amongst books

amongst books

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Project Descriptions-another POV

For almost 20 years, I’ve been writing proposals to secure government money. First as a co-owner of a small engineering consulting firm in the R&D field and now as a creative writer. R&D companies respond to statements of work drawn up by civil servants working in particular areas of expertise and gone over by other civil servants from Public Works whose job it is to ensure that Canada gets the best value for money (in other words, to drive contractors crazy and make their lives a living hell). These Statements of Work or SOWs as they are often not politely referred to by contractors are often absurd, contain much redundancy, are poorly written and intensely bureaucratic. A contractor bidding on the proposal can ask questions but all of these questions and their answers will be provided to all bidders, so it is often unwise to do so, hoping that the ambiguity will work in your favour. Sometimes these absurdities are necessary in order for Public Works to justify granting a contract to a particular supplier. In these days of economic austerity (and austerity has been going on for a long time), the public is crying out for justification and wary of anything that seems like a waste of taxpayers’ money.

How is this relevant to applying for grants in the field of creative writing? First of all I feel relieved that I don’t have to waste time on the absurd SOWs that plagued me in my former life or deal with the gang of Monty Pythonesque civil servants whose every moment was spent “protecting the taxpayer” by asking absurd questions and wasting the time aka money of contractors. A project description is a small price to pay in the scheme of things. It helps justify that the expense is valid and it gives the civil servant charged with justifying the existence of these grants to auditors something to work with.

If you refuse to write a project description then you are telling the civil servant that you refuse to help her do her job and you are eliminating yourself from the competition. And even though these creative writing grants are tiny and not any kind of subsistence for a writer, the fact is there’s lots of competition. So sure, don’t follow the rules and people like me who are good at holding our noses in the stench of absurdity will have an easier time getting a grant because your proposal will be rejected easily. Imagine you’re part of a jury and you have a stack of proposals to read. Wouldn’t it be good if there was an easy way to eliminate them without your having to wade through the mess? If you don’t include a project description or disobey any of the rules, you’ve just made it easy for your work to be rejected.

The problem is, of course, not all writing is project-based. Grants should be awarded to good writing, regardless of whether if fits in a neat little box. Unfortunately that’s not how a system which receives money from the taxpayer can work. Justification is necessary. And as a creative writer, you should be able to figure out how your series of random and unrelated poems might be able to be described as a project in that little project description box.

In reality the evaluators who are usually writers themselves take into account the quality of the sample pages you’ve given them but that project description is still necessary, not just for the short term, but also for long term justification when the Grim Reaper of arts cuts, currently known as Stephen Harper, arrives at the door of the funding agency.

It would be groovy if we could get a grant and take off to Greece and drink Ouzo all night. But this isn’t the 60s and I still hear angry taxpayers using that example when they talk about why the arts don’t deserve funding.

Also, I would hope that the evaluators would judge a proposal invalid if it didn't follow the same rules as the rest of us have to follow; otherwise that would be unfair. Changes to subsequent years would be reasonable.


Razovsky said...

I don't understand why you equate not specifying a project with taking a trip to Greece and guzzling ouzo.

And when you say "Unfortunately that's not how a system which receives money from the taxpayer can work," there are examples that counter that. In Denmark, for example, many writers with a track record receive a modest living wage from the government so that they can continue to produce work. It isn't project-based. It's based on the belief that a writer who has done good work should be trusted to continue doing good work.

Amanda Earl said...

Because, Stuart, that's the way the taxpayer sees it. these project descriptions serve to justify the money spent to the powers that be. they aren't going to wade thru a pile of publication credits and sample pages. i've worked for the Canadian government for a long time and that's not how they function. why be Sisyphys?

that's great for Denmark. they probably don't face some of the same regulations we have in this country differentiating employment from contracting and grants from salaries. and if in the current climate of austerity they are managing to maintain such systems that's terrific. i wish we had that attitude here, but i suspect it won't happen anytime soon.