The journey that led to the setting up of Creative Scotland was an eye-opening experience for me. It was the first time that I’d been involved in any sort of public policy consultation and one particular moment has always stuck in my mind.

During the course of the Edinburgh Fringe I was invited to a consultancy session being carried out by one of the UK’s foremost cultural industries theorists. At the outset of the session we were encouraged to think creatively and open ourselves up to different ideas and possibilities.

At a certain point in the discussion we were asked what we thought of some of the potential alternatives to grant funding, such as loans or endowments. Entering into the spirit of the event, several of us discussed the ideas and we all concluded that such mechanisms might be of benefit if, and only if, they were not used as an alternative to, or replacement for, sustained funding of the arts from central government.

No room for disagreement

Fast forward a couple of months and I was taking my seat at a major conference that had been convened to explore how Creative Scotland might operate. The consultant that had led our discussion was scheduled to appear early on in the programme and I waited eagerly to hear what they had to say.

Sure enough they were presenting the results of the consultation work that they had carried out with us. We heard about the potential for creating new models of finance for the arts. We heard about how keen artists were to embrace these new opportunities. We learned that actually artists were so keen on these ideas that they were way ahead of politicians or policy-makers in their enthusiasm and their thinking.

I kept waiting for the most important part of our discussion to be flagged up, but of course it never was. This was a version of our discussion that had been stripped of every ‘if’, ‘but’ and ‘maybe’ that had featured in our conversation. We were being presented with a conversation that had been neatly repackaged so that the people who had paid for the consultation to be carried out didn’t have to hear anything that they didn’t want to hear.

This was unfortunate because those of us who had given up our time to volunteer our views had raised those points, not because we were determined to stand in the way of progress, but because we viewed the ‘ifs’ the ‘buts’ and the ‘maybes’ as essential conditions for success.

Professional class of thinkers

Over the course of the last twenty years, government and government agencies have come to rely on outside experts and consultants to do a great deal of their thinking for them. An entire class of professional thinkers has built up to cater for the demand, in most cases charging the kind of daily rates that even successful and well known artists would struggle to earn in a month.

Worse still is the fact that these consultants then take on the role of mediating a lot of the organisation’s key relationships. It’s a form of intellectual outsourcing that allows both politicians and civil servants to distance themselves from actual decision-making and, by extension, to absolve themselves from taking responsibility for the decisions that have been taken.

We don’t yet have a clear sense of what the precise objectives of Creative Scotland’s open meetings will be, but as far as I’m concerned the only way that they can be successful is if those involved in policy making at both Creative Scotland and the Scottish Government are actively involved in them, and if they are willing to listen to people’s opinions directly, rather than through a filter. The question now is whether Creative Scotland has enough confidence and belief in its own staff to entrust them with managing that process.

Originally published on the Stramash Arts blog as part of a longer article under the headline, Talking Points.

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