The Policy Jigsaw: A Joined-Up Approach
Posted: Sat, 02 Jun 2018 17:20
'Joined-up government' is an often-cited aspiration for those working in the sport sector, but what does it mean exactly? And what steps do we need to take to achieve tangible progression towards it and a lasting improvement for sport and physical activity in the UK? A room of thought-leaders from across the sport sector convened in London earlier this year for a round-table discussion on the topic in order to try and establish some clarity around this difficult issue. The questions posed and points made below were done so by participants at this meeting.
As a jumping-off point for debate, recent experiences in Welsh sport policy were presented as an example of how disjointed policy and government can hinder otherwise well-thought out strategies for reaching a broader population with sport and physical activity. However, it was noted that those making up the sport sector itself are often guilty of fractured and incoherent thinking and should look to present a more joined-up approach in the first place.
A problem for the sport sector in the UK is it's simply very difficult to push physical activity into the policy space. For example, it is arguable that physical activity is the responsibility of local authorities who are mandated to provide it through their statutory health and well-being obligation, but this clearly is not happening in practice. Despite staff numbers being reduced and less people taking the lead on sport in the community, CSPs are trying to operate at a local level, getting into communities, but they need policy help from government to facilitate that.
Do deliverers of sport and physical activity suffer from a lack of credibility to policy-makers? Far from the aspiration of using activity as a nation-wide and effective intervention to promote health, educational attainment and employment, according to the Active Lives/Active People Surveys, the sport sector is not very successful at increasing participation in sport. The sport sector needs to show it can deliver on things that save money and that evidence is just not there yet. Existing evidence as to how and which programmes get people physically active is weak: the sector doesn't measure impact well and without measurement it becomes difficult to access funding.
The socio-economic gap is widening in terms of activity. It was suggested that sport needs to play the 'long game' and facilitate the implementation of a new culture of behaviour through creating new environments and nurturing passive change. Both sport and physical activity are currently turn-offs for many people, and sports bodies need to facilitate changing the behaviour of the population without them even realising it. Attitudes to smoking and seat-belts took years to change and the same will happen with physical activity, the sector needs to discover its best offer for facilitating this change.
Furthermore, it was argued, sport has not and does not adapt well to the language and goals of health & well-being. Many organisations are marketing sport and physical activity as a solution to the obesity problem, but health professionals and their research shows that diet is a significantly more important factor in weight management. Currently there is a 'health' message attached to sport, but it just isn't working. Activity is a tiny part of the agenda for health professionals—the health sector is just not that interested and sport organisations must remove the 'activity solves obesity' slogan from the narrative.
It was agreed that the sport sector needs to sell itself better, and with no more public money coming in the next decade at least, it needs to be smarter with its resources, including people and organisations. Does the sport sector offer enough to contribute to the health agenda? Should it be looking to tackle health and other development outcomes? There are simply not sufficient resources or skill-sets in the sector, but because it relates to 'sport' the sector takes responsibility. For example, traditional, local sports clubs are good at providing social capital and keeping a small amount of people active, but simply aren't designed to deliver health or sport for development outcomes on any broad scale.
Additionally, unlike comparable sectors, such as the arts, sport arguably doesn't have an effective lobby. It was heard that the sector needs more political influence along these lines: there is a lobby vacuum and sport needs to bring a 'sell' and market itself better.
The current lack of a joined-up approach from within the sector presents a clear and present danger to the future of sport and physical activity in the UK. With the new strategy and the opening up of funding there is a risk of more work for everybody and, with the current fractured landscape, there is no-one to coordinate all this and prevent the duplication and repetition of interventions. More people sympathetic to sport are needed in government, along with tangible examples of joined-up government from politicians, who must show leadership on this, even though it can't all be down to them.
Inevitably this discussion raised many more questions than answers. Is the solution to these problems more legislation? Does a top-down legislative approach work, or is it more to do with developing effective local and community partnerships? Is it laws, or people that make programmes and interventions work?
On a positive note, it was heard that flexible funding is a fruitful avenue to pursue for the future: Wales is currently building a 'well-being fund' with tough KPIs set against it. Progress is being made when innovative thinking is brought to physical activity interventions and good results are achieved when people are given attractive and alternative reasons to participate: e.g. when sport is paired with something else, for instance music, food, culture and community events. 'Sport with…' programmes will be part of the future of intervention.
Luke Regan is Researcher for The Sports Think Tank. The above article is a report on a round-table discussion hosted by The Sports Think Tank and chaired by The Sports Think Tank co-founder Andy Reed to discuss how to achieve a more joined-up approach in the sport sector.