JoJo Spinks from Interwoven Productions CIC explores the Capability Approach for measuring quality of life from participatory arts work as a push back against prescribed outcomes such as improved health, wellbeing and environment.


I’ve been thinking a lot about this. About the Theory of Change for Interwoven Productions CIC and how to design our Impact Assessment. Something kept sticking in my craw though and it’s taken a while to understand it.

I signed up to quite few discussions about impact measurement in the arts and looked at some great example reports but, in the end, I realised my reservations weren’t about how to measure or assess change. It was about the change that I felt under pressure to deliver.

It got messy because, truth is, like most participatory practitioners, it’s not at all hard to find evidence to support the notion that we do in fact improve health, well-being and have a positive impact on the environment. But, it’s like those three things are the lodestones, the go-to, the trigger that all funders are looking for, isn’t it? As I sat with our social enterprise advisor to design our Theory of Change it was variations on those themes that I kept being steered towards as outcomes of our work, but there’s a real problem here for the participatory arts. Let me try and explain …

If we accept that pull towards those magnets of prescribed change – improved health, well-being and environment – then we accept an entire, implicit and imposed worldview. That is, that our communities need to be fixed, improved and upgraded in some way. A worldview that elderly, sick and disabled people are needy – by definition; that if ordinary working-class people don’t present as needy then they have no use for creative expression and no culture of their own; that being green should be top of everyone’s priorities, regardless of their circumstances; that health and wellbeing take precedence over personal safety and self-protection.

In other words, those outcomes are the worldview of individuals who don’t feel personally threatened all the time, who aren’t totally exhausted, running two or three jobs, who don’t have to balance the immediate lift to be gained from a cigarette or a drink against a life on the streets. It makes a whole set of assumptions about the life circumstances of others and the things that might lead them to, quite legitimately, make other choices. And one of those choices, as we all know, may well be to opt out of participation. Are they “hard-to-reach” or simply marginalised by this worldview?

Even worse than this, it takes no regard of their equity of opportunity; the power they have to design and make their own change. I was recently introduced to the work of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, two academic philosophers and economists who developed the Capability Approach. One of their strongest incentives was to find an alternative to the Gross Domestic Product as a measure of the quality of life. Go on, Google it, read, research and assess for yourself but what struck me profoundly was that these understandings are OUT THERE; being published, taught and discussed at the highest levels. So, why are we all still being pushed towards the unholy trinity of improved health, well-being and environment?

Well, I guess, because those are the things that cost the state money and actually, as participatory artists, working directly with individuals with all kinds of other priorities we’ve become used to walking that unsteady tightrope between differing worldviews. But I think it’s time to out it, that pressure to conform. It’s time to change our minds about change.

The Capability Approach for measuring quality of life has been adopted by successive international committees including the United Nations and here’s the thing – it absolutely does not say that we should be measuring outcomes for improved health, well-being and environment.

It says instead that we should be taking full account of the capability of an individual to design and affect their own change. That, if we must measure, then it should be evidence of the things that they do, express and become that are meaningful to them. NOT prescribed for them.

Now, that is a measure that I can believe in.

So Interwoven has adjusted its Theory of Change to show that we’ll be collecting and measuring evidence of how we have helped to animate citizenship, i.e. number of individuals actively seeking learning or undertaking investigative photo-journalism (I see people going out to ask questions, filming/taking images to represent their own lives); how many are organising events, solving local problems, starting their own projects, helping neighbours – even protesting!

It’s a shift that shows that there’s a really important stage in “change” that we are far too often encouraged to skip and that’s asking people what change is meaningful to them!