Guest blog by Peter Davies, Cultural Policy Advisor on Big Society, Private vs Public Sector and where he sees it going.
Despite what some people and commentators may say, the museum sector as a whole is relatively resilient, as a sector it has survived largely unscathed and unchanged through several recessions, world wars and political swings. In fact, it is fair to say that the museum sector has been one of the more steady sectors, at least in the UK, over the last century or so.
Maintaining this status quo of core values and beliefs that form the museum sector has long been the heart and soul of our institutions, and this is pretty much summed up in the 1998 Museum Association’s definition of a ‘museum’:
Museums enable people to explore collections for inspiration, learning and enjoyment. They are institutions that collect, safeguard and make accessible artefacts and specimens, which they hold in trust for society
However, museums are facing extraordinarily challenging times, despite their previous resilience, and are now engulfed within a snow-ball effect of political, financial and social changes that are happening all at once. The UK now finds itself in a situation where the political will is largely behind a move from central top down public sector control to community ownership, financially both the public and private sector purse strings are tightening, yet socially museums and other local community amenities are being regarded as strongholds of local identity, place-shaping and cohesion. These changes combined, and amplified with upcoming legislation and precedent (such as the Localism Bill and Open Public Services White Paper) could have a lasting change on the fabric of the public funded museum service.
Buzz words at the moment, such as decentralisation, commissioning, Big Society and localism all suggest that public services can and will become truly public – in that the public will ‘own’ and ‘operate’ them for the community good. Examples of this have been seen through community libraries and co-operatives forming to run previously operated public services, and if this were the true end point, then many people couldn’t really argue against it. But, is this really likely to be the case?
The title of this blog post is ‘the Serco-museum’ although it could be any number of private-public partnership companies that exist, and have existed for some time. The growth of the private-public partnership sector dates back to the 1980s era of outsourcing and 1990s Best Value Reviews, and the concept that a council running all its services in-house, and not through a competitive market place, was failing the tax payer. Competitive tendering of some services, such as bin collection and social housing maintenance became pioneer services that moved from direct public sector control and scrutiny to outsourced contractors (and sub-contractors) who, as a private sector company, could reduce costs by operating larger businesses over several district and county boundaries. Many people probably don’t associate the subtle difference between the bin truck with the ‘…working in a partnership with…’ livery on the side of it and the service they had prior to these changes, and many people probably wouldn’t care less, so long as the bins get collected on time each week or fortnight.
So how does this relate to the museum sector today? Well, have a look at the Serco website (again, one of many such companies) and you’ll see that far from being a service company that empties bins and fixes broken lights in social housing, they actually provide services from the blue light services and the military through to business advice and support (a recent acquisition through a take-over of Business Link network). It wouldn’t then take a great leap of faith to see museums slip into the public/private partnership portfolio.
“But hold on”, I hear you say, “museums aren’t private sector companies, and above all they must deliver toward the agreed defined standards of what a museum is” – enter accreditation. In short, accreditation is the ‘kite mark’ of the museum world, and attaining and retaining accreditation a key aspiration and target of the majority of museums. Accreditation has more recently been updated, and the monitoring and policing function moved from the abolished Museums, Libraries and Archives Council to Arts Council England, as part of a strategic review and rationalisation of national Quangos.
The former version of accreditation stipulated that the governance of a museum applying for accreditation must be one of an acceptable constitution, in essence formed by an Act of Parliament or Royal Charter, a Local Authority, through a University, established as a charity or trust whether wholly or constituted as part of a company, or as part of a non-profit distributing organisation whose charitable aims mirror those of a museums by definition.
Pretty much, this would rule any private sector, profit making or distributing company out – which would include Serco. However, in October of this year as the former MLA was wrapped up and ACE took over strategic control of the museum sector, a new accreditation standard was launched. Much more light touch, at 20 pages compared to the previous 60, the new accreditation scheme talks about a scheme that is not a ‘one size fits all’ standard, but a scheme that varies in application dependant on size, scope, remit and format of the museum or museum service in question.
Within the new document, it again directly refers to the MA’s 1998 definition of a museum, but then deviates from the previous requirements over the precise governance and constitution of a museum, but rather talks of business continuity and accountability within an organisation that delivers a service for the benefit of the public (a sort of SERvice COmpany then?) and that the organisation develops and delivers the museum using professional services, advice and support. In ACE’s words a governing body will have ‘Accredited museums that are responsible, responsive and resilient’. Something that many people might argue local authorities currently are not…
But OK, even taking the fact that the loopholes have widened, and a profit distributing company could, and I say could, become a museum operator, why would they? If there’s anything we’ve learnt from decades of public funding, it’s that museums are a subsidy service, and who’d want that eating up their shareholders profits?!!? Well, that may have been the case, but there are probably very few museums in this climate that aren’t looking at commercial opportunities, service rationalisation and better or more efficient ways of working – inching ever closer to the magical subsidy-neutral service. And thinking back to the previous points that the Serco’s of the world have prospered because they ignore the artificial borders and barriers the public sector has created, there are many ways that a larger company could make substantial savings on ‘back-office’ costs when spread across a service covering counties and even regions (think centralised documentation teams, mobile exhibitions units, regionally located education teams, and head office based admin and support service staff). The museum of the future could quite easily be professionally serviced from a central point or points. Museums are also edging further into the difficult area of charging for services, another point that, if managed by a commercial company, could be better planned and implemented than through the hands of lesser skilled curators and public service managers. And lets not forget, most councils provide grants or some level of subsidy to museums within their district, which if focused on delivering strategic outcomes for the authority (or commissioned) could quite easily be seen as of positive benefit to both funder and fundee.
As with many of these moves from the public to private sector, the culturally responsible authority might want to retain possession of the museums assets (such as the collections and/or buildings) at which point the Serco company become the management agent for the council, making it potentially even simpler for the partnership to operate within the bounds of the new accreditation standard and ethical principles.
But would the Serco’s of the world want these tricky, professionally-led, services? I’m not sure, I haven’t found a case where it has happened, but with Serco taking on contracts such as Business Links and service contracts like bin collection and waste management (which are hardly money spinners) then it seems to suggest that Serco is willing to take professional contracts as well as service delivery contracts and develop its own business model in line with its new acquisitions.
Interestingly then, what the Big Society and decentralisation of services might lead to is not a country where the community owns and operates assets of community value, but where the operators become private companies delivering services over larger geographical boundaries and borders than they were previously, whilst limiting the community voice and scrutiny functions by moving the community a step further away from those the service benefits most – the Big Society therefore becomes Society: Big!
How would the sector respond to large, conglomerate mergers and contract management of our museums and museum services? Well that we’d have to see, but if the museum community is all about defending the defined role of the museum in society, as detailed in the opening of this post, then it can’t preclude such changes to the way we work, or the way in which museums continue to be …’responsible, responsive and resilient…’ institutions in the 21st Century and beyond…
(Coming soon to a community near you, the Serco-Library, Serco-youth centre and Serco-festival)
Much of this post refers directly to museums currently in or under majority control of local authorities within the UK. However, if this were to take off, then mergers and take-overs of failing (or even successful) Trusts would be an obvious strengthening move – not to forget that Serco is an International company which could easily operate across national borders as well as county ones.