Agile commissioning and the arts

Posted on April 14, 2014

Last week I knocked together a search engine for UK arts organisations.

Why did you do that, Chris?

Honestly? It was partly for a joke and partly because it was easy enough to do. It started with posting the news that Arts Council England are commissioning a £1.8m ‘Multi-Channel Network for the Arts’ on the CulturalDigital forum.

That led to a few tweets, including this exchange:

Twitter conversation

Putting together a custom search engine on top of Google isn’t tricky. Just go to google.com/cse/‎ and follow the instructions.

To populate the search engine I used the list of URLs for the 100 arts organisations in my Arts Analytics sample. Amusingly enough, a few people didn’t want to miss out on the fun, so I set up a submission form and have since added the illustrious likes of the Wellcome Collection, Shakespeare’s Globe and National Museums Scotland.

Other custom search engines of this ilk include:

  • JURN: a search-engine dedicated to indexing free and ‘open access’ ejournals in the arts and humanities
  • museumcollections.org.uk which searches about 50 museum website collections sites

I’m not expecting it to be used much. As far as I’m aware there’s no general clamour for a niche search engine of this sort. If it does pick up traction then maybe it could be turned into a thing, fleshed out a bit and supported properly. What’s more likely is that it’ll sit around for a bit and pretty soon be forgotten about entirely.

Ok then. Is there a bigger point to be made here?

Why yes, I suppose there is. This is from ACE’s guidance doc relating to the commissioning of the multi-channel network:

Our hypothesis is that there is unmet demand on YouTube and other video
platforms for high quality arts content from audiences, if it is aggregated, packaged
and presented in the right way.*

The Arts Council’s approach to testing that hypothesis is to commit £1.8m over the course of a four year project. I would humbly suggest that that approach is insane. Or brave. But mostly insane. And increasingly outdated.

If I was involved in this I’d be asking some questions:

  • Where has this hypothesis come from?
  • What’s the quickest way to validate it?
  • How different is the digital video landscape likely to look in four years time?
  • If the opportunity’s so good, why have the existing MCN companies not taken it upon themselves to create one for the arts yet?
  • Is an MCN definitely the answer or is there another way to meet the challenges that have been identified?

I’m not saying that an MCN for the arts is a bad idea – maybe it’s a great idea. It’s just that this way of commissioning grand projects is open to all sorts of things going wrong. There are smarter, simpler ways to start than jumping in with both feet.

An encouraging sign

I was very interested to see the Government Digital Service’s post last week about Getting approval for agile spending. They sign off that post saying:

This could be the most exciting administrative change this year in supporting an agile culture in government.

I hope it’s successful, because I think other areas would benefit from a similar approach.

* I really wish I could rewrite that paragraph for them, the grammar’s all over the place. That whole doc needs a spellchecker run over it too.