Working in national cultural institutions in the years following the 2008-9 financial crisis, I heard a lot of talk of “efficiencies” and of “doing more with less”. As public sector funding cuts began to bite, everyone complained about budget cuts, staff made ends meet despite extended public sector pay freezes, and organisations looked for ways to diversify their income sources and to raise and make the money that museums and libraries need to do their work. Making more money from cafes, shops, events and exhibition tickets helped close the gap left by declining public funding, but it didn’t enable cultural organisations to build up reserves for a crisis of the type that 2020 has thrown us, leaving some organisations facing very difficult decisions about how to balance their budget and absorb substantial losses.
And yet, here is the old slogan back again: we are once again to “do more with less.” I was no fan of the phrase ten years ago, and haven’t welcomed it back like an old friend – rather, I’m eyeing it like an old adversary. “Oh, I see? You again…”
As much as I dislike the phrase, there are some things about it that I agree with. We should think about how we can maximise the impact of our work, and about how to deliver it without wasting time, money or other resources. Sometimes, a project twice the size, or with twice the positive impact, doesn’t cost twice as much to run, so “doing more with less” can be about efficiencies of scale. In the kinds of large organisations where I’ve made my career, there can be efficiencies of staffing and other resources to be found in breaking down silos and working together across teams. Those are all things we should be doing, in good times as well as tough ones.
That said, “doing more with less” can be – and too often has been – used to paper over the cracks left by a reduction in resources. It is easy enough to say, but it doesn’t start to tackle how a contraction in staffing or money will be managed, or set out an approach for how to start to work out what to do, or help you choose what to stop doing. In the years after the financial crisis, the government-funded cultural organisations were told to create “efficiencies” without impacting on “front-line services” even though everyone at the time realised that there was no avoiding some impact on services if cuts on the scale proposed were to be accommodated. Now, ten years later, few in the libraries and museums sectors have fat left to cut. So, the exhortation to “do more with less” as we cope with the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic can’t mean doing more of the same, with fewer people and less money than we used to have. It’s time for a rethink, and potentially a fundamental and a radical one.
In place of “doing more with less”, I prefer a different phrase: “build back better.” This isn’t only a hashtag, but an approach developed for recovery and reconstruction after disasters, that aims to ensure that countries and communities are more resilient afterwards than they were before. Crucially, “better” here includes questions of wellbeing, fairness and equity, and our values as well as our KPIs and income targets. It’s about doing the right things rather than just more of what we did before.
For libraries and museums, this encourages us to be clear about the core activities, programmes, and values that – even though they may have been interrupted or disrupted by the lockdown – we should not let go of. But it also prompts us to be careful that as things gradually open up we don’t just restart all the old programmes and services because those are what we know and know how to do. Seeking stability and familiarity is tempting after a tough few months, especially when things are likely to remain changeable and uncertain for some time to come. But it would be a missed opportunity not to use this as a moment to renew and to “build back better.” If it’s time to redesign something, or to rebuild a service or programme from the ground up, now is as good a chance as any to do that. If there are things we used to do that have been paused or stopped for a few months and we don’t need to go back to doing, it’s time not to look back. It is time to be bold, and clear, and to meet uncertainty with creativity and determination.