Where do governments obtain the information that fuels their policy and investment decisions? If you look too closely at this question, you might start to cry. Political decision-making is indeed a complex game with many motivations and agendas at play that are not always grounded in ethics and professional integrity. But after someone hands you a tissue, you might start to think about what information is available to decision-makers in the process of considering new investment and policy initiatives.
I would venture to say that most information that informs government decision-making remains a mystery to the average citizen. Meaning that when governments engage in decision-making process, citizens are not privy to most of the information that is considered. We don’t know who politicians are meeting with on any given issue (except registered lobbyists who must log their interactions with decision-makers), what research they’re consulting, how analysts and policy advisers are interpreting the information, what agendas are at play or what courses of action are being contemplated. This information is highly confidential, and governments do not have to disclose how they arrive at their decisions.
Flash back to August 2008 when the federal Conservatives cut funds to international touring and market development programs, ProMart and Trade Routes. These program cuts were the result of a government-wide strategic review process that deemed the programs to be ‘administratively ineffective’. The infamous report produced in the process of the strategic review – the one that no doubt explains in detail the alleged ineffectiveness of these programs – is not in the public domain. It was never released, nor does it have to be as the information it contains is protected.
While the average citizen is not privy to government intelligence, we do, in our fair democracy, have a right and duty to contribute to government decision-making by expressing our views. And we do. Well, some people do. Sometimes.
In the arts, we tend to participate by joining organizations like unions, coalitions, alliances, service organizations, assemblies or associations. These groups are at times industry-based and at times issue-based. Usually we belong to more than one of them…because we have a lot of them in the arts! Through these vehicles, we have a chance to engage with other members, express our views, debate relevant issues and (hopefully) arrive at a position that can be presented to decision-makers on our behalf.
Experience tells us that politicians are influenced when citizen groups have at least one of the following:
1. strong political capital (votes),
2. the ability to sway public opinion (influence votes), or
3. a compelling case that aligns with government agendas.
I would argue that the arts sector (broadly speaking) does have political capital based on the sheer size of our industry. But in a party-based system, we are generally predictable voters and let’s face it, a right-winged government or politician is not going to advance an arts agenda because they think they’re going to win the arts vote.
In the second case, the 2008 federal election proved that we have some ability to sway public opinion and influence other voters. This is perhaps most obvious in Quebec, where the cultural agenda is not sector-specific, but an expressly important issue to a broad base of citizens, for obvious reasons. The reaction in Quebec to Harper’s dismissive attitude toward the arts during that campaign is perhaps still the reason why today the arts have not seen further cuts by his government.
But in the third case, the arts sector is struggling to deliver the goods. While we have made many arguments and presented many cases, some more compelling than others, we are lacking in several ways. The first is that we don’t always align our positions with the goals of Government. In our current environment federally, this can be a considerable challenge. But, without mutual benefit for the sector and Government, there’s no way to move forward.
The second is that we’re more divided than united. We’re improving in this regard (the recent Arts Day on Parliament Hill organized by the Canadian Arts Coalition was a big step) but we have a long way to go to really find common cause. When we don’t unite around a position, we leave it to politicians to decide (ahem, copyright bill, anyone?).
The final challenge for us is that we are lacking solid, objective and credible research to really support our case. And here I return to my title question – does Canada need an arts research think tank?
One of the gems of information that I hear politicians cite often is that the arts and culture sector contributes over $46 billion to Canada’s GDP. With the airtime it’s had, you’d think that this golden statistic came from a study initiated by the arts sector. But no, it came from a report produced by the Conference Board of Canada. An independent source not connected to the arts sector or to Government. Sort of like the kind of report that might be produced by an arts policy research centre perhaps?
The kind of centre that I’m contemplating is one that exists independently from government or citizen-based interest group agendas. A place where the best and brightest thinkers would take stock of the ecology of the arts in Canada and assess whether the public and market-based systems that help to keep it healthy and vital are working optimally. Where are the weak links? What policy initiatives could strengthen us? Are current policies reflective of current practice? Where could new investment be best placed? What are other countries doing?
I am curious about such centres that exist outside of Canada. There are many of them. In the United States the Aspen Institute, Princeton’s Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies and Bill Ivey’s Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy, at Vanderbilt University are among the most popular. The UK has several university-based research centres as well as Demos – a political think tank driven by international thought-leader John Holden. In Germany there is ERICARTS – European Research Institute for Comparative Cultural Policy and the Arts and Australia has the Cultural Development Network and the Centre for Cultural Research at the University of Western Sydney. I could go on.
These centres are adding high quality research to the information pool that, I imagine, contributes greatly to the understanding of the arts sector in those countries, for the benefit of the public, government and for the sector itself. Credible studies, free of political and even industry motives are integral to good decision making for all potential stakeholders.
Over the next year, I hope to investigate this question more deeply, researching models of such thinking centres, understanding their impact and the role they play in public policy discourse. Stay tuned to hear about what I discover.