Cultural Value and Impact

In this blog posting I wish to discuss cultural value a little bit and how it can fit into an impact assessment. It is is a follow up posting to this: A New Approach to Measuring Impact for Digitised Resources: do they change people’s lives?
Copyright: Jonas Raeber, Switzerland
This is a work in progress - more my notes and queries. I wanted most to get this out there and to get your views, your inputs and your insights. Please comment, your thoughts are valued!

My research funded by Arcadia will be published in Open Access modes in September 2012. I have developed a model for Impact Assessment for digital resources relevant to cultural, heritage and education called the Balanced Value Model. A central aspect to this is cultural value and this posting will explore some aspects of this theme.

The Balanced Value Model is intended to aid the thinking and decision making of those wishing to engage in Impact Assessment (IA). It also acts as a guide through the process of IA to enable the core values most appropriate to the assessment to be brought to the fore and given a balanced consideration when evaluating outcomes.

The Value of Perspective

Considering a beneficial change in someone’s life or life opportunity means that the intervention in their life through engagement with a digital resource may deliver benefits that are at heart advantageous from many perspectives such as:
  • Educating and learning
  • Engaging and increasing knowledge
  • Economic and generating wealth
  • Health and wellbeing
  • Social and community cohesion
  • Environmental and sustaining
  • Political and democratising
  • Technological and innovating
  • Entertainment and participation
  • Equality and equity
There are other perspectives one could consider of course. The UK Government has recently carried out the Life Opportunities Survey, a major social survey to explore disability in terms of the social barriers to participation. What the list above demonstrates is that the modes of benefit and value to be measured for impact assessment are many and varied in their roots and their perspectives.

One persons benefit could be another person’s deficit. For instance, when I recently described the 20 million plus online visitors to the Codex Siniaticus, one of the most important books in the world, an impact assessment expert replied (with tongue firmly in cheek) that economically it could be argued the nation was in deficit as those 20 million plus viewers were not shopping online or engaging in tangible economic activity when they were viewing this treasure. Impact Assessment has at its heart the need for perspective to be recognised and taken into consideration.

We also live in an environment where Governmental measures, particularly those of DCMS in the UK, default to quantitative performance indicators in terms of public value and accountability. Therefore, there remains a challenge to where very basic metrics and monetary value remain pre-eminent as proxies for qualitative experiences.

Dave O’Brien (who was an AHRC/ESRC Placement Fellow with the DCMS in 2010) wrestles with the conundrum of how the cultural sector proves its value in a way that can be understood by decision makers in his recent report:Measuring the value of culture: a report to the Department for Culture Media and Sport. He comes firmly to the view that value is the key phrase but has to be viewed through the lens of the UK Treasury’s Green Book which stresses the need for Cost Benefit Analysis (CBA) to guide government decisions.
The cultural sector is a rich, mixed economy, of large organisations with international horizons and commercial aims, through to amateur institutions with a more local focus. However no matter what the size or outlook of an organisation, or its relationship with central government...  the importance of understanding the framework used for central government decisions cannot be overstated. (David O'Brien)

There are thus a lot of competing opinions on how best to justify and thus fund activity in the future. Particularly digital resources and collections now have an uphill struggle for funding with a backdrop of £100 million expenditure over 15 years and a lack of adequate multi-dimensional evidence to demonstrate meaningful change in people’s lives or opportunity.

One way to achieve this would be via cultural economics, as supported by Bakhshi, Freeman and Hitchen in their 2009 paper Measuring intrinsic value – how to stop worrying and love economics:
Cultural economics, potentially, can in fact provide precisely those guarantees required, by the critics of instrumentalism, that choices about arts funding should be freed from the prejudices which arise if intrinsic value is neglected. ‘Good’ economics – the rigorous application of cultural economics – can thus reverse a traditional but obstructive line-up which pits economists, cast as architects of instrumentalism and all things philistine, against arts leaders, cast as beleaguered defendants of intrinsic value and all things aesthetic.

We must, in my opinion, grasp issues of cultural economics but also go further. If the community of culture, heritage and the Academy harness ourselves solely to the economic measures of Contingent Valuation or Willingness to Pay models for instance then we would be measuring only one vector of a multi-variant environment of value and life changing impact. That sole focus on economic value would help Government bodies to make decisions but I question how helpful to the beneficial stakeholders or the organisational decision makers this would prove.

I suggest that defining modes of value for digital culture that are not solely economically driven but which do contain indicators of value that can be measured and can demonstrate change are important to consider the impact particularly of digital resources.

I would suggest, for the purposes of aiding and supporting the Balanced Value Model of Impact Assessment, that a new 5 Modes of Cultural Value for Digital Resources should be established as follows:

5 Modes of Cultural Value for digital resources

Utility Value
  • People value the utility of enjoying the digital resources now or sometime in the future.
    Existence and/or Prestige Value
    • People derive value and benefit from knowing that a digital resource is cherished by persons living inside and outside their community. This value exists whether the resource is personally used or not.
      Education Value
      • People are aware that digital resources contributes to their own or to other people’s sense of culture, education, knowledge and heritage and therefore value it.
        Community Value
        • People benefit from the experience of being part of a community that is afforded by the digital resource.
          Bequest Value
          • People derive satisfaction from the fact that their descendents and other members of the community will in the future be able to enjoy a digital resource if they so choose.

          Note: I refer to Modes of Cultural Value as these are not absolute cultural values. Modes relates thus to a way or manner in which the cultural value occurs or is experienced, expressed, or achieved most frequently in a given set of data.

          The importance of these Modes of Cultural Value is to provide context at the design and evaluation of outcomes stages for Impact Assessment and thus ensure that measures consider not just direct benefits but also intangible value. It helps to position the organisation, to understand the stakeholder benefits and to clarify the key drivers for the IA. Digital resources and collections can be valued even by those not actively using them, they can have benefits that reflect back upon the creators and users and their communities and they have benefits that extend well into the future to the next generation.

          Within the Balanced Value Model the values are treated as major components of the Value Drivers  that define why an organisation or their stakeholders wish to understand the Impact of a digital resource. Of course, out of context in this blog post, that wont make a huge amount of sense, but is a sneak peek of where the Model will be going when published in September...


          1. Simon, Am looking at this on my phone in the airport, so extensive remarks are beyond my thumb capabiliiies butt this is really useful stuff. Would like to talk to you about using as the basis for a taskforce I am meant to have set up in Europeana on measuring success. Could use it to generate comments? Jill

            1. Yay, Jill. Thanks for the comment keen to get involved. Am taking some hols right now and will get in touch when I return in early August.

          2. This comment has been removed by the author.

          3. Hello Simon,

            I think this blog will be an interesting place to discuss and develop the models you have outlined above.

            It caught my attention as the heritage trust I work for are organising a international cultural heritage conference Culture Matters 2012 (

            It has a general theme of exploring the social and economic value of cultural heritage, with seminars on marketing, audience development, income generation and digital culture. You can look at the full programme via this link

            I hope it is of interest to you. I also hope you had a pleasant holiday!

            Kind regards,


            1. Rachel, thanks for the comment and the information. This event looks great and I hope you get a good audience for it. I will be away at that time and not able to come, which is a shame! All my best, Simon

          4. I found myself thinking of the relative value of values, as it were. And also how scale affects this if you were to plot it on a matrix.

            I guess what I mean is do we go so far as to say that "Education" as a mode of value is worth more than "Existence" it terms of the depth of the outcome? Or that "Existence" can't stand alone without some, say, "Utility" (i.e. does something still have any value if it's not used?)

            In addition, how would the model work if a resource was planned to have deep and sustained impact for a small number of people (say researchers in a specific field) vs. "light" and possibly quite ephemeral impact for many? What is more "valuable"? Balancing this kind of split interest from different audiences, and making relative value decisions, is a reality that certainly I already work with. As much as content layering and clever architecture can support different user goals, you are still left with decisions that can seem irreconcilable. I expect this split responsibility to expert and generalist audiences is widespread among cultural organisations and I wondered whether this is something that this work could address. I know you mention context as shaping value definitions but I think this is a little different and quite specific.

            I guess all this detail is going on behind the scenes, but this is what occurred to me on reading this and what I think I'm trying to describe when I talk about relative values and scale.

            Good luck and looking forward to more!

            1. Hey Alison, I think the matrix idea is worthwhile and I think could be a useful way to use these modes.

              Yep, you are right to think there is detail going on behind the scenes but your points are very valid and ones I will try or have tried to address. Watch this space.

              One thing to state though is that Impact Assessment is about perspectives and my modes are about understanding your starting perspectives. I recently used the modes in a consultancy with museum trustees to get them to think about these as relative values to each other and rank them. It was fascinating to see and discuss where they differed and why and to find that everyone also in that context coalesced around one specific value. This enabled us to discuss their strategic directions with a more open understanding of each others perspectives.

              In the Balanced Value Model I will be suggesting that any IA will need to consider 4 core contextualising perspectives:

              1. Defining the ecosystem of the digital resource
              2. Understanding the stakeholders
              3. Considering the Balancing Perspectives
              4. Defining the appropriate Value Drivers for each Perspective.

              The Balancing Perspectives will be: Social, Economic, Innovation and Internal Benefits.


          5. Chris Batt sent me this comment by email (

            Simon, this work raises some really interesting (and challenging) issues. The assessment of value is not a million miles away from my research which is intended to model a knowledge ecosystem embracing museums, libraries and archives and examine the boundary exchanges between digital knowledge objects and the user. In relation to downstream value I have been looking at work on human and social capital as a means of judging impact, but I think your work adds a new dimension. However, there remain big challenges in translation into practical use, for example, the blunt instrument that is public policy; judgements about what culture embraces (aesthetic, ethnographic and so on); what is society's relationship with it (public good, merit good, toll good, private good) come immediately to mind. I'm certainly not trying to find answers - my objective is to provide a tool based around the knowledge ecosystem that will encourage strategic discussion among practitioners and policy makers about the best ways to maximise the value of digital assets - and I imagine that you see your work in a similar way. I think it is a challenge worth facing up to. Happy to discuss if helpful. Chris

          6. The Balanced Value Model is planned to help the reasoning and basic leadership of those wishing to take part in Impact Assessment IA. It likewise goes about as an aide through the procedure of IA to empower the center qualities.


          Post a Comment

          Popular Posts

          Digital Content Monetisation Conference, London

          The Balanced Value Impact Model

          The revolution starts here: open access to digital cultural heritage collections in the UK

          Written Artefacts: Research and Ethics - the Data