I’ve not attended any of the current round of Arts Council England (ACE) briefings, but talking to colleagues with invites, I was reminded of people trooping into an unexpected assembly at school: the same mix of curiosity, fear, feigned nonchalance and temptation to misbehave. That seems about right.

Talk of an early government spending review, potentially cutting off the last year of the current National Portfolio Organisation (NPO) funding agreements, or alternatively involving a chunk off that year’s money for everyone, can only diminish the resilience of the sector. How ACE would apply that cut would probably depend on the scale. Bringing forward the next NPO process would be hugely difficult to deliver in the context of huge organisational change. The greater the reduction, the harder it will be to justify top-slicing everyone.

Another result would be future nervousness, not to mention distrust, about the reliability of government commitments, making it harder for ACE to give three year grants upon which people can plan effectively, and harder for the sector to invest strategically in longer-term programme or asset development.

The other main topic trailed for the briefings was the organisational changes ACE is making in response to the savage 50% cut in their admin budget required by government. Having played a part in the last (Labour-required) savings-driven cuts, I have only sympathy for colleagues trying to balance aspirations and budgets, and for the people affected – all hugely committed to the arts in my experience. Inevitably, the outcome is something that looks very stretched indeed and a little unevenly-shaped.

A clear priority has been to protect the relationship manager capacity, presumably intended to provide the ‘local presence’ of ACE’s aspiration to be ‘one national organisation with local presence’. The potential reality of this causes concern for two reasons.

Firstly, some relationship managers will be horribly stretched across their geographic areas – especially in those areas that seem to have a lower concentration of staff, in particular ‘the North’. The approach seems to have been to spread relationship managers out according to the number of NPOs, which appears out of kilter with the actual need for development work. It also presupposes that distribution will remain relatively stable in future – a big assumption.

Some regions – I can still use the word even if ACE has excised it from its lexicon – won’t even have specialists in every subject. The North East, home of several of the country’s most important literature organisations in Seven Stories, Bloodaxe Books and New Writing North, won’t have a literature specialist, for instance. I do worry that ACE have confused the value people place on the organisation’s deal-making clout with the respect they have for relationship managers, despite their diminishing influence.

Governance and decision-making

Which leads to my second concern, the dog that does not bark in the information provided so far by ACE – governance and decision-making. The most common frustration I hear about ACE relationship managers is that some have become increasingly unlikely to say anything substantive, and have been compelled to become wary conduits to application processes or outcomes. (This frustration is usually accompanied by sympathy for the many good individuals in that tricky position, alongside a number some feel lack the requisite experience.)

Much of this comes from the lack of decision-making power of those individuals. On the one hand, Grants for the arts has become increasingly centralized and separate from regional conversations (at the same time as becoming more important for many artists and organisations). On the other, the plethora of grant schemes with which ACE is patching together its funding strategy bump decisions upwards in the national structure.

So there is a concern about the effectiveness of a central design principle of this restructure. But there is also a bigger question about governance and decision-making. An arts-funding system depends on trust. This comes from the quality of its staff but also the way in which the sector and those staff connect to its decision-making structures. The current plans appear to run the risk of reducing severely the diversity of voices from around the country – included elected local politicians – that are currently involved in shaping ACE’s direction.

In answer to a question I asked on Twitter, ACE revealed that a review of non-executive governance has been commissioned from David Norgrove. I can see no reference on ACE’s website to a review with such potentially fundamental and far-reaching consequences other than in the minutes of the May meeting of the National Council. (The rather hilariously redacted minutes, I should say.) No announcement, no sharing of terms of reference, no invitation to express views, no explanation of why David Norgrove is suitable for the task. This worries me.

Whether Arts Council governance builds in voices from across the country, artists, elected members and so on is not just an administrative issue. It’s of fundamental importance to how the organisation could work and be worked with – in short, what it can achieve. How does this fit with the new structure, I wonder? Is decision-making actually being dispersed as well, rather than concentrated? Who will decide what the new, leaner ACE will leave out?

I am concerned that just as ACE’s job gets even more difficult, the input – diverse, contradictory and hard to ‘manage’, as I know from my own experience it can be – is being narrowed down for the sake of ‘efficiency’. And short-term efficiency, like short-term savings, may seem attractive or even necessary, but it is often at the expense of long-term resilience.