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National Audit Office Probe Finds Unboxed Festival Failed To Hit Audience Engagement Targets

The NAO concluded the Unboxed festival had failed to meet audience targets

5 min read

Spending watchdog the National Audit Office has concluded that the Unboxed festival has failed to meet its audience engagement targets despite big boosts from TV specials.

The arts festival, which was initially dubbed the 'Festival of Brexit' when it was announced by then-prime minister Theresa May in 2018, has offered free events at 107 locations across the UK since it was launched, but has faced criticism over value for money.

The NAO probe was launched after an investigation by The House magazine into the project led to accusations from MPs that the £120m funding had been "squandered" after failing to attract audiences, with just 238,000 attendees reportedly attending events by August 2022.

The investigation prompted calls from Conservative MP Julian Knight, who chairs the Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Select Committee, for the watchdog to investigate the project and the value for money for the taxpayer after he called the festival as a "catastrophic failure" with "atrocious visitor numbers".

Written evidence sent by the DCMS department to the committee in November 2021 had initially stated there was a "stretch target" for the festival to reach 66 million people – almost the entire population of the UK.

But the NAO report said both DCMS and Festival 2022 Ltd, the firm established to run the project, had confirmed this had never been a formal target and was instead a "creative device to encourage ambitious and innovative thinking" from those pitching for funding.

Instead, the probe said the department had set a target for public awareness of the project to hit 35 per cent of the UK population through both direct participation and online and broadcast events by November 2022.

According to figures provided by Festival 2022 Ltd, the project had increased it's awareness among the public from four per cent in April 2022 to 33 per cent by October – but that a majority of the increase was attributable to several TV broadcasts, including a 15-minute slot on BBC's Countryfile.

The data show that a majority (58 per cent) of the overall audience figures reached had come from online and TV broadcasts for three of the projects, with just 15 per cent of the engagement coming from live participation.

The NAO said it had not examined how that audience engagement was recorded or monitored because the methodology was due to form part of a review by Festival 2022 Ltd which will be published in March 2023.

The watchdog said that review, which will include a full analysis of attendance figures, costs and financial benefits should be published to ensure there was "public transparency and visibility" of the project.

The NAO report also found that DCMS ended up with less funding to deliver the project because they failed to realise that significant amounts of VAT would not be recoverable on the project.

The investigation said it took the department until December 2020 to recognise the irrecoverable VAT issue, forcing them to carve out a £19m provision from the £120m total budget due to the oversight.

The report added this was due to a "number of factors, including the fact that Festival 2022 Ltd is almost wholly funded by government grant".

Commenting on the NAO findings, Knight said: “It is frustrating that the NAO seems to have carried out the investigation with one hand tied behind its back with final cost and engagement figures not yet available from the organisers. Although the project has kept within budget, the goalposts have shifted throughout on audience engagement targets and it is simply not on for organisers to tell a select committee one number only to later claim this was more of a ‘creative device’ to boost interest.
"The big question remains as to whether the £120m shelled out for the festival represents value for money, and, as the NAO says, it is now absolutely vital that the evaluation planned for early next year is as full and transparent as possible. The Committee will be continuing to look for answers on quite what the festival was for and whether it was worth it, and holding those that made the decisions to account.”

Lucy Powell, Labour's shadow culture secretary said: “Unboxed has ended up more fiasco than 'Festival of Britain'. The Conservatives tried to use it to divide the country and fell flat, rather than as an opportunity to reinvigorate our creative sector, hit by the fallout from Covid, and the cost of living crisis.

“The arts are a vital part of our national life, reinvigorating places, and a mainstay of the creative economy and tourism, yet the government has failed to capitalise on the potential of Unboxed. Ministers must learn the lessons of their £120m failure, and ensure that the arts are for everyone not a tool for their party political positioning.”

And responding to the report, Phil Batty, executive director of Unboxed, said:  “Unboxed has delivered ten groundbreaking creative projects on time and within the budget allocated by the four governments of the UK that was announced in 2018.

“Today’s National Audit Office report reflects that this ambitious - and entirely free - programme engaged an audience of more than 18 million across the four nations. Unboxed responded to a clear brief for a UK-wide festival and presented live events in 107 towns, cities, and villages - many under-served by major cultural investment - and commissioned world-class content for digital and broadcast audiences.”

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