#UnitingaMovement? A critical commentary on Sport England’s latest strategy
Posted: Tue, 02 Mar 2021 10:37
Dr Mathew Dowling – Cambridge Centre for Sport and Exercise Sciences, Anglia Ruskin University
In January, Sport England, the non-departmental public body responsible for growing and developing grassroots and community sport, published its latest strategy, Uniting the Movement. The 10-year strategy is designed to tackle the nations obesity problem and the underlying inequalities that inhibit a healthier and happier nation. The strategies vision is bold, to "transform lives and communities through sport and physical activity" (p. 1) by investing "in sport and physical activity to make it a normal part of life for everyone in England, regardless of who you are"
As with any strategy, a central question to ask is what is new about this approach compared to its predecessor? Tim Hollingsworth (Sport England, CEO) claims that this is an unprecedent strategy in what are extraordinary times. I would not agree with the former but certainly concede the latter. At first glance, this does appear to be an unprecedent strategy in unprecedent times. So, what exactly about this new about this strategy? This is important if we are to "re-imagine" (p. 4) sport and physical activity in the way that Sport England envisions. Does this new strategy represent a "re-imagining and reinventing" of sport and physical activity or is it more accurately old wine in new bottles? What is the magical solution or mythical remedy have we missed all these years?
Does this new strategy represent a "re-imagining and reinventing" of sport and physical activity or is it more accurately old wine in new bottles?
Let's not forget that the starting point for any new strategy for sport and physical activity needs to accept the fact that previous policies to tackle inactivity and solve the obesity crisis have failed. Participation has remained largely stagnant for the past 50 years or so and it is clear that we aren't getting any healthier or happier. This fact is self-evident Sport England's own participation figures collected through the Active Lives Survey (previously the Active People Survey) over the years. We must accept therefore that sport cannot solve these problems alone and this is something that, perhaps for the first time, Sport England has openly acknowledged in Uniting a Movement.
My reading of the Uniting the Movement, rather than unprecedented, appears to be characteristic of incremental change. This should be expected for two reasons. First, this strategy has emerged mid-way through a policy cycle with the Department of Digital Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS) still seeking to carry out the policy objectives articulated within Sporting Future: An Active Nation (DCMS, 2015). For this reason, you would and should expect some sort of continuity between Uniting a Movement and its predecessor (Towards an Active Nation Strategy 2016-2020). Second, although this new strategy was published during the Covid-19 outbreak and in a recession, much of the consultation and drafting groundwork had been done prior to the global pandemic crisis. This suggests that the Uniting the Movement strategy more accurately represents an evolution of ideas that has finally been formalised rather than one that has been deliberately planned and rationalised in response to fundamental environmental change.
"The Uniting the Movement strategymore accurately represents an evolution of ideas that has finally been formalised rather than one that has been deliberately planned and rationalised …"
The adoption of a 10-year strategy is risky for Sport England, not least because politicians typically tend to work on a maximum of 5-year cycles. Even less if you are the secretary of state for the DCMS. I calculated that the average tenure of a sport minister over the last decade was 1.4 years and I see no reason to believe why this might be different over the next decade. The gamble for Sport England, then, is that successive ministers 'buy-in' to this long-term approach – something that will not be particularly politically attractive and will likely require them to set aside personal ambition, ego, and possibly ideology.
The benefits of adopting a longer-term strategy are quite clear. It provides Sport England, and by extension the sport sector, much needed stability it what are very uncertain times. This is something that many sport organisations, particularly those that have been dependent upon government funding, have needed for some time. The approach also enables Sport England to invest across a wide range of partners and programmes over a longer-period in order to more effectively realise its ambitions. One notable omission from the document is any real indication of who exactly who Sport England intends to work with to realise its goals. This is more likely by design rather than accident as it effectively gives the public body an 'open-door policy' for it to work with 'just about anybody' who can demonstrate they can get people more physically active. Whilst this might be a convenient outcome for senior officials and politicians in Whitehall, it will likely make the subsequent planning process and the questions of who gets what, when and why much more difficult.
Sport England has recognised that sport can no longer justify its existence on increasing participation numbers and winning more medals alone."
On a final note, like any strategy whether we deem it to be a success will likely depend in whether it achieves what it sets out to achieve. What is clear from how the strategy is presented is that Sport England sees its own role and remit to be much broader than before. It is no longer just an arms-length quango that purely invests into sport for sport sake but rather views itself as a 'connector', a 'catalyst for change', and as a 'champion' of the benefits of sport and physical activity for the sector. It is a broad church and one that appears to be getter broader and probably more costly to run. This will undoubtedly make it increasingly more difficult to delineate exactly who is responsible for what and for Sport England and its partners to demonstrate measurable and meaningful impact. Sport England has recognised that sport can no longer justify its existence on increasing participation numbers and winning more medals alone. It must demonstrate its impact and contribution to society. This is not an easy thing to do…but Sport England is learning. Perhaps, then, the biggest question of all, beyond the key performance indicators, metrics and logic models that will subsequently follow the publication of this strategy, is whether it can achieve something more fundamental and something which cannot easily be measured – whether it can indeed unite a movement.