London Borough of Culture (LBOC) is a step-change programme, providing an opportunity for individual boroughs to explore how culture and its impacts can be realised and recognised for the benefit of their residents and embedded across borough-wide policy and strategy. Evaluation is a crucial part of the LBOC pilot programme, affording an opportunity to explore, experiment and catalyse change. The borough programmes involve local communities at all stages of development and delivery, aiming to increase both arts engagement for a diversity of residents and cultural capacity throughout the borough. The Audience Agency's role is to deliver the programme evaluation and support the participating boroughs with evaluation and reflective learning.
The LBOC’s inaugural year is underway, led by ‘title winners’ London Borough of Waltham Forest for 2019 and Brent for 2020. Six Cultural Impact Awards have also been granted to the London Boroughs of Merton, Kingston, Camden, Barking & Dagenham, Lewisham and Lambeth, as part of the LBOC initiative. Each borough has designed its programme according to its own priorities, focusing on everything from increasing skills, to addressing specific social concerns through cultural projects and arts practice, including issues affecting young people, social care or filling gaps in cultural provision (such as music or film).
It is rare that any organisation embarks on something of the scale of a title winner of LBOC (Cultural Olympiads, Cities and Capitals of Culture being the exceptions). From an evaluation point of view, it encompasses a challenging ensemble of events of vastly different sizes – some commissioned, some delivered in partnership, some community-led and others spontaneously appearing ad hoc. Each may involve consultation with residents, participation, co-creation, co-production, volunteers, ambassadors or community panels, all putting cultural democracy at the heart of programme development. As a result, outcomes might apply in some places, but not others and need to be assessed in multiple layers – audiences, participants, residents, communities, individuals and stakeholders. It has therefore been essential for the boroughs to focus on key evaluation questions which relate to their overall objectives. The Audience Agency's job is to then translate these into more universal outcomes and learnings, applicable across London's boroughs.
The Audience Agency's role is as much observer as guide and expert advisor, with our full task being two-fold:
- To assess the outcomes of London Borough of Culture as a whole for London, the Greater London Authority and its local authorities.
- To support and advise the individual boroughs in the delivery of their own evaluation.
We have brought our whole evaluation toolkit to this commission: developing stories of change, use of logic models, devising evaluation frameworks, understanding of mixed methodology research and the smooth facilitation of multiple stakeholders. We have also observed some truly pioneering practice from local authorities using the LBOC opportunity to ensure lasting impact for the role of culture in their boroughs. The strand of reflective learning that we have embedded into our evaluation is designed to ensure that borough teams are suitably supported in navigating the change that the projects are precipitating. To this end, our associate Amanda Smethurst has been delivering beautifully crafted sessions for borough organisers that are both encouraging and and address challenges, while identifying common barriers and solutions to contribute to the overall evaluation.
As we look to the next wave of title winners, we are constantly refining the approach. We remain, though, fundamentally focused on assessing the step-change within the boroughs and their approach to embedding culture across the council and assessing where and how it succeeds in:
- Influencing strategy and policy.
- Creating new models of delivery and partnership.
- Delivering a programme that welcomes audiences, participants, volunteers, co-creators and activists – across the spectrum of engagement.
- Increasing cultural engagement from a diversity of residents.
- Increasing the skills and capacity of the cultural sector.
- Realising social impacts, particularly in the areas of social integration and well-being.
- Improving perceptions of the borough as a cultural destination, including economic impact.
Being, as it is, a twist on a number of existing programmes – Great Place Scheme, Cities of Culture, Creative People and Places, to name a few – London Borough of Culture is part of the great exploration of culture-led regeneration and the role of culture in placemaking. This initiative, though, presents unique challenges for boroughs that exist as part of a large city, with its own iconic and dominating cultural attractions. As such, LBOC will continue to focus keenly on localised understanding and the impact potential of a programme that privileges cultural democracy. It is very much a project of its time, as local authority funding is squeezed, while a vast spectrum of social problems is on the rise.
In this climate, the search for effective and creative solutions is imperative and London Borough of Culture represents a key component of social policy for the Mayor of London. It is a testament to the fact that, while culture is understood to have intrinsic and instrumental value, it is absolutely necessary to continue making high-profile contributions to this debate.
As the end of the first title winner year approaches and many of the projects are well under way, we will be reporting fully in early 2021.
The second round of LBOC is currently going through a bidding process to find title winners for 2021 and 2023 and a further three Cultural Impact Awards.
As many of us strive to do our civic duty by sitting on the couch, the creative industries have stepped up to save us, offering a myriad of amazing, free online opportunities to keep engaging with arts, culture and heritage from home.
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