Embedding quality in your commissioning practice

Rachel Blanche is a specialist in cultural policy and arts funding at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh. In a major report for Creative Scotland she captures the latest thinking on how quality occurs and how best to foster it in participatory arts and other settings.  Her evidence-based recommendations are being implemented in Scotland and have informed a new quality framework developed for Wales.

To add to the valuable partnership resources developed by the Cultural Commissioning Programme, I’d like to flag parallel work around quality happening in the arts sector. Even though the new insights come from participatory arts research I believe they’re crucial for any kind of work delivered with beneficiaries.

The quality of what we deliver, and the quality of our users’ experiences and outcomes, is directly related to the level of shared understanding and purpose between us and our project partners. Because key conditions for quality arise in the Inception phase of a project, this has obvious significance for commissioning.

Making your project ‘the best it can be’

It stands to reason that we and our partners all desire for our work to be as good as it can be.  We want it to represent the optimum investment of our time, money and effort. But the evidence is that our existing standard approaches are often flawed and do not always enable quality experiences and outcomes for our users.

New evidence of disconnect

Quality often isn’t under complete control of the artist commissioned to deliver an activity or project: evidence shows that key decision-makers ‘outside the room’ have a strong influence on quality outcomes. We can identify in advance certain pre-conditions that allow the best chance for reaching the quality we want, but many of these are in the power of partners or stakeholders who are not there ‘in the room’ with the beneficiaries. So: responsibility for quality needs to be shared among partners from the beginning, and preconditions for quality recognised and accounted for.

The core conditions for quality in participatory arts settings listed opposite might seem rather obvious!  BUT these preconditions for quality are often missing, happening ‘only sometimes’ or ‘rarely’.  What is obvious is that if we want to foster quality work and quality outcomes, then such conditions need to be in place.

Occurrence of essential and important quality factors, as reported by % of artists in a survey by Artworks

What does this mean for commissioning?

Our commissioning and contracting process is when partnerships are forged and discussions had about the work and what it will achieve.  This design stage is the only point when you can build quality features in.

If ‘quality’ is the ideal you wish to deliver, your aim is to ‘minimise the variation’ between this and what is experienced by those engaging with the work.  How do you want it to look and feel for your beneficiaries? Is it understood what conditions need to be in place for this desired quality to happen, and how these conditions will be provided for? How will you know if you’ve achieved the ideal?

Given the influence of those decision-makers ‘outside the room’, being on the same page on these questions at all levels of the partnership is crucial for achieving quality.

Tools for inspired partnerships

These dynamics sit at the heart of Creative Scotland’s new quality toolkit ‘Is this the Best it can be?’ which aids discussion between artists and their non-arts partners in the early phases of planning and designing commissioned or joint work. It is purposely designed to be mined and adapted for your own setting or circumstances. Artworks Cymru’s Partners Toolkit is also built on this quality model.

Because quality is not absolute but is open to constant improvement, with inspired ‘partnerships for quality’ we can continually raise the bar for what is achieved and achievable.

If partners determine together what is needed to create quality experiences and outcomes for our beneficiaries, we can aim for and then exceed that ideal.  If we then evaluate together to what extent we got the conditions right and what will work better next time, we might truly maximise our time, resources and commissioning effort.

Interested to find out more?

This short briefing paper offers more details about the evidence and insights I’ve mentioned here:

Insights for Employers, Commissioners and Funders in facilitating quality impacts through participatory arts, Rachel Blanche (November 2014)

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