Public service employees in all sectors want to improve their communities. But what can we learn from how the National Theatre Wales is adding value to the arts community? Dyfrig Williams visited Devinda De Silva to find out.
Since starting my working life in the voluntary sector, it’s been clear to me that there’s no shortage of people with public service values providing services. When I facilitated cross-sector networks at Participation Cymru it was abundantly clear that these values aren’t confined to the voluntary sector, and that was reinforced when I attended GovCampCymru, an unconference where people pitch discussion sessions on how technology, new thinking and public services can improve society.
It was through chatting with Kevin Davies of the National Assembly for Wales, who I met at GovCampCymru and who has shared good scrutiny practice with us, that I heard about how the National Theatre Wales (who developed the Big Democracy Project) are embedding their values in their governance and their staff’s job descriptions.
Just visting the National Theatre’s Office is enough to persuade you that the organisation’s approach to community is a little different. Instead of a large theatre, they have a small office in Castle Arcade – right in the heart of the city.
Governance and outreach
Governance isn’t a particularly sexy subject, but the Theatre are managing to make it quite exciting through their work with their TEAM panel. The panel is 10 people from various communities who voluntarily give their time to the Theatre and who have a say in how the organisation is run at every level.
The model is now 6 years old. In the first year they did 13 shows in 13 different locations, where they did intense outreach work. Subsequently people in these areas got involved through the shows. And by looking at theatre in the widest sense, the Theatre managed to involve people who would not have traditionally gone to see a show. For instance theatre wasn’t a big interest in Cardiff’s Somali community, but by sponsoring a small football team, they have a way in to run small workshops with people and to get their feedback on productions.
A few years down the line and the panel is actively shaping the organisation’s strategic direction. Two TEAM panel members attend every board meeting and one permanently sits on the Board, which means that every strategic decision the organisation makes involves people from the community. The panel also feeds into the organisation’s Strategic Plan.
As a small organisation, the TEAM members give a big boost to the capacity of the organisation. Although they only directly employ 18 people, the 10 panel members are trusted to attend events on the organisations behalf and represent them. This has also helped panel members to progress their own careers, and some have got jobs with other arts organisations, got on to a college course or started their own companies. It’s a self-supporting network, where panel members support each other in their projects.
The TEAM Panel is also involved in the recruitment of staff, as a panel members sits on the panel of each interview. This helps to make sure that the staff that they employ really buy into the community focused culture of the organisation and its values. The National Theatre Wales’ approach echoes some of what Richard Branson has said about recruiting for values instead of skills.
I’ve already mentioned how the Theatre’s outreach work is built in to their governance, but their outreach and engagement is also a core part of every staff member’s role. Their staff, including the Artistic Director and office staff in Communications and Finance are all expected to work with the community, for example by running surgeries with community groups and freelancers in their areas of expertise. They offer support throughout the year, and their partners are also encouraged to work this way by incorporating a more community-focused approach to their practice when they work with the National Theatre Wales.
Open working, open feedback
And if all that wasn’t enough to show the open nature of National Theatre Wales, they also open up the last dress rehearsal to a specially invited audience from the local community before shows like Candylion go public. They encourage people to give their feedback on social media, as it gives them ideas on how to improve the show and also helps to generate a buzz around it.
Public service organisations are beginning to work in the open, with the Bromford Lab using it as an opportunity to hear about people’s ideas, reduce duplication and to share learning from failure. Leeds Data Mill’s Dashboard also shares what’s happening in Leeds in real time. We’d love to hear from public services in Wales about how you’re working openly, and like the National Theatre Wales, living your values.