Sport England Uniting the Movement Action Plan - Martyn Allison Reflects
Posted: Sat, 04 Dec 2021 16:20
After a ten months wait we now have a plan of action for delivering Uniting the Movement, the Sport England ten year strategy. The document is definitely not like the action plans we are use to from Sport England, it is quite wordy and in some ways it feels like being confronted with a Rubik Cube (look it up if you are too young), with its many different faces and colours that need to be manipulated in inordinate different ways before you can find the route to complete the puzzle. But isn't that just the challenge we all now face. Addressing inequality or "levelling up" as we now seem to want to call it, is complex. If it was simple we would have solved it by now and not still be struggling 40 years after the Sports Council first called for 'Sport for All'.
The complexity in the plan is created by having to explain to the audience five big issues, five catalysts for change and nine ambitions then actions set out under three themes of building the movement, meeting people where they are at and being the change in three timescales, do now, do next and do later which together seek to align and overlap to achieve the core belief, vision and mission set out in the strategy.
If you are now a bit lost I'm not surprised but there is no quick fix to the challenges we face and helpfully each set of actions come with some nice cross referencing to the relevant big issues and change catalysts they are intended to address. For those of us who have been close to Sport England over the last few years we will see and recognise our own experiences and learning in the plan but for others not yet fully involved it could I fear seem quite opaque. Communicating with simplicity how we want to change a complex system is not easy so let's just accept the complexity and agree we can all start somewhere in the plan to achieve the change we desperately need to deliver.
The other reason for the plan appearing different is the major focus not just on defining 'what' we need to do but also on changing 'how' we work including in Sport England itself. The bottom line is that there are just 16 actions to be done now but 10 of these relate specifically to Sport England itself changing how they will work with us and there are in fact only 24 actions planned over the first three years. And the simplicity really becomes clear when we see how the impact of the plan will be judged: activity is increasing, inactivity is decreasing and levels of inequality are narrowing. It couldn't be much simpler.
There is lots I would applaud in the plan but also a few questions that still need answers.
In terms of building the movement the first two actions are focused on improving the advocacy which given the weaknesses exposed by the pandemic in our ability to influence government has to be a priority, along with supporting recovery. My fear however, is that given there is little sign of the pandemic being over, just maintaining the infrastructure let alone recovery is in danger of sucking in more and more of Sport England's limited resources and so inhibiting the delivery of the rest of the plan critical to longer term sustainability. Some bold and difficult funding decisions will therefore need to be made over coming months between protecting what we have currently and building for the future.
It is interesting that the advocacy action spotlights the two most critical areas, working with health partners and supporting the retention of public sport and leisure facilities emphasising the importance of improved collaborative leadership capacity. I can see why these are seen as key advocacy challenges because all Sport England can actually do is influence with advice and some limited financial leverage but I would ask if these very important priorities are not specific actions in their own right. I am also very surprised not to see in the health section a specific reference to future relationships with Integrated Care Systems, a missed opportunity I fear.
The other two actions in this first theme relate to funding. Of course better and easier access to open funding is essential but as we will see later it only represents 10% of the budget and it is such a shame that the government pre-judged the plan and committed additional funding to only football and tennis. Sport England have no option but to now row behind these initiatives but using this money to increase the general funding pot so that local choices could have been made on investment to meet local need would have been so much better. Ministers defining nationally what sport people should play runs totally against the principles of the strategy and this plan. You would of course expect me to question why creating a leadership community is not also an action for now. Improved advocacy will depend on improved leadership and therefore for me this should definitely be a priority one action since it is critical to improving the local capacity for change.
Meeting people where they are at is central to achieving the behaviour change explicit throughout the strategy and also challenging in that it requires change in all of us, the providers of opportunity. The first two actions are expanding the place based work and generating better data and research that helps us tackle the inequalities but again I would questions why connecting grassroots organisers is not a day one action since it is so critical to supporting the place based work. But there is no indication in the plan about how the place based work will be expanded. The pilots were extremely resource and time hungry and I doubt if they can be replicated at the same scale. But also the learning from the pilots is extensive and needs good engagement to be valuable, yet capacity in the sector has never been more constrained and individuals are in many ways working at their limits. Place based work is central to the change we need to see but rolling it out at scale and speed will be a huge challenge yet to be explained.
The final section is about Sport England being the change they want to create and in many ways this is the most important and challenging part of the plan to deliver because it requires behaviour change not only in them as an organisation but in us all if we are to work effectively with them. Culture change is required across the whole system. Putting such a big spotlight on themselves is a brave and bold thing to do and I suspect it will lead to some challenging situations inside and outside the organisation particularly in an increasingly difficult political climate and with resources getting tighter and possibly declining.
Of course what really stands out across the plan is their total commitment to fund and support those in greatest need but for me the word target appears too often and as we know Marmot challenges the use of targeting if it only focuses on those in need without changing the system that keeps them in need. We don't want more targeting we want whole system change.
They want to start by revolutionising their relationship with key partners like the NGBs and Active Partnerships but in terms of inequality the previous performance of many of these organisations remains questionable so still relying heavily on them to drive the changes required remains for me a point for debate. The plan offers these key partners lots of support to access the shared learning, help them to develop their professional workforce, shape their strategic thinking, improve their leadership capability and co-design investment packages of funding for up to five years. But the plan says nothing directly about accountability in these arrangements or what will happen if inequality is not being addressed by them. There is a suggestion that in parallel with their work with existing partners Sport England will develop new partnerships with other organisations who can also help meet people where they are at. This feels to me a bit of a veiled threat to these long standing partners that they must with Sport England's support now step up to the plate in terms of inequality or else they will put their investment elsewhere. I will watch with interest how this pans out.
The next few actions all focus on organisational changes required within Sport England specifically relating to creating a more diverse workforce, addressing environmental sustainability, governance, safeguarding and integrity, structure and people development. Up until now the structure of Sport England has barely changed for years and very much still reflects the former policy and funding streams of governing bodies, children and young people, facilities, local working and workforce. Structure is still a huge determinant of culture in organisations so will we now also see structural change to better reflect the new priorities and enhance more collaborative ways of working?
The final set of actions relate to some of the more practical aspects of Sport England's work round measuring impact, sharing learning, internal business practices, the planning functions and managing complex partner relationships along with improvements to communications at the next stage. These all tend to feel a bit opaque to us outside the organisation but underpinning them all is a greater desire for collaboration and co production reflecting the underlying culture change required to deliver the plan. For anyone who has been involved in organisational wide culture change the scale and breadth of change reflected in this part of the plan will be recognised as immense and to achieve it within three years will be a challenge but let us admire the leadership and ambition set out here.
And so we move on to investment. This is the least informative bit of the plan and yet seeing and knowing where the resources are going is what everyone has been really waiting for. Many partner organisations are very dependent on Sport England for their survival but many others feel they are far better placed and capable of helping deliver the strategy so are looking for new funding. Shifting resources from old to new priorities and from old to new partners is never easy but unless that happens change will not happen.
The plan is clear about three things. Firstly, although it again fails to use the terminology, it is clearly about adopting the principle of proportionate universalism by proposing to invest most in those that need it most. Secondly it commits to finding the right blend between investing nationally in NGBs and Active Partnerships and investing locally but without explaining what that right blend actually is. Thirdly it commits to allocating funding as simply as possible.
Some of us always expected that the main tension for Sport England would be addressing the balance between the funding of their traditional national partners particularly the NGBs and Active Partnerships and investing locally in places, communities and new partners. In the plan we are simply given a chart that tells us that 50% of funding will go to partners, 25% to places and 25% to campaigns, advocacy, open funding and other, but with no explanation of what actually falls into these categories. For example is partner funding the national funding for NGBs and Active Partnerships and places is the local funding. If so I would strongly argue that the balance is still fundamentally wrong and ultimately needs to be revised particularly given that open funding is limited to just 10%. If it is more nuanced than this with partners being funded to mainly deliver locally as part of the place focus and not just deliver nationally then I would feel much more comfortable.
Clearly as the plan says the figures are not yet agreed which suggests negotiations internally are still continuing but until these figures are published and we can all see transparently where the resources are actually going we must refrain from any final commentary on the plan.
The final section covers the thorny question of measuring success. As I said earlier there is great simplicity in judging success in terms of increasing activity, reducing inactivity and closing the inequality gaps between them. But this may be just too simple to hold individual organisations to account and performance manage outputs, outcomes and value for money. The Treasury will certainly want more. Many involved in system thinking and system change seek to move us away from more traditional forms of performance measuring claiming it diverts attention away from what really matters, stifles innovation, works against shared learning and collaboration and therefore goes against the grain of the culture changes advocated in the plan and the strategy. But this is also about the use of public money and clearly we want to ensure those that receive this money are delivering the required level of change in terms of inequality. Holding people effectively to account requires some level of measurement. Without measured evidence taking funding away from those that fail to give it to others better equipped to achieve the change becomes hard if not impossible. Changes in funding need to be defensible and evidenced based otherwise they will lack integrity and rightly be challenged. Clearly there is much more work still required to find the right balance between creating a culture of trust, shared purpose and collaborative action and adequately holding people to account for their use of public money. Another one to watch with interest.
In summary I am pleased to finally see the plan of action to start and deliver the new Sport England strategy. Yes it looks complex and a bit like a Rubik's Cube but I'm reliably informed by Google that a Rubik's cube can be solved in 20 moves….. but it took 30 years to find this out. This plan has just 24 actions but let's hope it does not take another 30 years to solve the problem of inequality.
The plan is unique because it focuses more on changing how we work than on what we must do and Sport England have shown great leadership by putting the spotlight on themselves in terms of changing how they work. But the plan demands the same commitment to behaviour change from the rest of us in NGBs, Active Partnerships, other national leadership bodies, councils, operators, consultants and communities to achieve more activity, less inactivity and less inequality in activity. The plan covers only the next three years so more will need to follow but the level of change set out in the plan is immense and comes at a time when the sector is under huge capacity challenges and resources will continue to decline.
This plan should certainly be welcomed and ambitious and a vast amount of it I fully support although I would marginally change a few of the priorities. The missing link however, is the lack of financial detail and greater transparency in how budgets will be allocated between the priority actions and key organisation. Until we see this we will not know how far Sport England continues to rely on their traditional partners who have not been hugely successful in addressing inequality and how far they are shifting to new and different relationships with organisations and communities that are closer to where people are at. Until we see this we must reserve our final judgement on the plan.