Last Friday Arts Professional magazine released a brief story reporting that the, so-called, "strategic funding" budget used by Arts Council England had risen by 67% from the previous financial year.
What's unusual about this particular fund is the fact that neither arts organisations nor individuals can apply for this money;
"'Strategic funding' grants being paid out of ACE's Grant in Aid (GiA) from Government are budgeted to reach £10.3m this year - a 67% increase on the £6.2m reported for 2012/13. The budget represents the remainder of ACE's Grant-in-Aid allocation after allowing for its own administration costs and core funding grants to National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs), Museums and Libraries. ACE has confirmed that it does not invite applications for this money, nor does it insist that any opportunities funded from this budget are put out to tender."
Essentially, Arts Council England can give this money to whomever they want for any reason they see fit. When Arts Professional asked to see a list of organisations that had received money from this fund they were rebuffed;
"No list is available to reveal who has received the money or how much they have been paid, and the data made public as part of ACE's commitment to transparency fails to specify which organisations have been made awards from this fund."
Arts Council England even went so far as to pre-emptively decline a Freedom of Information request for the data claiming it would cost the funding monolith a fortune to retrieve the information from its cavernous innards.
Article19 asked ACE what computer software was being used to store the information about the grants from this particular fund that made it so difficult for them to retrieve specific data.
The fact that advanced indexing and tagging systems available on even the most inexpensive laptop computers makes finding data a simple and fast process, not to mention a smartphone's ability to recover vast amounts of information quickly from the internet, make it hard to believe that a custom, paid for product would make such a recovery task so arduous and expensive to implement.
ACE told us that they use a system called AIMS (Award Information Management System) from a company called Quest Computing based in the Republic of Ireland. The company's own website, ironically enough, uses Arts Council England as a case study for just how good their grant management system is. They also feature a diagram that explains how their software works that was evidently created by a nine year old.
Calls to Quest's London office went unanswered.
When we asked the funding monolith why the information was not kept in a simple to reference format they responded;
"Arts Council data is stored appropriately within our systems and can be referenced as required. We have a standard Grants management system based on AIMs software as mentioned above. All requests take time especially ones which involve large amounts of data and it is standard practice for organisations to cross check any information to ensure accuracy."
The responses given to both Article19 and Arts Professional are curious because ACE already provides simple and easy to use lists of grants for their NPO (National Portfolio Organisation) funding programme and their RFO (Regularly Funded Organisations) funding programme before that. These funding portfolios are both far more complex and a lot larger than this "strategic funding" programme covering, as they do, hundreds of different recipients.
When Article19 asked for a simple breakdown of funded projects for The Space website last year ACE provided that list as a spreadsheet within a few days of the request being made.
Grants to arts organisations and individuals from the vast Grants For The Arts (GFA) system that encompasses tens of thousands of recipients can be searched online via a government operated website.
The main difference between the NPO, The Space and GFA funds and this "strategic fund" pot of money however is that all of those are handled using an open application process.
We also asked ACE about providing detailed information to their auditors (who are supposed to make sure ACE is spending money on what they say they are spending money on). If they could provide that information to their auditors then why not to journalists, and anybody else, making formal requests for information.
"An auditor would not ask for information on this scale. Generally speaking auditors would request specific information on a limited number of different, individual projects and would then study the process in which each grant was made."
Apparently the auditing process for ACE involves looking at a "limited number" of projects and coming to the ridiculous assumption that if those ones are ok then everything else must be fine. The 2008 financial crisis appears to have taught the powers that be nothing at all.
No Way To Win
For Arts Council England this is, yet again, a no-win situation entirely of their own making. It's bad enough that they have a £10Million slush fund that they can give to anybody they want. It gets worse when requests for information about who receives that money are ignored because ACE claims their information storage systems are so hopeless it would "involve a time consuming data check" on their part to figure out where the money went, not that it matters because the auditors don't care anyway.
ACE is complaining they can't retrieve information about a funding system they created from a computer system they themselves implemented and paid for.
Things become more depressing when you realise that the people at ACE think they are being transparent because, hey, at least they tell people that these funds exist so what does it matter who actually gets the money?
On transparency ACE told us this;
"They are funds that we use when we have identified new opportunities or platforms that we feel would benefit from funding. It is part of the Arts Council's role to identify these opportunities and to be flexible enough to develop new partnerships as and when the opportunity arises."
Nobody would argue that the funding monolith having a little flexibility with a certain amount of funds is a good idea. What's not a good idea is having an organisation where nobody has the foresight, or apparently the intelligence, to fire up a spreadsheet programme, open a company wide DropBox account and keep a simple reference file of who gets the money.
Everybody knows ACE spends money. But we also want to know, and need to know, who gets it and what for. That's what keeps everybody honest.
Admitting that you implemented a complex and unworkable system that you're either too stupid or too lazy to fix means that Arts Council England still doesn't understand that the fall really is going to kill them.