One of the great joys of planning is the opportunity to dream, to look the future in the face, paint a smile on its mouth, give it a new hairdo and change the color of its eyes. It is this creative aspect of planning that sparks the energies and enthusiasm of many people involved in the process. Your ideal future, however, must be tempered by and grounded in a firm understanding of your context and current realities so that the agency is always in a state of what the author Robert Fritz (The Path of Least Resistance) calls "creative tension"—that dynamic push and pull between achieving what we desire and contending with what we already have. There are a number of methods available for gaining this grounding: self-assessment, data review and environmental scans.
Self-assessment is a form of scanning your internal environment and can be accomplished in many ways. One might be the use of a written form that lists every aspect of your agency's operations—administrative, fiscal and programmatic. Other self-assessment tools can include one-on-one personal interviews and focus groups. Depending on the time and resources available, an agency could poll its:
current and past grantees or technical assistance recipients
citizens at large
The purpose of this exercise will be to gain a clearer picture of the agency's strengths and weaknesses, and to identify those areas that need bolstering. How effective are the agency's internal and external communications? How well does the agency do at resolving conflicts? How quickly does the agency respond to requests for information? How does the agency rate itself with respect to its relations with grantees? What are the agency's accomplishments and weaknesses in each program area? The results gained here are mainly qualitative—impressions and anecdotes that can signal agency strengths and weaknesses.
Data review is an excellent way to bring quantifiable measures into your self-assessment phase. Your agency is already swimming in a sea of data, though some of it may be difficult to access, hard to understand or rarely used. The purpose of data review is to look for, grab and analyze data that provide you with a clearer picture of your past and current operations, and to see if the data show any significant trends, good or bad.
The most informative way to understand your data is to observe changes, or their absence, over time. This approach involves collecting information from a series of consecutive years. Try to observe data over three to five years (or the duration of your most recently completed strategic plan). Another approach is to take sequential "snapshots" of information that represent the agency before, during and after pivotal events (such as budget changes or programmatic restructuring) in its history. Regardless of the years you choose, your objective should be to let you step back and spot any trends: increases, decreases or flat effects (especially if an increase or decrease was expected).
What specific kinds of data might you explore? Here is a short list of items that could produce interesting results:
gross size of agency's budget and state's legislative appropriation to that budget, compared to growth of state's general fund
ranking of state against other states in per-capita expenditures
percent of budget spent on: administration, overhead, programs, subsidy to individual artists, staff development, communication, publications, fundraising, new technology, etc.
changes in all sources of income, earned and unearned (e.g., fees for services, NEA funds, private support from foundations and individuals)
number of people served directly by the agency and indirectly by its grantees grouped by artistic discipline, ethnicity, geographic location, age of participants (or other pertinent factors)
grant dollars awarded to organizations grouped by size, age, artistic discipline, geographic location, ethnicity and type of programming (e.g., performances, operating support, arts in education, workshops, etc.)
percent of staff time spent on each program area, as well as on major administrative functions and any special initiatives
Data Review Tips
Look for trends.
Test what you see against your expectations.
Make meaningful comparisons.
Maximize the utility of existing data.
Take advantage of data gathered by others.
Let technology help you see patterns.
Apply critical thinking to the results you see.
Much of this data is ordinarily available to agencies through mechanisms such as the National Standard data collected about grants, past budget presentations, performance measurement summaries or annual reports. Although some planning situations require the initiation of special research or survey projects, agencies can minimize their time and expense by making the most of existing agency data and then selectively expanding their knowledge as needed to answer specific questions.
While the above data elements focus on an agency from an internal perspective, external information collected about, and frequently by, other agencies can be helpful, as well. Examples of important external variables to track over time might include the following:
Demographic information about how your population has changed. Information on age, income, race/ethnicity and in- or out-migration trends are usually the most important.
Research on the business activity, economic impact or cultural capital of the arts sector in your state.
Summary information on the geographic characteristics of your state that might affect the arts or the public's access to them.
Vital statistics on underserved groups such as citizens of rural regions, inner cities or specific cultural groups that will need to be included in the planning process.
Information on the budget growth/decline and staff size of other agencies in state government that are comparable to yours (such as state agencies administering historic preservation, humanities, natural resources, libraries, tourism, economic development, etc.).
Data describing the arts funding ecology of your state—who the major corporate, philanthropic and private donors are funding, and to what extent. Include data on the direct National Endowment for the Arts grants in your state. And information on the earned revenues of your state's arts organizations are also an important part of this mix, the goal being to gain an overall sense of what role your state arts agency dollars play in the larger arts funding environment.
Information on the budgets and programs of other state arts agencies, particularly those that share similar programmatic, demographic or funding characteristics.
Information on arts audiences and participation nationally or in your state. Major arts organizations often do audience surveys as part of their marketing campaigns, and public broadcasting and tourism agencies may have relevant data, as well. Consult the latest National Endowment for the Arts longitudinal survey data tracking public arts attendance, media consumption and personal participation trends.
Any public opinion data that may shed light on the value of the arts or on public attitudes toward government arts support.
Consideration of the external environment and its changes is one of the distinguishing features of a strategic (as opposed to an operational) plan. See the section about environmental factors for tips on how to spot key trends that may affect your agency's future.
Using the Information
Gathering data will be the first part of your task. The second part of data review is finding ways to make sense of these figures, to find the various stories that the figures want to tell you, and to look for any surprises. You can begin by taking raw figures and translating them to plus/minus percentage change from year to year for each category. If you have been entering data into a spreadsheet, then you have the option of making pie charts and graphs to get a quick visual scan of the information. Today's software puts mapping and other data display tools affordably within reach of most agencies (and the corporate and academic institutions with whom states frequently partner). These visual tactics may help you give your results a critical review, and may help reveal new perspectives on your agency's operations. Did you discover, for instance, that one area of your operation is taking up a disproportionate amount of your agency's resources given its importance relative to other programs? Are you finding artistic disciplines or geographic areas that have been chronically underfunded? Have your sources of income—by type or size—changed? Where do you see trends that raise red flags? Where do you find islands of strength and serenity?
As you explore your data review options, don't forget to consider NASAA as a source of information, advice and technical services. NASAA maintains extensive national databases of arts information, can point you to additional data sources, and can help you analyze and present your findings in a way that will help to inform the rest of your planning process. NASAA also conveys the national perspective, and can facilitate state-to-state comparisons, helping you understand how your state compares to other agencies in your peer group.