.
I think what Bob and Americans for the Arts is doing gives hope to what might be accomplished, but those same efforts, approaches and strategies will have to filter much further down from the national effort to the local scene if we want to really have any impact in this critical enterprise. We should capitalize on the advantages Cora cites, and be aware of both the extant realities noted by Anthony, and the changes that are coming, whether we like them or not, as Cora advises.
Fourth, any attempt at inventing or re-inventing a set of national arts and cultural policies will have to identify those policies that we have allowed to exist that are really the agendas of limited segments of our own extended "family" - policies that harm the whole of us so that we can negate them. It won't be easy to craft policies to which all can, or will, subscribe, but the process of trying to achieve the result might teach us about ourselves - our strengths and weaknesses as a "field" - and there are lessons about ourselves we need to learn if we are going to be one of the successful nonprofit sectors in this century.
Finally, we need to consider who and what we are as a "sector" - within that wider nonprofit universe. If we are, as Jerry says, thousands of branch offices without a headquarters, how does that hurt us, how does it help us, and what can we do about it anyway -- if anything? We need to formulate overarching policies within the framework of exactly who and what we are beyond our being individual organizations. Do we have enough in common, do we share enough aspirations, to work as a "field", or is all of that talk of cooperation and mutual interest just so much smoke and mirrors.
Because so many of us work in situations where there simply isn't the luxury of time and resources to devote to all those intricate and complex questions involved in the specifics of looking at our collective self, let alone the likely time consuming, difficult task at constructing policies to which we can all willingly subscribe, the funders in the field, foundations and government need to help provide - at the very least - the basic tools necessary as the pre-condition for taking up the task in the first place -- more research and data, convenings and facilitated gatherings at the bottom, not just the top levels of where we work, and outreach to stakeholders and those whose involvement we will need for policies to have any "teeth" to them. As Moy noted there may be a window of opportunity right now to make stides heretofore not possible. But experience teaches us that windows of opportunity don't stay open very long.
What would be catatrosphic and tragic for us, would be if we do nothing at all, except to dust off the topic every so often, trot it our for another discussion, and periodically get all excited anew, only to put it back on the shelf again. Both the nonprofit universe (and our little part therein) and the wider universe are changing. We absolutely must maximize our chances of both surviving and thriving as those changes happen around us.
That's just my take on it; what I think. But what I think really doesn't matter much -- what matters is what everyone out there thinks, but that won't matter much either, unless people speak up, get involved and find ways to be heard.
Thank you group members for your thoughts and ideas.
Have a good week everyone,
and Don't Quit!