Monday, April 4, 2011

Public Value: From Good Intentions to Public Good

For several years, I’ve been interested in public value as a framework for museums being more intentional about how they make a meaningful and recognized contribution to their communities.

Recently several professional opportunities have focused on public value in museums. The public value of visitor studies was the theme of the 2010 Visitor Studies Association conference in Phoenix. All 2010 issues of the Journal of Museum Education focused on museum education and public value. For the Association of Children's Museums’ March leadership call, I presented Connecting the Dots Between Building Public Value and Service in Children’s Museums.

Public value isn’t a new concept. It goes back to John Cotton Dana and The New Museum in the early 20th century. Stephen Weil was also an eloquent advocate for museums doing useful work. Relevance and community impact often refer to how a museum matters in its community.

While not new, public value is also not business as usual. Tough economic times have amplified the need for museums to go beyond fostering good will to intentionally and actively fostering public good. In the past, museums have relied on their mission statements and attendance figures to convey their value. But these do not go far in telling whether and how a museum has made a difference in the lives of children, families, or the community.

Positive, Recognized Change
Public value moves beyond internal museum priorities to the positive changes a museum can bring to its community. Increasingly, museums are expected to–and want to–demonstrate their public value. This relies on knowing the public good they are trying to accomplish for their community and how to contribute to that public good in a way that also serves their mission.

As a museum planner, I have found the ideas in articles and presentations by Mark H. Moore, Carol A. Scott, and Mary Ellen Munley to be extremely interesting and helpful. Also as a planner, I have also seen the need for a practical, accessible process to guide a museum in thinking and acting systematically in building its public value. With this in mind, I've used several sources to synthesize a seven step approach to build public value. Thinking of these steps as “dots” that need to be deliberately connected to one another emphasizes how each and every step must build on the previous one to maximize a museum's impact.

•   Community challenges: Knowledge of the pressing needs that face the community based on current studies, reports and needs assessments

•   Museum’s strategic interests: Aspects of the museum’s strategic interests– its mission, audience, position–that align with community challenges 

•   Public good: The positive and recognized changes in the community that the museum intends to have and for whom that also advance its mission

•   Goals: Framing what the museum intends to accomplish to achieve those changes

•   Platforms for action: Strategies and resources targeted to accomplish the goals

•   Outcomes: Specific areas of intended change for individuals, groups, the organization, and/or the community 

•   Measurement: Indicators that measure the extent to which the museum is having the desired impact

Most museums do some of these steps well. Some do many steps well. Often, however, connections between these steps are not fully made. They may hover near one another but do not truly engage, work in sync and, consequently, produce recognizable change. Unconnected dots are the difference between a museum that is well thought of in its community and a museum that is recognized for making a difference in the lives of children, families, parts of the community, and the community as a whole.

Going Forward
Public value is a rich and roomy idea that is definitely worth taking the time to understand and put into practice. Museums can integrate this approach into their work as part of strategic planning, in developing a large scale project or initiative, or in developing a case for support for an expansion or even a new museum. The following resources might be helpful in going forward.

A presentation, Connecting the Dots Between Building Public Value and Service in Children’s Museums is available here on Museum Notes. You should be able to get it by clicking on the slide to the right.

A session at InterActivity: From Nice to Necessary on May 19 at 10:45 AM in Houston

Articles: These are some of the articles I have found helpful.
•    Measuring Public Value. V.S. Yocco, J. Heimlich, E. Meyer. And P.Edwards. Visitor Studies, 2009, 12(2), 152-163.
•    Being Purposeful: Planning for, Initiating, and Documenting Public Value. L. Dierking. ASTC Dimensions. January-February 2010.
•    Raising the Bar: Aiming for Public Value. M.E. Munley. Journal of Museum Education, Vol. 35, No. 1. Spring 2010. Pp. 21-32.
•    Museums, the Public, and Public Value. C. A. Scott. Journal of Museum Education, Vol. 35, No. 1. Spring 2010. Pp. 33-42.
•    Intentionally Fostering and Documenting Public Value. Lynn Dierking. Journal of Museum Education, Vol. 35, No. 1. Spring 2010. Pp. 9-19.
•    Advocating the Value of Museums. C. A Scott. Presented at INTERCOM/ICOM, Vienna 20th August 2007.

1 comment:

  1. A very thought-provoking comment from Nan Kari who, unfortunately, had difficulty posting it herself.

    Jeanne, thank you for raising this important issue in a concise and articulate way. As our society marches toward growing privatization with citizens primarily understood as consumers, the public value framework pushes back, reminding us that organizations, like museums, have potential to contribute significantly to our shared public life. Yet, as you point out, for organizations to recognize and contribute to public outcomes requires a thoughtful, deliberative process – one that connects the “dots” in a series of delineated steps.
    In the spirit that public value is a “rich and roomy idea” (a lovely phrasing), I would build on the framework by asking: Who defines public value? How will museums engage citizens in authentic give and take dialog to define what public value means to a particular community? What would happen if citizens pushed at institutional cultures to reshape the ways museums act on their missions? How do museums engage staff expertise in work with citizens, as well as providing high quality products and services to them?
    While the seven-step approach provides a very helpful process guide, the “expert model” seems to be embedded in the process. In my reading, it implies that the museum would define public good -- granted through studies and needs assessment that collect public opinion -- and then evaluate the impact e.g.. “intended change for (my emphasis) individuals, groups, the organization and/or the community.” I would argue that to understand complex questions of public value and respond with communities requires a co-creative and nuanced approach.
    I recently read about a European project that focused on the role of museums in understanding and addressing issues of cultural pluralism, called Museums as Places for Intercultural Dialogue. Broad project goals were to develop the potential of museums as places for dialogue and to discover innovative processes to engage more actively with community members. The 30 diverse pilot projects described give a context for rich discussion in the U.S. about processes that could lead to deeper, more reciprocal engagement between museums and communities in which they live.
    This, I believe, is a conversation worth having. Thank you, Jeanne, for getting us started.