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Martyn Allison dissects the UK government’s new physical activity and sport strategy


The UK government has published its new strategy for Sport and Physical Activity – Get Active – and quite rightly sector bodies are publicly rowing behind it – why wouldn’t they? – but at least the CEO of London Sport has been brave enough to suggest the ‘emperor has no clothes’ by pointing out that without additional resources the government’s ambitious targets will be difficult to achieve.

I’ve lost count how many government sport strategies I’ve seen but they’ve all been pretty similar with the exception of the last one – published in 2015 – which was more radical, on the back of the post-Olympic failure to increase participation.

It proposed a shift in policy to sport and physical activity, aligning this with health improvement as a cross-government priority and really focusing Sport England and the sector on finally addressing ingrained inequalities.

This triggered the huge shift in Sport England policy ultimately set out in Uniting the Movement, a strategy pretty much welcomed across the board by the sector.

There was for many of us a real sense that things were going to change for the better, despite the decade of austerity driven by this very same government, but the anticipated change has not yet happened, partly – but not entirely – due to a pandemic, an energy crisis and a cost of living crisis.

Recent critiques
In response to mounting concerns in December 2021 the House of Lords select committee published its report calling for a National Plan for Sport, Health and Wellbeing and setting out a wide-ranging set of recommendations. Then in July 2022 the National Audit Office published its report into Grassroots Participation in Sport and Physical Activity.

This report examined if the DCMS and Sport England had achieved value for money in their spending on increasing grassroots participation and concluded that: “The Department has made mixed progress towards its objectives of increasing participation, tackling inactivity and reducing inequalities in activity levels since it changed its strategy in 2015” and again made a number of recommendations.

Finally in January 2023, the Public Accounts committee also considered grassroots participation in Sport and Physical Activity and concluded among other things that the “DCMS lacks a compelling vision on sport for England”.

It also made a series of recommendations, many of which related to how performance should be improved, measured and managed. You would, therefore, have expected this government strategy to be quite radical in addressing these recommendations by setting out a very clear and bold plan for change. But this is not the compelling vision called for.

Advocacy, analysis and evidence
With 112 pages, Get Active is definitely not light on advocacy, analysis or evidence. In fact the case for the sector’s contribution to social and economic policy is very well made and evidenced and the analysis of the weaknesses is honest, despite a total absence of any self-acknowledgement of the contribution the government itself has made to these weaknesses – in particular the impact of its spending policy on local government’s ability to support the sector to deliver the objectives.

Not only does the government fail to acknowledge its own failings, but I also sense a hint of frustration with both Sport England and UK Sport and with the sector in general for these continued failings and weaknesses.

This frustration focuses round two core themes, first the failure in school and community sport and public leisure to close the equality gaps in participation and activity and second the mounting failures in elite sport around integrity, discrimination and athlete welfare.

Reality check
If we summarise the priority actions set out at the end of the report we can see how well they address these weaknesses, represent a realistic national plan and enable an agenda of rapid and radical change.

The first set of actions are designed to address disparities in inactivity. They include a cross-government ‘ambition’ for children to achieve the Chief Medical Officer’s guidance on physical activity, a new cross-government taskforce to meet four times a year (but let’s remember the previous inter-ministerial group on healthy living which was set up in 2018 and ceased meeting in 2019), three actions to make Sport England and its partners more accountable by using more performance indicators, impact evaluation and performance management processes and a call for greater evidence to ‘enable’ more growth in the private sector.

The second set of actions specifically relate to children and young people. In addition to the ‘ambition’ to meet the CMOs guidance the actions include ‘exploring’ marketing interventions, including a new campaign, a new kite mark for school provision, a ‘review’ of school sport outside the curriculum and ‘continued support’ for active travel.

The third set relates to active spaces and facilities and includes £300m invested in multisport facilities by 2025 – £21.9m in tennis courts by 2024 – all, I suspect, existing funding – a ‘national vision for facilities’ by the end of 2023 and the roll-out of further place working with a focus on the most deprived communities.

The next set of actions relate to integrity in elite sport. These include ‘continuing’ the support of Olympic and Paralympic sport, ‘support’ to tackle discrimination and holding organisations accountable for their failings, ‘encouraging’ greater diversity of talent pathways through hosting major events and ‘monitoring’ the impact of the revised governance code on diversity.

The final set of actions relate to sustainability including ‘helping’ identify innovative inclusive digital solutions, ‘supporting’ the use of technology to drive investment into the sector, ‘championing’ the importance of environmental sustainability, ‘convening’ a forum to share expertise, guidance and support and ‘working with’ Sport England, UK Sport and their stakeholders to embed greater sustainability in the sector.

The adjectives are telling.

A lack of vision
In the foreword, the minister suggests the government can only set the vision and needs individuals to respond, but the strategy offers no inspiring new vision and is certainly not a radical national plan for sport, health and wellbeing.

Most of the actions replicate existing policy and funding but with some added passive government support, plus a few new low-cost initiatives. It is, therefore, easy to argue that the strategy simply challenges Sport England, UK Sport, other stakeholders and the sector to continue doing what they’ve always done, only better, but driven by yet more top-down accountability, more performance indicators and greater performance management but no additional funding.

Not only does it offer little inspiration, but the approach will also work against empowering local change which could be achieved by building trusted relationships and innovative solutions to local needs.

I’m left disappointed, but we can now focus on influencing a world after a general election.

Marcus Kingwell
Director, SLC
Kingwell: ‘There is no delivery plan, no budget’ / photo: SLC / Marcus Kingwell / NIKKI GOODEVE

On first read, the government’s sport strategy, Get Active, focuses on the all the right things. The emphasis on inactivity, the need for government and the sector to work together to embed outcomes at the heart of government policy – this is what many in the wider sector have been asking for over many years. All good stuff. And with three core priorities of activity, integrity and sustainability, this looks like a strategy from a government that has listened and understood the issues facing and opportunities for UK sport and physical activity.

But here’s the problem: it’s not really a strategy at all. It’s just a vision. There’s no delivery plan, just a compilation of actions, and there’s no budget associated with it. It’s a classic case of setting BHAGs – Big Hairy Audacious Goals – and then not following through. We all get excited by the ambition but then find there is no help or guidance on how we are going to achieve it.

Perhaps the plan is coming later? Perhaps we’re all meant to produce our own plans without knowing how we fit into the whole?

This creates a secondary problem: how will we know, in five years’ time, whether the strategy has been a success? The handful of targets in the strategy only relate to the first objective – activity – and don’t relate at all to the objectives of integrity and sustainability. As the saying goes, what gets measured gets done – and by implication, anything which isn’t measured won’t get done.

In our view, it also misses some key themes too – particularly those set out in Sport England’s Future of Public Leisure Report (Dec 2022).

The Pivot to Active Wellbeing is conspicuous by its absence. Many millions of pounds has been invested by Sport England and local authorities into creating some of the conditions for pivoting through the Local Delivery Pilots and Active Partnerships. However, there’s a great deal more to be done to integrate leisure operators as a true system partner within a place. There’s also little acknowledgement in the strategy of the massive problems in our workforce: the labour shortage, low pay and the lack of specialist skills and training pathways to deliver on active wellbeing.

Get Active is crying out for part two, the main feature. It needs a delivery plan which is costed, time-bound and owned by the organisations which will deliver it. It also needs a set of key results to enable everyone to know if the strategy is on track – and to hold the government to account. Until that time, it’s a grand vision and a collection of case studies but not much else.

With an election looming the sector should focus on doing the right thing rather than be distracted by this poorly-timed and cynical attempt by government to be seen to be strategic.

A poorly-timed and cynical attempt by government to be seen to be strategic
John Oxley
Consultant
Oxley says any national strategy needs local delivery / photo: JOHN OXLEY

For those of us who have given the greatest part of our lives to sport and physical activity and have immersed ourselves in its organisation and delivery, it’s always a moment of intrigue when a government launches a new ‘strategy’.

As a series of nice words and sentiments, the recent report from the DCMS can be perfectly appreciated. As a document to inspire and initiate transformational change to the degree that’s undoubtedly required, it has missed the target completely.

To some extent, I have sympathy with the authors. Policy control and responsibility is set within a part of government – the Department of Culture, Media and Sport – that’s confused at best and fundamentally conflicted.

The DCMS appears to have exposed one of its flaws in the very first paragraph of the Minister’s Foreword, as it boldly makes a direct link between sport and the health, happiness and prosperity of the population. No-one doubts that sport can provide participants with such benefits, but to imply that a coherent and compelling sports and physical activity strategy can address the travails of ill-health and health inequality facing the nation smacks of crass ignorance.

The health of the population can undoubtedly benefit from increasing levels of physical activity, notably in those who are often excluded or under-served.

However, those who are disenfranchised from participating in physical activity endure substantial social, educational, and economic disadvantages that – in a Maslow-type analysis – must be addressed before those people have a chance to own a pair of trainers, let alone be able to access facilities, clubs or activities.

Let’s properly understand the notion of population health and the extent of inequality, before we begin to pontificate about sport’s role in addressing it.

The scale of the challenge

This is a really BIG topic; we’re talking about the health and wellbeing of the entire nation. It’s complex and multi-faceted and will certainly require system-level, cross-departmental initiatives to begin to address challenges and shift behaviours.

Before we begin to rush to solutions and implore behavioural change, I’d welcome a commitment by policy-makers and leaders to deeply understanding the subject matter and to do so by listening more and talking less. They would as a result become more effective, collaborative and selfless leaders.

As a final observation and having experienced professional sport, worked in national organisations, in local delivery and within grassroots clubs, I’m very clear where meaningful impact and changing lives happens. Success comes from deep understanding of local issues, the building of local connections and the distribution of responsibility at a local level.

The strategy penned is likely to drift into anonymity (if it hasn’t already) as we edge nearer to a General Election. The voice of a government department extolling the virtues of this type of strategy is frankly a complete irrelevance. What matters is the capacity, capability, innovation, resource and accountability at a local level to make purposeful improvement within communities – today and every day.

To imply that a sports and physical activity strategy can address the health inequality facing the nation smacks of crass ignorance
No-one doubts that sport and activity can benefit the health of the population / photo: Shutterstock/ 2xSamara.com
Dave Monkhouse
Active Insight
Monkhouse: We have an opportunity to be better and braver / photo: Active INsight

There are a lot of clear opportunities outlined in this strategy to demonstrate the impact we can have as an industry.

We welcome the statement about ‘focusing on evidence, data and metrics to understand how interventions are helping get people active and demonstrate their value’, but it’s important to recognise that this data doesn’t just have to be from the industry, as many of those working on health in our communities already have outstanding data.

My plea is that we don’t create our own systems, but that we integrate with what already exists, to identify gaps and opportunities.

Ensuring we ‘level the playing field of activity provision’ will be vital if we are to play our part in ‘helping the sector to be welcoming to all, by promoting women’s and disability sport, championing diversity across the sector and holding the sector to account for investing in these groups’. This will mean moving from our general position of providing bricks and mortar services and running GP referral schemes in the hope patients become members and instead doing more enabling activity with statutory and third sector organisations who already interact with the communities we find so hard to reach.

If we’re to play our part in ‘setting the future direction for facilities and spaces where people can be active’ we need to understand where communities feel safe and happy, who the ‘leaders’ are in a community and how we can upskill these communities to deliver locally to ‘people like them’.

Ultimately a refocus of resources – there will be no new money – partnerships with organisations that already exist and are delivering within the space and upskilling our workforce and the existing community volunteer workforce to engage, empathise and activate could deliver a great deal of this strategy.

There are lots of opportunities to be better, be different, be brave and to truly demonstrate that we can assist in making a real difference to people’s lives and healthy longevity.

Ultimately a refocus of resources could deliver a great deal of this strategy
Success relies on having a deeper understanding of local communities / photo: Shutterstock/Kitreel
The strategy does not appear to be ‘a radical national plan’ Credit: photo: Shutterstock/NassornSnitwong
 


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SELECTED ISSUE
Health Club Management
2023 issue 9

View issue contents

Leisure Management - Get active

Policy

Get active


Martyn Allison dissects the UK government’s new physical activity and sport strategy

Equality gaps in activity in schools and the community remain photo: Shutterstock/Drazen Zigic
The strategy does not appear to be ‘a radical national plan’ photo: Shutterstock/NassornSnitwong

The UK government has published its new strategy for Sport and Physical Activity – Get Active – and quite rightly sector bodies are publicly rowing behind it – why wouldn’t they? – but at least the CEO of London Sport has been brave enough to suggest the ‘emperor has no clothes’ by pointing out that without additional resources the government’s ambitious targets will be difficult to achieve.

I’ve lost count how many government sport strategies I’ve seen but they’ve all been pretty similar with the exception of the last one – published in 2015 – which was more radical, on the back of the post-Olympic failure to increase participation.

It proposed a shift in policy to sport and physical activity, aligning this with health improvement as a cross-government priority and really focusing Sport England and the sector on finally addressing ingrained inequalities.

This triggered the huge shift in Sport England policy ultimately set out in Uniting the Movement, a strategy pretty much welcomed across the board by the sector.

There was for many of us a real sense that things were going to change for the better, despite the decade of austerity driven by this very same government, but the anticipated change has not yet happened, partly – but not entirely – due to a pandemic, an energy crisis and a cost of living crisis.

Recent critiques
In response to mounting concerns in December 2021 the House of Lords select committee published its report calling for a National Plan for Sport, Health and Wellbeing and setting out a wide-ranging set of recommendations. Then in July 2022 the National Audit Office published its report into Grassroots Participation in Sport and Physical Activity.

This report examined if the DCMS and Sport England had achieved value for money in their spending on increasing grassroots participation and concluded that: “The Department has made mixed progress towards its objectives of increasing participation, tackling inactivity and reducing inequalities in activity levels since it changed its strategy in 2015” and again made a number of recommendations.

Finally in January 2023, the Public Accounts committee also considered grassroots participation in Sport and Physical Activity and concluded among other things that the “DCMS lacks a compelling vision on sport for England”.

It also made a series of recommendations, many of which related to how performance should be improved, measured and managed. You would, therefore, have expected this government strategy to be quite radical in addressing these recommendations by setting out a very clear and bold plan for change. But this is not the compelling vision called for.

Advocacy, analysis and evidence
With 112 pages, Get Active is definitely not light on advocacy, analysis or evidence. In fact the case for the sector’s contribution to social and economic policy is very well made and evidenced and the analysis of the weaknesses is honest, despite a total absence of any self-acknowledgement of the contribution the government itself has made to these weaknesses – in particular the impact of its spending policy on local government’s ability to support the sector to deliver the objectives.

Not only does the government fail to acknowledge its own failings, but I also sense a hint of frustration with both Sport England and UK Sport and with the sector in general for these continued failings and weaknesses.

This frustration focuses round two core themes, first the failure in school and community sport and public leisure to close the equality gaps in participation and activity and second the mounting failures in elite sport around integrity, discrimination and athlete welfare.

Reality check
If we summarise the priority actions set out at the end of the report we can see how well they address these weaknesses, represent a realistic national plan and enable an agenda of rapid and radical change.

The first set of actions are designed to address disparities in inactivity. They include a cross-government ‘ambition’ for children to achieve the Chief Medical Officer’s guidance on physical activity, a new cross-government taskforce to meet four times a year (but let’s remember the previous inter-ministerial group on healthy living which was set up in 2018 and ceased meeting in 2019), three actions to make Sport England and its partners more accountable by using more performance indicators, impact evaluation and performance management processes and a call for greater evidence to ‘enable’ more growth in the private sector.

The second set of actions specifically relate to children and young people. In addition to the ‘ambition’ to meet the CMOs guidance the actions include ‘exploring’ marketing interventions, including a new campaign, a new kite mark for school provision, a ‘review’ of school sport outside the curriculum and ‘continued support’ for active travel.

The third set relates to active spaces and facilities and includes £300m invested in multisport facilities by 2025 – £21.9m in tennis courts by 2024 – all, I suspect, existing funding – a ‘national vision for facilities’ by the end of 2023 and the roll-out of further place working with a focus on the most deprived communities.

The next set of actions relate to integrity in elite sport. These include ‘continuing’ the support of Olympic and Paralympic sport, ‘support’ to tackle discrimination and holding organisations accountable for their failings, ‘encouraging’ greater diversity of talent pathways through hosting major events and ‘monitoring’ the impact of the revised governance code on diversity.

The final set of actions relate to sustainability including ‘helping’ identify innovative inclusive digital solutions, ‘supporting’ the use of technology to drive investment into the sector, ‘championing’ the importance of environmental sustainability, ‘convening’ a forum to share expertise, guidance and support and ‘working with’ Sport England, UK Sport and their stakeholders to embed greater sustainability in the sector.

The adjectives are telling.

A lack of vision
In the foreword, the minister suggests the government can only set the vision and needs individuals to respond, but the strategy offers no inspiring new vision and is certainly not a radical national plan for sport, health and wellbeing.

Most of the actions replicate existing policy and funding but with some added passive government support, plus a few new low-cost initiatives. It is, therefore, easy to argue that the strategy simply challenges Sport England, UK Sport, other stakeholders and the sector to continue doing what they’ve always done, only better, but driven by yet more top-down accountability, more performance indicators and greater performance management but no additional funding.

Not only does it offer little inspiration, but the approach will also work against empowering local change which could be achieved by building trusted relationships and innovative solutions to local needs.

I’m left disappointed, but we can now focus on influencing a world after a general election.

Marcus Kingwell
Director, SLC
Kingwell: ‘There is no delivery plan, no budget’ / photo: SLC / Marcus Kingwell / NIKKI GOODEVE

On first read, the government’s sport strategy, Get Active, focuses on the all the right things. The emphasis on inactivity, the need for government and the sector to work together to embed outcomes at the heart of government policy – this is what many in the wider sector have been asking for over many years. All good stuff. And with three core priorities of activity, integrity and sustainability, this looks like a strategy from a government that has listened and understood the issues facing and opportunities for UK sport and physical activity.

But here’s the problem: it’s not really a strategy at all. It’s just a vision. There’s no delivery plan, just a compilation of actions, and there’s no budget associated with it. It’s a classic case of setting BHAGs – Big Hairy Audacious Goals – and then not following through. We all get excited by the ambition but then find there is no help or guidance on how we are going to achieve it.

Perhaps the plan is coming later? Perhaps we’re all meant to produce our own plans without knowing how we fit into the whole?

This creates a secondary problem: how will we know, in five years’ time, whether the strategy has been a success? The handful of targets in the strategy only relate to the first objective – activity – and don’t relate at all to the objectives of integrity and sustainability. As the saying goes, what gets measured gets done – and by implication, anything which isn’t measured won’t get done.

In our view, it also misses some key themes too – particularly those set out in Sport England’s Future of Public Leisure Report (Dec 2022).

The Pivot to Active Wellbeing is conspicuous by its absence. Many millions of pounds has been invested by Sport England and local authorities into creating some of the conditions for pivoting through the Local Delivery Pilots and Active Partnerships. However, there’s a great deal more to be done to integrate leisure operators as a true system partner within a place. There’s also little acknowledgement in the strategy of the massive problems in our workforce: the labour shortage, low pay and the lack of specialist skills and training pathways to deliver on active wellbeing.

Get Active is crying out for part two, the main feature. It needs a delivery plan which is costed, time-bound and owned by the organisations which will deliver it. It also needs a set of key results to enable everyone to know if the strategy is on track – and to hold the government to account. Until that time, it’s a grand vision and a collection of case studies but not much else.

With an election looming the sector should focus on doing the right thing rather than be distracted by this poorly-timed and cynical attempt by government to be seen to be strategic.

A poorly-timed and cynical attempt by government to be seen to be strategic
John Oxley
Consultant
Oxley says any national strategy needs local delivery / photo: JOHN OXLEY

For those of us who have given the greatest part of our lives to sport and physical activity and have immersed ourselves in its organisation and delivery, it’s always a moment of intrigue when a government launches a new ‘strategy’.

As a series of nice words and sentiments, the recent report from the DCMS can be perfectly appreciated. As a document to inspire and initiate transformational change to the degree that’s undoubtedly required, it has missed the target completely.

To some extent, I have sympathy with the authors. Policy control and responsibility is set within a part of government – the Department of Culture, Media and Sport – that’s confused at best and fundamentally conflicted.

The DCMS appears to have exposed one of its flaws in the very first paragraph of the Minister’s Foreword, as it boldly makes a direct link between sport and the health, happiness and prosperity of the population. No-one doubts that sport can provide participants with such benefits, but to imply that a coherent and compelling sports and physical activity strategy can address the travails of ill-health and health inequality facing the nation smacks of crass ignorance.

The health of the population can undoubtedly benefit from increasing levels of physical activity, notably in those who are often excluded or under-served.

However, those who are disenfranchised from participating in physical activity endure substantial social, educational, and economic disadvantages that – in a Maslow-type analysis – must be addressed before those people have a chance to own a pair of trainers, let alone be able to access facilities, clubs or activities.

Let’s properly understand the notion of population health and the extent of inequality, before we begin to pontificate about sport’s role in addressing it.

The scale of the challenge

This is a really BIG topic; we’re talking about the health and wellbeing of the entire nation. It’s complex and multi-faceted and will certainly require system-level, cross-departmental initiatives to begin to address challenges and shift behaviours.

Before we begin to rush to solutions and implore behavioural change, I’d welcome a commitment by policy-makers and leaders to deeply understanding the subject matter and to do so by listening more and talking less. They would as a result become more effective, collaborative and selfless leaders.

As a final observation and having experienced professional sport, worked in national organisations, in local delivery and within grassroots clubs, I’m very clear where meaningful impact and changing lives happens. Success comes from deep understanding of local issues, the building of local connections and the distribution of responsibility at a local level.

The strategy penned is likely to drift into anonymity (if it hasn’t already) as we edge nearer to a General Election. The voice of a government department extolling the virtues of this type of strategy is frankly a complete irrelevance. What matters is the capacity, capability, innovation, resource and accountability at a local level to make purposeful improvement within communities – today and every day.

To imply that a sports and physical activity strategy can address the health inequality facing the nation smacks of crass ignorance
No-one doubts that sport and activity can benefit the health of the population / photo: Shutterstock/ 2xSamara.com
Dave Monkhouse
Active Insight
Monkhouse: We have an opportunity to be better and braver / photo: Active INsight

There are a lot of clear opportunities outlined in this strategy to demonstrate the impact we can have as an industry.

We welcome the statement about ‘focusing on evidence, data and metrics to understand how interventions are helping get people active and demonstrate their value’, but it’s important to recognise that this data doesn’t just have to be from the industry, as many of those working on health in our communities already have outstanding data.

My plea is that we don’t create our own systems, but that we integrate with what already exists, to identify gaps and opportunities.

Ensuring we ‘level the playing field of activity provision’ will be vital if we are to play our part in ‘helping the sector to be welcoming to all, by promoting women’s and disability sport, championing diversity across the sector and holding the sector to account for investing in these groups’. This will mean moving from our general position of providing bricks and mortar services and running GP referral schemes in the hope patients become members and instead doing more enabling activity with statutory and third sector organisations who already interact with the communities we find so hard to reach.

If we’re to play our part in ‘setting the future direction for facilities and spaces where people can be active’ we need to understand where communities feel safe and happy, who the ‘leaders’ are in a community and how we can upskill these communities to deliver locally to ‘people like them’.

Ultimately a refocus of resources – there will be no new money – partnerships with organisations that already exist and are delivering within the space and upskilling our workforce and the existing community volunteer workforce to engage, empathise and activate could deliver a great deal of this strategy.

There are lots of opportunities to be better, be different, be brave and to truly demonstrate that we can assist in making a real difference to people’s lives and healthy longevity.

Ultimately a refocus of resources could deliver a great deal of this strategy
Success relies on having a deeper understanding of local communities / photo: Shutterstock/Kitreel

Originally published in Health Club Management 2023 issue 9

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