One way of characterising the play sector, if indeed it constitutes a sector, is that it is apolitical and dependent, those two qualities interacting and exacerbating each other.
By apolitical, I mean that it has no obvious popular or voter support, nor is much attention directed towards securing it. Rather, the ‘sector’ concentrates its efforts on being persuasive within the established corridors of power. To gain leverage there the approach has been to follow the national and local state’s increasing reliance on reducing questions of value and principle into essentially technical matters, the clearest expression of this being the reliance on suppositious ‘evidence’.
The other characteristic is dependency. By dependency I mean that the play sector is overwhelmingly reliant on national and local state funding, along with key charitable funders whose procedures and priorities so often mirror that of the state. There is a link between dependent status and the apolitical orientation of the play sector. Whilst it is the case that the sector can erupt in support of organisations and projects that are under threat, for the most part it is funded projects and organisations lobbying on behalf of projects and organisations that are structurally in the same position – dependent on external funding. A cynic might suggest that there is a strong sense of ‘there but for the grace of god go I’ pulsing beneath the surface of solidarity. However, that does not invalidate it.
The main point here is that there is no overt, external voter or popular support for play or the play sector. Such ‘popular’ support as may exist is fragmentary, intermittent, in no way constituting a political force. The sector is rooted in itself and to that extent it is fragile and, arguably, not as independent of mind and voice as perhaps it could be. Recent events surely underscore this bleak assessment of fragility.
I was reading Adrian Voce’s well written book, Policy for Play. (My review of the book will be published at some point in the International Journal of Play) It offers what amounts to a Diplomatic or Institutional history of the play sector’s relationship with Government and Lottery/BIG. It focuses on personalities – who said what to whom in what circumstances – and the attempts of the play establishment – variously CPC, Play England, CPPF etc – to engage with that other establishment, that of Government and Lottery/BIG. (Note: ‘establishment’ here is not meant pejoratively, merely descriptively.)
Implicit in this intra-establishment dialogue is belief in a top down approach to securing change; an ‘insiders’ game ‘ – again not meant pejoratively – two establishment increasingly speaking the same language of outputs, outcomes, evidence. I’ve argued before that whatever the merits of evidence, it is not the evidence that will ultimately tip the balance in favour of supporting, as Policy for Play has it, ‘children’s forgotten right to play’.
It’s worth looking a little more closely at what is entailed in having a virtually exclusive focus on making the instrumental, evidential case for play (and much else). To repeat, a focus on evidence shifts, and obscures, profound questions about values to a more neutral, technical sphere of outputs and outcomes, to questions about ‘what works’. An evidential market place is thus created.
As with all markets, trade is facilitated through the creation of a common currency the coinage of which is the heaps of output and outcome data generated by any number of projects, causes and organisations seeking funds and favour. As with all traded currencies, the medium of exchange is neutral and universal. This currency works by not noticing, ironing out, distinctions between different undertakings and endeavours: a local arts project is costed in the same currency units as a play or theatre project. The common coinage comprises, for example, units of obesity reduction, units of enhanced community cohesion, units of enhanced employability and so forth. Submission to this regime results in a form of silencing – the contraction of the space available to speak about, and fight for, activities that are valued in themselves. This represents one aspect of apoliticisation.
The other is in respect of market power. Here, the laws of supply and demand apply. The supply side comprises the causes, endeavours and undertaking that want funds (payment) and favour from the potential purchasers – in this case the national and/or local state. The supply side is fragmented, diverse, often competing – though this is not necessarily admitted – and crowded. In contrast, the demand-side potential purchaser has virtual monopoly control over resources. It has no, or few competitors. This market is therefore demand led. It follows that the supply side, in the main, cannot change the terms of trade, can only submit to them.
Looked at in this way, the trend towards contracting out services is simply a logical step in the marketisation of the civic realm. It has always been the case that organisations funded by the state exercised a degree of self-censorship in comments and criticisms of the funding hand that fed it. But the purchaser/supplier contractural relationship takes this muting of criticism some stages further. In a further twist to this contraction of the political realm, is Government’s proposed new grant condition that organisations will not be able to use government grants for “activity intended to influence – or attempt to influence – Parliament, government or political parties”.
To get pragmatic – the evidential game is at present the main game in town. To say the game should not be played would be absurd, cutting away such support for play as can be eked out from the national and local state. The danger, however, is to think it’s a game that can ultimately be won, be successful. It cannot. Under current dispensations, there will in the future, as there has been in the past and now, periods of relative plenty, followed by periods of famine. That is an inevitable consequence of operating in a market economy dominated by a monopoly purchaser, a purchaser who determines the terms of trade.
But all this occurs within only one of the potential spheres of endeavour.
A second sphere
But there is more than one sphere, a second sphere. Perhaps it’s time to pay it greater attention: the civic/political realm where debate about values, about the nature of the good life, for children, for adults, can find political voice and power. Here, civic society frames the terms of debate, works to change the terms of trade between it and the state. In this sphere lies the possibility of elevating questions of value to their proper place, to assert that there are foundational values – Liberty, Justice, Play – whose forms of justification lie within belief systems that are impervious to, and dismissive of, the evidential itch.
Parents are a potential key voice in support of play, though considered collectively, many feel themselves under pressures and anxieties to curtail their children’s freedom to roam and play. But harnassing the parental voice is surely vital. Whilst he and I may have a different perspective on the question of evidence, Tim Gill usefully comments that:
‘….for this vision [i.e. children’s right to roam and to play] is to become reality, it must resonate with parents. Without their active support, everyone else will lose interest in the topic. The bottom line is this: if parents do not care about their children’s everyday freedoms, why should anyone else?’
The play sector is no stranger to generating wished-for strategies directed towards securing children’s right to play. To the best of my knowledge, it has not considered what a strategy for securing popularly rooted political clout would look like; or indeed taken time to consider whether it’s worth giving it any consideration at all. Surely it is a question worth the posing.