England & Wales Culture, sport and tourism

Viewpoint: The Art of Commissioning


When arts and cultural organisations team up with public authorities, they can deliver better outcomes for people and communities. That’s the main finding from a major three-year project that has brought together insights and practical resources from two pioneering localities, Kent and Gloucestershire, writes Julia Slay of the New Economics Foundation.

The Cultural Commissioning Programme (CCP), funded by Arts Council England, sought to help commissioners of public services understand how they can improve outcomes by integrating arts and cultural activities into a range of services, including mental and physical health, early intervention, environmental services and support for older people.

As part of this programme, the New Economics Foundation (NEF) has been working with commissioners in Gloucestershire and Kent to test out new ways of commissioning arts and cultural organisations.

In Kent, for example, arts and cultural organisations have engaged with a range of opportunities to help deliver public services. This includes a £4m community based mental health service, early help and preventative services for around £8m, and the recommissioning of Kent’s £50m Waste Management Service. In Gloucestershire, the NHS has funded nine innovation grant projects that are applying arts and culture across a range of clinical pathways, including cancer, mental health and diabetes.

From our findings, here are our top five learning points for others working in local government that also want to commission arts and culture as part of public services:

1.  Focus on outcomes: arts and cultural organisations are often already delivering high quality projects that meet a range of social and economic outcomes, such as improved mental health. All too often, tenders focus on tightly defined services which exclude the valuable work already being done outside these specifications.

Commissioning for outcomes can help arts and cultural organisations align their work with the priorities of service commissioners, and make the link between the activities they are running, and the change a commissioner wants to see, more explicitly.

2.  Engage with arts and cultural providers: for many commissioners, arts and cultural organisations are not part of their existing networks of service providers – many are not represented by established voluntary sector networks.

Commissioners can encourage greater representation within these networks by reaching out to National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs), the Voluntary and Community Sector (VCS) forum or alliance, a local arts network, and or with any arts officers in their local authority.

3. Partnership working: in Kent and Gloucestershire, some of the most innovative activities are coming from new partnerships being formed between established and new service providers, blending expertise in areas such as mental health and youth engagement with arts and cultural methods.

Commissioners play an important role in facilitating new relationships between established providers and arts and cultural organisations. Engaging a range of organisations in pre-procurement workshops, capacity building sessions, or locally run networks is one of the best ways of doing this.

4. Change procurement: in many cases, procurement processes don’t support small and medium sized organisations – or explicitly encourage innovation. Having a procurement process that enables arts and cultural organisations to bid alongside other established players may require some changes. For example, in Kent the tendering documentation has explicitly encouraged arts and cultural partnerships.

5. Proportionate demands for evidence: while some arts and cultural organisations have got a strong evidence base to demonstrate their impact, other approaches are still emerging, and will need support to gather data on the outcomes they’re meeting as projects progress. There’s also a range of national programmes working on developing the evidence base that can help make the case for local investment and innovation, some of this evidence can be found here .

We’ll be publishing findings from the project this spring. You can find out more about the Cultural Commissioning Programme here: www.ncvo.org/CCProg

More information:

The Cultural Commissioning Programme is a three year programme running from July 2013 to June 2016, funded by Arts Council England. It helps the arts and cultural sector engage in public sector commissioning and enables public service commissioners to increase their awareness of the potential for arts and cultural organisations to deliver their outcomes. It is delivered by a partnership of National Council for Voluntary Organisations, https://www.ncvo.org.uk/, NEF (New Economics Foundation) http://www.neweconomics.org/, and NPC (New Philanthropy Capital) http://www.thinknpc.org/

The programme is underpinned by a research report, Opportunities for Alignment.

Julia Slay is a senior researcher and programme manager at the New Economics Foundation.