Dave O'Brien on finding tools to measure culture

06 December 2011

Dave O'Brien of City University has published an article in the Guardian setting out the argument for using economic valuation techniques to measure the benefits of culture. For all the challenges inherent in such approaches, O'Brien believes they are the only way to get to grips with the issues in a way that government will understand.  

Using economics to value culture is sound for pragmatic reasons because this is how central government is supposed to appraise policy. Her Majesty's Treasury recommends the use of cost-benefit analysis for policy decisions, with economic valuation techniques for things that don't have prices associated with them. Decisions about arts and cultural funding therefore need to find ways to fit in with this way of making public policy.

He goes on to point out:

Measurement in the arts and cultural sector is difficult but this is no less true of any other area of public policy. How can we value a human life? What is the value of the environment? These difficult questions were faced by the Departments for Health and Environment during the 1990s, with similar objections voiced about the uniqueness of these respective policy areas.

However both areas have engaged with disciplines such as economics to construct useful tools for decision-making. These tools are not perfect and are subject to criticism, but they have made transparent and informed decision-making possible in areas where demand is high and resources are scarce.

We linked to O'Brien's report for the DCMS (Measuring the value of culture) back in January – it can be read here.

(Update: The critic, Tiffany Jenkins, has written a response to O'Brien's piece, also in the Guardian – it's here.)

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