Agency Scale

This is an extract from David Jubb’s blog for Battersea Arts Centre about the development of a tool for assessing whether a project is co-created. Kindly reproduced by permission from the Co-Creating Change Network. The full blog post is here.

You can download a blank version of The Agency Scale here. This is used as an internal tool by the Co-Creating Change Network for guidance but can be an effective starting point for thinking about the balance of agency in your project.

Blog extract:

Who has agency in any project?

The person or people leading a project have often conceived some of the project’s parameters and may have decided how aspects of the project are structured. They may have secured money and space to make the project happen – and they are likely to define the nature of any invitation which welcomes more people to the project.

In other words, this individual, group or community, who have been involved in setting aspects of the project up, are likely to experience high levels of agency – they are likely to feel that they can take action and successfully affect change in the project. They have a high level of control and power. (This is what the Kings University report on Cultural Democracy calls “social freedom”.)

Of course, many projects in the subsidised arts sector are not set up by individuals, groups or communities – they are often initiated, set up and run by artists, producers and / or cultural organisations.

So perhaps a useful question we can ask ourselves, when it comes to projects which begin in this way, is how much agency does the individual, group or community have in the project? And how much does the artist, producer or cultural organisation have?

Of course not every project model neatly fits in to having people you can define as the “individual, group or community” and the “artist, producer or cultural organisation”.  Some of the most exciting work happens when these boundaries are blurred, when people’s identities cannot be simply defined, and when there are multiple partners.

However, many projects still fit these profiles, at their inception. For example, even when there are multiple partners, often those partners tend to fit, at the beginning of a project, one of the two profiles I am suggesting – i.e. either “individual, group or community” or “artist, producer or cultural organisation”. So I am going to go with this split, for now, as a working assumption.

An agency scale

We have been wondering whether it is possible to have some kind of scale or spectrum to understand how much agency either party has in any specific project? So at one end of the scale you might have projects where the control and power sits, largely, with the individual, group or community – and at the other end of the scale there will be projects where the control and power sits with the artist, producer and / or cultural organisation. And some where it is somewhere in between.

I did say this was going to get geeky!

The idea of having a scale like this would not be to say that one position on the scale is better than any another. Because work and partnerships exist for different reasons and can be successful in very different ways. So an agency scale would not exist in order to make a value judgement on practice.

But it might ensure that when we are debating and developing practice, we can be clearer about whether that practice exists in the same territory or not.

I often think that discussions about participatory work (or work with communities or socially engaged practice or whatever you want to call it) are dogged with this particular challenge. Because we often bring together a vast umbrella of participatory practice and expect to be able to draw parallels and share learning. But sometimes we’re comparing apples with pears. Because the work is set up so differently and with such different motivations. Sometimes we end up arguing about those motivations rather than having the intended conversation about how we work together to grow this area of practice and support each other to further develop it.

So perhaps something like an “agency scale” could ensure we are clear about the nature of the work we are discussing?

For Co-Creating Change we are especially interested in work where agency is shared. And just to re-emphasise, this is not to say that work where the agency sits either with the artist/producer/organisation or with the individual/group/community is any less valuable. We are simply trying to be clear about a particular kind of co-created practice which we are interested to support and promote.

We are especially interested in work in which agency, control and power is shared because we think this approach encourages a particular form of collaboration which can change the practice, outlook and future of both parties – which we think is interesting.

So if there was a tool to enable us to, roughly, assess a spectrum of agency, control and power, in any project, we think it might help identify what is a good fit for a Co-Creating Change commission and what is not – in a more transparent and open way – using an assessment tool which can be conducted by the person who is actually proposing the commission.

So we have been developing and testing a model for this which is described below – it’s a scratch of an “agency scale”.

Of course the proposed tool will not straightforwardly apply to every project – because there are so many different elements and layers to every project. I guess our question is whether this assessment tool could apply to enough projects to be helpful? Or not?

The draft tool asks you ten questions and shouldn’t take any more than five to ten minutes to complete. [Please remember, this is just an idea for how we might inform the selection of commissions – no need to fill this out now – we’re just interested to get your take on whether this is an interesting or a terrible idea.]

The sections are divided in to two sections.

  1. Set-up. The first section asks five questions which relate to your project framework – about the way your project is initially set up. In some cases it might be best to apply these questions to your project methodology. Or in other circumstances (where, for example, the organisation is the project) it might be about applying these questions to how your organisation is set up. Either way, these questions are basically about the project set-up – whatever that means for you.
  2. Activity. The second section asks five questions which relate to the actual work itself – this is less about the set-up and more about when something is actually being made. In most cases it will be best to apply these questions to the project activity – this can, of course, include the process you’re using to make stuff, as well as the actual product or thing is made – whatever that means for you.

Not every project will fall neatly in to “set-up” and “activity” so the table gives some room for notes. Each question asks you to assess whether the artist, producer and cultural organisation (A/P/CO) has more authority to make decisions or whether the individual, group or community (I/G/C) has more authority to make decisions – by using a broad percentage split.

Here’s a blank of the table with completion instructions beneath. And below are a couple of examples which I have filled for projects which happen at Battersea Arts Centre.

Completion instructions:

  1. Answer each question by giving a % score for “Artist/Producer/Cultural Organisation” and for “Individual/Group/Community”
  2. Most answers will add up to 100% unless there is a third party involved. Perhaps just use – 0%, 25%, 50%, 75%, 100% to keep things simple.
  3. Don’t spend too long on each question – just answer it instinctively with what you think is a true reflection of the relationship.

And then, if the overall weighting works out as more than 60% one way or another then perhaps we could say the project is led by that party and if it’s somewhere in between then it is shared?

I have done two examples for two projects which happen at Battersea Arts Centre to give it a go.

Homegrown show – a participation project where we invite young people to come and make a show with an artist

The Agency – a project which invites young people to set up their own project or business

What do you think? Is there some value in having something like this Agency Scale – self-assessed – as part of the commissioning process?

Just to restate, there is no value judgement here. For example, whilst the power and control of the Homegrown terms sits largely with BAC, I think these projects have massive value and can change lives. The idea of the Agency Scale is simply so we can be more honest about what we are actually doing and how we are going about it and have better conversations.

So when we ask people to pitch for funding in the Co-Creating Change network – should we ask them to check where their project sits on this Agency Scale? Or a better version of this? Let us know your thoughts.