Lack of audience engagement at the UNBOXED festival which was intended as a celebration of Brexit.

First published: Dec 2022.

A n investigation into the UNBOXED festival by the National Audit Office (NAO) – that scrutinises public spending for Parliament and is independent of government and the civil service – found that audience engagement was lower than originally modelled, although the project was delivered on time and is forecast to be on budget.

The investigation of the NAO into the £120 million programme of events, which was intended as a celebration of creativity and innovation across the United Kingdom – and was previously known as the Festival of Brexit, covered a number of areas, including the set-up, funding, and delivery of the festival. It also set out the facts about the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s (DCMS) management and oversight of the festival, as well as the outturns achieved against DCMS expectations.

PMP XTRA |     Festival of Brexit

“The ‘Festival of Brexit’ was a national celebration in the United Kingdom first announced in 2018 by the Conservative government following the Brexit referendum.
“It was referred to by Jacob Rees-Mogg, minister for Brexit opportunities, as the Festival of Brexit — a nickname which became widely used.
“The ‘Brexit’ branding was rejected by the festival’s organisers, with the initiative being temporarily branded as Festival UK 2022 until, in October 2021, it was announced that the festival had been rebranded again as ‘Unboxed: Creativity in the UK’.”

Audience Targets

According to Festival 2022 Ltd’s own figures, as of November this year, the festival as a whole had met its audience targets set earlier in 2022. Festival 2022 Ltd even claimed that 18.1 million people had engaged with the festival. However, the NAO did not examine as part of its investigation how audience engagement is recorded and monitored. At the time of reporting, final cost and audience engagement data were not yet available. However, the total of these project targets was lower than the audience engagement figures modelled by DCMS in 2021 when it approved the business case for the festival.

The claim of 18.1 million is, therefore, currently impossible to verify.

Festival 2022 Ltd has commissioned an evaluation of the festival which will report in early 2023. As part of the audit, the NAO did not examine the initial decision taken in 2018 to hold a festival and did not draw a conclusion on the value for money of the festival, as this would require the results of next year’s evaluation.

Following its investigation, the NAO has concluded that this evaluation should be published in the interests of transparency and include information to allow DCMS and Festival 2022 Ltd to fully understand the volume and nature of participation for each project alongside the final cost. The evaluation should also identify lessons for the future from the experience of how projects have performed against their targets, and about the importance of agreeing clear objectives and setting performance targets early enough in any similar future programme’s lifecycle.

Reaching 66 million people, as has been widely reported, was never a formal target for the festival. From Autumn 2019, the stated vision for the festival was for it to reach millions of people. Although described as a “stretch target” by DCMS in evidence to the Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport Committee in November 2021, DCMS and Festival 2022 Ltd told the NAO that the 66 million was not a formal target but was intended to be a creative device to encourage ambitious and innovative thinking from those interested in delivering one of the ten events.

Total audience engagement at UNBOXED festival. | SOURCE: NAO ANALYSIS OF FESTIVAL 2022 LTD DOCUMENTS

Lack of Public Awareness

As at October 2022, public awareness of the UNBOXED festival among the
UK population was just under the 35% level aimed for by DCMS in April 2022.

DCMS and Festival 2022 Ltd have consistently identified as a significant risk that
public engagement and turnout might be below the level expected. The chosen
marketing strategy was to focus on raising public awareness of the 10 individual
projects, rather than of the festival as a whole.

In February 2022, in response to the then low level of public awareness of the projects, Festival 2022 Ltd was planning more communications and marketing, including local and targeted communications and local and national media.

By June 2022, it had launched a priority workstream to increase awareness of the festival and of each of the individual projects. In the same month it reported to DCMS that awareness of UNBOXED was “not at the level we would like it to be”, with UK-wide awareness of the UNBOXED brand standing at 4% in April 2022, against DCMS’s ‘success factor’ of 35% by October 2022 (paragraph 19).

Subsequently, Festival 2022 Ltd reported that public awareness of UNBOXED had increased to 33% by October 2022.

Total Cost

DCMS obtained final approval of the business case for the festival from HM Treasury more than a year later than planned as a result of COVID-19. It had originally estimated financial benefits of £170 million. In its full business case, DCMS estimated the financial benefits of the festival at £170 million, with a best-case scenario of £493 million and a worst-case scenario of £40 million.

Funding available for delivering the UNBOXED festival, 2019-20 to 2022-23. | SOURCE: NAO ANALYSIS OF FESTIVAL 2022 LTD DOCUMENTS

Although these figures included the financial benefits arising from tourism and volunteering, they also depended heavily on DCMS modelling of audience engagement. However, its business case did not take into consideration the costs that would be incurred by the devolved administrations, including their three projects.

A substantial amount of the project’s total budget of £120 million – up to £19 million – was no longer available to deliver the festival due to irrecoverable VAT. DCMS had originally assumed VAT would be recoverable.


The costs for all 10 projects have yet to be finalised. Expenditure is also due to continue until March 2023 when DCMS and Festival 2022 Ltd intend to publish final outturn figures for each project and in total.

PMP Magazine


  • Investigation into the UNBOXED festival [report in full, PDF] | NAO

  • — AUTHORS —

    PMP News reporting.

    • Text: This piece was first published in PMP Magazine on 4 December 2022. | The author writes in a personal capacity.
    • Cover: Adobe Stock/dannyburn.

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