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What Matters?

CHAPTER SEVEN

The Reporting of Value

We speak to the organizer. She asks ‘why have you come to Singapore? Isn’t there a course in Australia?’ She talks about the relative failure of Integrated Reporting in Singapore. She says it didn’t have enough grounding in the right values and that, in this respect, Sustainability Reporting is ethically more fundamental than <IR>. We explain our interest in this kind of reporting for the cultural sector. She asks ‘what’s the cultural sector?’, which is not a question we get asked that often! We say ‘arts organisations, mostly non-profit’. She says ‘being at Bloomberg is not the usual setting for a workshop like this’. Bloomberg is like a trading floor from a Hollywood financial disaster movie – screens everywhere, free food and drink, harassed workers glued to screens with little coloured bar charts that bob up and down, numbers flitting past like neutrinos. Nothing says ‘sustainability’. Everything says ‘profit’.

Notes on a Sustainability Reporting Workshop. Sept 2016,
Bloomberg, Singapore.

Ticking the Boxes

In Laboratory Adelaide, every time we step into the public arena we get asked about our ‘methodology’. People are keen, even desperate, for a way to validate their belief that culture matters.

But methodology alone will not do this work. This does not mean our view on arts funding is ‘just hand over the money and bugger off’. That would be both elitist and anti-democratic. So this chapter begins a discussion about what a better relationship between cultural practitioners and their supporters might look like. The answer lies in more meaningful value reporting.

What do all parts of the cultural sector have in common? The answer is banal: they are constantly describing and justifying what they do to other parts. In previous centuries this meant writing to rich patrons (e.g. Samuel Johnson’s hostile letter to Lord Chesterfield, 1755), seeking audiences with powerful monarchs (e.g. Moliere’s with Louis XIV in the 1660s), and making public arguments and apologias (e.g. Virginia Woolf ’s A Room of One’s Own, 1929). Such things still happen, but in Western societies, and in the rapidly developing BRIC ones (Brazil, Russia, India and China), these activities have largely been replaced by one so ubiquitous it seems almost beneath notice: filling in forms.

Artists and cultural organisations fill in forms for many reasons: to apply for a grant; to claim a tax exemption; to request a license to perform or sell goods; to comply with occupational health and safety requirements; to insure themselves, their audiences or their art; to take their work abroad; to explain their work to a particular community or regulatory body. The list goes on and on. The forms they fill in are not bespoke. Forms are not designed to capture everything about something, but something about everything. To do this they break down complex real-world phenomena into a series of blank informational categories. Obvious ones include ‘name’, ‘address’ and ‘occupation’. This kind of data is basic and iterative. We spend a good portion of our lives relaying it over and over, in slightly different ways. Sometimes this information takes a verbal form, sometimes numerical. Occasionally, as with passports and driver’s licences, visual material is required also. The ordinariness of forms is deceptive. The fact that much of the information they solicit is old, repetitive or redundant is designed to reveal opposite traits: what is new, different and divergent. The modern form is a searchlight, aimed at distinguishing between what is unremarkable and always required (‘mandatory information’), what is relevant to a particular situation or occasion (‘eligibility criteria’) and what is to be weighed in the balance and awarded, rewarded, censured or rejected. The whole process – the form (physical or online), the social interactions around it, the decisions it facilitates and the consequences of those decisions – we can call ‘reporting’. In arts and culture, as elsewhere, it has low status. ‘Ticking the boxes’ is a refrain that can be frequently heard from the sector, in tones of resignation or plangent complaint. Dreary, time-consuming, useless, removed: reporting is the soul-deadening price to be paid for engaging in arts and culture themselves, which are, by contrast, exciting, technicoloured and fun.

But what if reporting wasn’t like that? What if it was an engaged, serious, and purposeful activity that reflected more of culture’s worth because it was more worthwhile itself? What if the endless forms we have to fill in were a chance for artists and cultural organisations to speak meaningfully about what they do?

In 2015, the Laboratory Adelaide researchers met the author Jane Gleeson-White, who had just published Six Capitals: The Revolution Capitalism Has to Have – or Can Accountants Save the Planet? She is both an art historian and an accountant. Her book introduces the lay reader to new reporting reforms in the corporate world that seek to change the way companies both write their annual reports, and, more broadly, the way they talk about what they contribute (or not) to the global polity. She writes:

Many at the forefront of corporate reporting believe that in the future we will not be talking about reporting at all; we will be talking about corporate communication. Reporting is an industry-style, one-way process from a company to give information to the mass of its shareholders. By contrast, communication is a multi-directional form of relating and can encompass individual exchanges between the company and those with a stake in its activities … [P]roponents of integrated reporting believe that integrated thinking and reporting can shift the focus of managers and investors to the long term. And because of the power of corporations, the future of the planet depends on it.102

As result of meeting Gleeson-White, Laboratory Adelaide developed an interest in two innovative corporate reporting approaches or ‘frameworks’: the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) and Integrated Reporting (<IR>). These are complex areas of accounting theory and practice, and we do not claim to be proficient in them. On the other hand, both frameworks are designed in part for non-expert use. Their emphasis on communication exemplifies the points we want to make in respect of language and narrative. We sketch their main points of interest for cultural practitioners who should, we suggest, set aside their low opinion of reporting and explore a way to move forward a discussion about value stuck in ‘economic impact mode’ since the 1980s.

Neither GRI nor <IR> are silver bullet solutions to the challenges the cultural sector faces. And they have problems of their own, a main one being the competing tension between reporting financial and non-financial forms of value. This is reflected in the quote at the top of this section, taken from our notes when we attended sustainability report training ourselves in 2016. Nor do GRI or <IR> provide slick suites of app-like ‘tools’. They have methods but are not defined by them. They are more properly described as holistic evaluative systems designed to focus thinking on what matters. They are expressions of a reporting reform looking beyond reporting, to the assumptions and behaviour they describe and justify. By articulating new forms of value via these frameworks, we can articulate new forms of value in our lives.

The next few pages give a brief introduction to these approaches to value. Those who like detail will discover there is plenty of detail on GRI and <IR> to be had, allowing sophisticated judgment about their strengths, limitations, uptake, formal modelling and so forth (see the Appendix which gives the relevant web links). However, after two years acquaintance with the frameworks we believe there are some key aspects that should be highlighted when considering their applicability for culture.

First, they are principles-based rather than rules-governed. Neither GRI nor <IR> supply a ‘one size fits all’ template for every organisation, but seek to turn reporting into an exercise in real knowledge transmission. Their principles, which we will touch on in a moment, are the opposite of ‘boxes to be ticked’. They are commitments designed to elicit a deeper response from organisations about the issues they themselves think are important. There are mandatory information fields, of course (GRI calls them ‘universal standards’). But there are also fields that are selective and elective (GRI calls them ‘topic specific standards’) that apply to particular sectors and to particular organisations that identify with them.

This highlights a third feature of the frameworks: they are not coercive. They ask companies to report ‘in accordance with’ their principles or, a lesser degree, to ‘reference’ them. Even in those countries that mandate sustainability reporting (like Singapore) or integrated reporting (like South Africa), the emphasis is less on compliance than internalisation. Both frameworks allow a phased approach, indeed encourage it, so that the principles are adopted meaningfully rather than in a speedy but superficial way. Such gradualism also facilitates a fourth distinguishing feature of these frameworks: their interest in properly aligning numerical and non-numerical information. There is use of quantitative indicators and targets in both GRI and <IR>, but these metrics draw their sense from the qualitative information arranged around them. During our own sustainability report training, we were asked to look at a Nestlé company report. We went straight to the numerical data, but were told sternly, ‘don’t be driven by the data; stand above the data; if you go straight to the data, you won’t get the whole picture; you will have “an answer” before you know what the question is. You won’t know if you are looking at everything you should be.’

‘Everything’ for GRI and <IR> is the world of value beyond financial return. The ethical impulse behind the approaches comes from the environmental movement, and the belief that capitalism is in danger of exhausting the planet’s resources, degrading its labour force, and discounting all that isn’t profit in the pockets of shareholders. The reduction of value to financial value is unacceptable for two reasons. First, because corporations are given special privileges by the modern state, that mean they should consider the public interest and not just their own. Second, because non-financial forms of value are increasingly important in an economy where natural, social and intellectual (and we would argue cultural) sources of wealth add greatly to successful and sustainable living.

Finally, binding all these interests together is a bigger and more dynamic sense of time than in traditional accounting. GRI is focused on intergenerational equity; <IR> on how value is created over short, medium and long terms. With both frameworks, there is a clear sense of what organisations need to get away from – a chronic and debilitating short-termism, a hyper-focus on ‘the now’ of the current financial reporting period at the expense of the costs and benefits that become evident when other time frames are considered. While much of the GRI and <IR> literature is concerned with capturing environmental, social and governance activity and bringing it into a ‘value matrix’, what makes the exercise real and rewarding is a richer view of time. This is crucial for arts and culture, whose value often appears slowly, over years, or even generations, as many of the examples in this book show.

GRI Described

As GRI and <IR>’s commentators Robert Eccles and Michael Krzus stress, these frameworks spring from what is at heart a social movement.103 As such, they are examples of regulatory responses to the failures of corporate capitalism in the post-communist era. The King Report on Governance for South Africa (King III), which in 2011 mandated <IR> for all companies listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange on an ‘apply or explain’ basis, is a moment of origin for <IR>.104 It occurred within a wave of global interest in reforming corporate reporting practices that included the UK Companies Act 2006, and the Danish Financial Statement Act 2008. GRI, established in 1997, is older than <IR>. The California-based Sustainability Accounting Standards Board, known for its rigorous assessment methodology, was established in 2011. The UK-based Carbon Disclosure Project appeared in 2001 and is linked to the Climate Disclosure Standards Board, founded in 2007. All these bodies focus on ‘triple bottom line reporting’ or Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) indices. Above them all sits the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals, of which, it should be noted, cultural development is not one.

How does GRI work? As said above, it encourages a phased approach. Companies do not suddenly start reporting on sustainability. Usually they adopt a three-year rollout, with emphasis on quality and specificity of reporting. The framework links reporting topics to metrics in a way that assists proper contextualisation, and the pertinent articulation of the intentions and directions of an organisation. Different reporting standards exist for different industrial sectors. Within each topic-specific standard, there are disclosures that are required, disclosures that are recommended, and guidelines for the provision of discretionary information. The commitment is to an ‘improvement cycle’, to reporting, over time, reflecting GRI principles more deeply, thus encouraging better real-world behaviour. The advantage of a phased approach is that it gives both report writers and report readers time to grasp the advantages of holistic communication. Choice of metrics is a last step. Because there is flexibility in specific standards, there is flexibility in quantitative indicators. The two work together – words and numbers – to create a useful, trustworthy, and credible report.

Sustainability is about more than using low-energy light bulbs and recycled toilet paper. It is, in the words of PAIA, a GRI-training company, ‘about risk management in the broader sense’.105 It has an inter-generational focus, ensuring our children and grandchildren inherit the planet in as good a condition as we experience it now. Many things can damage this legacy: resource depletion, economic inequality, social injustice, declining health and wellbeing, and low educational standards. GRI records corporate impacts in all these domains and encourages their mitigation. Christopher Davis, the Body Shop’s CEO, put it neatly and with the right moral emphasis: ‘sustainability is about being a little less awful’.106

Given its broad understanding of value, GRI is particularly concerned with ‘intangibles’, the wealth we generate beyond hard cash and material goods. Non-financial information is at the crux of what makes sustainability reporting new. While there is no doubting the ethical roots of GRI, its adoption into business models is driven by changing fiscal realities as well. One is the increasing interconnectedness of the global economy, so that sustainability performance is now closely related to stock market price. For example, a badly run mine in Papua New Guinea can damage BHP’s share price in Sydney and London. Another is the shifting ratio between tangible and intangible wealth. In 1975, 17 per cent of a company’s capital value typically lay in intangible assets. In 1995, it was 68 per cent. In 2015, it was 84 per cent.107 The world has changed, and our perceptions of the world along with it. For example, Facebook lost trust and share value in 2018 for not having guarded its personal data better from unscrupulous data-miners. Developments in economic theory, public interest in ‘legacy effects’, and the speed with which opinions can be shared on the internet mean that value looks very different in the corporate realm than it did 30 or even 10 years ago.

The key principles of GRI report content are as follows:108 sustainability context (a report should be ‘presented in the wider context of … how an organisation contributes, or aims to contribute to areas of focus in sustainability’); materiality (a report should ‘reflect an organisation’s significant economic, environmental and social impacts’); stakeholder inclusiveness (a report should ‘identify [an organisation’s] stakeholders, and explain how it has responded to their reasonable expectations and interests’); and completeness (‘encompasses the dimensions of scope, boundary and time’).

The key principles of GRI report quality are as follows: balance (a report ‘should reflect positive and negative aspects of the organisation’s performance’); comparability (a report ‘should be presented in a manner that enables stakeholders to analyze changes in the organization’s performance over time, and … relative to other organizations’); accuracy (‘information should be sufficiently accurate and detailed for stakeholders to assess [an] organization’s performance’); timeliness (‘refers both to the regularity of reporting as well as its proximity to the actual events described’); clarity (‘information [should be] available in a manner that is understandable and accessible to stakeholders’); and reliability (‘stakeholders should have confidence that a report can be checked to establish the veracity of its contents’).

These principles are ones of good faith and ‘black and white’ communication (no hiding bad news!). An organisation’s narrative is obviously primary. GRI asks organisations to report on what they believe to be relevant and significant, and this has to be done discursively before it is shown metrically. At the same time, GRI’s widening of focus from shareholders to stakeholders means narrative has to do more than relay information about the value an organisation is accruing to itself. It must describe and justify what good it is doing in the world, what value it is providing to others.

<IR> Described

Of the relationship between GRI and <IR>, Eccles and Krzus comment that the former ‘provides a strong foundation’ for the latter, while they ‘differ little in terms of their primary audience’.109 The International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC) was founded in 2009, and like GRI makes its terms and guidelines freely available. A document published in 2014 defines integrated thinking as ‘the active consideration by an organization of the relationships between its various operating and functional units and the capitals that the organization uses or affects’. Integrated reporting is ‘a process founded on integrated thinking that results in a periodic integrated report by an organization about value creation over time’, and an integrated report is

a concise communication about how an organisation’s strategy, governance, performance and prospects, in the context of its external environment, lead to the creation of value over the short, medium and long term.110

<IR> shares many of the principles of GRI but, as is clear from these remarks, puts great stress on connectivity between different types of information, and value-generation over time. Connectivity is a function of simplicity and concision, and this is a pain point for a framework that aims to produce one report that overarches any others an organisation might generate. It is hard not hear a version of the central refrain from Lord of the Rings: ‘One report to rule them all, one report to bind them/One report to bring them all and in a value matrix bind them’. The more information a report tries to integrate, the more complex it becomes, and the less effective it is as a communication tool. It may seem counterintuitive, but often the best thing a report can do is provide less information (we would argue especially quantitative information) so that what is presented is more accessible and interpretable. Often reports feel like the terms and conditions on an internet purchase – deliberately lengthy and opaque to discourage readers from discovering salient detail. Use of ‘white space’ in a report is not necessarily absence of data. It can be room to think.

At the heart of the <IR> framework are its six different categories of wealth or ‘capitals’: financial, manufactured, intellectual, human, social and relationship, and natural (for this reason, it is sometimes called ‘the capitals approach’). The IIRC notes, ‘not all capitals are equally relevant or applicable to all organizations’.111 The capitals exist ‘as a guideline to ensure the organization does not overlook a capital that it uses or affects’.112 The capitals are inputs. The value creation process is what happens to the capitals after they are turned into first outputs, then outcomes. As with GRI, value creation is dynamic and reflexive. The IIRC comment, ‘the value creation process is not static; regular review of each component and its interactions with other components, and a focus on the organization’s outlook, lead to revision and refinement to improve all the components’.113 In other words, an organisation’s value is related to an organisation’s vision. We are back to narrative again, with the importance of binding disparate information into a report that can cope with the flux of time, and the fact that, as human beings, we have such limited perception of the future.

Where could culture fit into the <IR> framework? Three of its capitals deal with tangible assets (financial, manufactured, and natural) and three with intangible ones (intellectual, human, social and relationship). Aspects of culture are reflected across the six categories, but its more immanent qualities – its inherent, aesthetic, or ‘cultural’ value, as well as its less overt psychological and social effects – could be listed under intellectual capital (‘knowledge-based intangibles’), human capital (‘people’s competencies and experience; their motivation to innovate’), or social and relationship capital (‘ability to share information to enhance individual and collective well-being’). A more radical proposal would be to add a seventh category to the <IR> foundational list: cultural capital. Certainly, the <IR> framework is flexible enough to incorporate such a move and embed culture in a way that would allow explicit acknowledgment of its value.

image

Figure 1: The Value Creation Process in the <IR> Framework, showing the six input capitals (“the Octopus model”). We propose Culture added as a seventh capital.

Source: The International <IR> Framework (2013): P. 13

Reporting Principles for Culture?

There are exciting possibilities in GRI and <IR>. Many of the benefits arising from cultural activity are hard to articulate in quantitative, especially monetised terms. This leaves three ways forward. First, by developing quantitative measures of non-quantitative value. This is the approach taken by so-called ‘quality metrics’, like Western Australia’s Culture Counts dashboard system. Such a tactic is fraught with problems, both methodological and political, and Laboratory Adelaide has written about these at length elsewhere.114 Second, by rejecting all quantification as skewed towards instrumentalism and/or financial value, and using qualitative assessment methods alone. This seems unlikely to prevail in a data-fixated society such as ours, where quantitative information is akin to Linus’s blanket in the Peanuts cartoons. Besides, numbers usually tell us something of value about value, even if they fall short of the total picture. A third avenue is to combine both types of information in a way that makes sense of them as different but aligned sources of knowledge. This is GRI and <IR>’s promise for culture. But there is also promise in culture for these reporting frameworks, for the kind of values that cultural organisations generate are predominantly intangible as traditional accounting views them. They are, consequently, varied and interesting enough to enrich thinking about organisational communication. Reporting reform and culture are natural allies, and a closer relationship between them could be conceptually and practically fruitful in both fields.

If we put the issues raised in this chapter together – sustainability, integration, financial and non-financial information, tangible and intangible wealth, and time – the problem of culture’s value appears in a new light. We can stop talking about ‘methodology’ in a simplistic sense. Metrical methods may play a part in supplying evidence of culture’s social and economic effects. But culture’s value is something that arises from the operation of a complex system and it is the system that deserves our attention, not just certain designated proxies. A measure of value is only as good as the reporting relationships in which it is embedded. When these relationships aren’t grounded in a meaningful understanding of what culture is, trust is lost and no set of numbers will get it back. The presenter in Singapore explained to us that: ‘one of the great strengths of the GRI is that it doesn’t try to reinvent anything. It has no ego. If there is something out there that works, it doesn’t try to replace it. It works with it and assists it’. This is crucial to extending the reporting reform to culture. GRI and <IR> do not ask cultural practitioners to replace what they do, the numbers they crunch, the stories they tell. They ask them to reappraise their effectiveness and meaning in light of wider environmental, social and governance goals – goals they will overwhelmingly share. The frameworks encourage organisations to consider all the benefits they provide to the community: to consider value in the deepest sense. We should not be over-optimistic. Changing economic and political habits is, in the words of Max Weber, ‘a slow boring through hard boards’. However, there are opportunities in both reporting frameworks. Their conception of time is different – it is longer term. Their conception of benefit is different – it is broader, stakeholder-based and includes intangible assets. Their conception of reporting is different – it is narratively-driven and uses metrics where they support the qualitative vision an organisation is trying to communicate. In other words, the aim of these frameworks is not information but understanding. Providing information is key to talking meaningfully about the value of arts and culture. But achieving understanding is a prior and more profound task to providing information.

What might a set of reporting principles look like for culture? In 2016, we had a stab at drafting just such a document. Like GRI and <IR> we imagined not a coercive set of rules, but voluntary protocols to which practitioners would subscribe as a means of improving their own reporting – of going beyond ‘ticking the boxes’. We reproduce it here as an example of how a new reporting framework for culture might be anchored in six principles of meaningful communication.

Box 9 Charter of Cultural Reporting: Six Principles of Meaningful Communication

PRINCIPLE 1: COMMITMENT TO SENSE MAKING

Be timely.

Be in good faith.

Be meaningful to all stakeholders.

Be concise.

Acknowledge context.

Acknowledge assumptions.

Be relevant, representative and readable.

PRINCIPLE 2: COMMITMENT TO A REPORTING RELATIONSHIP

Reports are ultimately a communication ‘person to person’. • Reports involve a context on both the side of those writing them and those reading them.

Reports have a general function but must be critically meaningful about the activities they report on.

Reports exist in a spectrum of other communication acts which support them.

Reports manage and promote trust, but are not a substitute for it.

Reports are not a substitute for cultural experience itself, and a minimum amount of actual contact with art and culture is necessary from readers for reports to be understandable at all.

PRINCIPLE 3: COMMITMENT TO PLAIN LANGUAGE

Reports should use language to describe, explain and justify in equal measure.

Reports should use words with evident meaning and application, and explain specialised terms.

Reports should not define words outside their common usage and, where possible, seek to inform that usage rather than determine it.

Reports should avoid over-using abstract terms – especially adjectives and adverbs repurposed as nouns.

PRINCIPLE 4: COMMITMENT TO COMMUNICATING ALL TYPES OF VALUE CREATION

Reports should distinguish between different types of value creation, not just different degrees of it.

Reports should clearly communicate different time periods in value creation in the past and the future, especially the short and long term.

Reports should acknowledge all stakeholders in the value creation process.

Reports should distinguish between indeterminacy (things that cannot be known) and deliberate artistic risk (that is know to some extent) in the value creation process.

PRINCIPLE 5: COMMITMENT TO IMPROVED INTEGRATION OF QUANTITATIVE AND QUALITATIVE INFORMATION

Quantitative indicators should be embedded in qualitative accounts, not the other way round.

Quantitative indicators should be contextualised and interpreted in the report, and that interpretation should strive to be true, fair and complete.

Quantitative indicators should aspire to indicate a variety of types of value.

Quantitative indicators should be adequately explained in terms of the qualitative relations that they stand proxy for.

PRINCIPLE 6: COMMITMENT TO REPORTING ON THE MEANING OF CULTURE, NOT JUST ITS ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL EFFECTS

Show respect for artists.

Show respect for government and other funders.

Acknowledge that culture is an artistic activity, not just a social function.

Acknowledge the role and perspective of the audience, spectator, reader, co-participant etc.

Acknowledge the risk, difficulty and unpredictability of culture’s value to the society that supports it.

102Gleeson-White, Six Capitals, 227.

103Robert Eccles and Michael Krzus, One Report: Integrated Reporting for a Sustainable Strategy (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Sons, 2010).

104See information from the Institute of South African Directors, at www.iodsa.co.za/?kingIII.

105See paiaconsulting.com.sg/sustainability-training/.

106See The Economist, ‘In the Thicket of it’, 8 July 2016.

107See Ocean Tomo Report at www.oceantomo.com/blog/2015/03-05-oceantomo-2015-intangible-asset-market-value/.

108Following content and quotations based on PAIA materials supplied for workshop; see paiaconsulting.com.sg/sustainability-training/.

109Eccles and Krzus, One Report, 71. 110 Eccles and Krzus, One Report, 71.

111See The International <IR> Framework, 2.16: integratedreporting.org/ wp-content/uploads/2015/03/13-12-08-THE-INTERNATIONAL-IR- FRAMEWORK-2-1.pdf.

112The International <IR> Framework, 2.19.

113The International <IR> Framework, 2.29 (original emphasis).

114See particularly Robert Phiddian, Julian Meyrick, Tully Barnett and Richard Maltby, ‘Counting Culture to Death: An Australian Perspective on Culture Counts and Quality Metrics’, Cultural Trends, 26.2 (2017), 174–80.

What Matters?

   by Julian Meyrick, Robert Phiddian and Tully Barnett