Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

More Sharper Better Feedback Needed

The Value of Cybernetics & Data Richness for Policy

Charles Handy used to cite a parable of bees and wasps who are put into a jar where the lid remains open. After an hour the wasps have gone and the bees remain. The reason is that the bees apply themselves to the glass where the light beckons. The wasps just fly randomly in all directions. By a law of randomness all leave the jar.

We are one among an estimated eight million species. A part of our make-up is that we are infused with morality. Intrinsic to morality is knowledge of the consequences of our actions. We have feedback mechanisms that make us aware of wider consequential and causal effects of our actions. The poor bees in the jar do not.

The word cybernetics is not used in cultural policy. It would be better if it were, as should be ecological thinking. Cybernetic awareness is not there in a declarative fashion but its tacit presence can be seen in this declaration.

“In our opinion, a confident and effective arts organisation will embrace the honest and rigorous self-assessment of it [sic]work.”

This is from page 8 “Strive to Excel...” of March 2015.

In a spirit of honesty and rigour a public body in Wales ought to adhere to the high linguistic standards that have been a hallmark of the British Civil Service ever since the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms of 1854. That “it” should not be in a document from a state agency.

Organisations sag when primary objectives are displaced by secondary purposes. Thus the Arts Council is able to declare the nature of the area which it is its work to nourish:

“The arts bring meaning, authenticity and joy to our everyday lives.”

I have no idea what the middle noun is there for. The other two “meaning” and “joy” can be verified empirically. Audience members, spectators can provide evidence. As for that “authenticity” I suspect that if the Arts Council were asked to amplify they would be unable to. If a word does not work it should not be in a public document.

The emphasis on feedback loops of enriching information is good. But the data in the information loops needs to be precise. Where it is imprecise corrective mechanisms need to be established to make the data serve their purpose.

Thus this sentence cannot be realised. There is no means to make it so:

“There will be a narrowing of the gap between those in the most and least affluent social sectors as audiences and participants.”

This is stated without qualification. It is not rigorous. Narrowing is for a start imprecise. If a Frank Vickery play were put on with free tickets then the objective would be achieved statistically.

Most and least in themselves mean nothing. The top 1% is different from the top 10%. The top 1% do not participate in the public arts, the top 10% does.

The purpose requires a degree of data collection that cannot be put into action. Recording of individual audience members' finances cannot be collated without consent. The GDPR is real.

Public documents should be about policy that is specific, measurable and realisable.

This following also deals with feedback loops and misses out on all three criteria:

“Organisation develops ways of gauging the impact of its work over short, medium and longer term.”

Source: Page 14 “Strive to Excel...” of March 2015.

This requires organisations to set up complex models of longitudinal research and a knowledge of Bayesian methodologies. This is beyond the capabilities of arts organisations. It also diverts resource which is scarce from primary purposes.

So to repeat the organisation's own declaration:

“In our opinion, a confident and effective arts organisation will embrace the honest and rigorous self-assessment of it [sic]work.”

As a quality document it has much to recommend it. But it has not been submitted to a strong enough quality assessment itself.

author:Adam Somerset

original source:
27 March 2020


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