Grass roots participation in sport and physical activity. A National Audit Office report
Posted: Tue, 12 Jul 2022 21:32
The National Audit Office is a strange creature in the complex world of government often invisible
but in many ways quite powerful. It is independent and has powers to investigate and report on
the performance of the government machinery particularly in terms of delivering value for money.
This week they have published their report into grassroots participation in sport and physical
activity and it makes very interesting reading particularly when so many in the sector are looking
and reporting on our future. The report only focuses on the DCMS and Sport England but it
provides some really interesting insights into the sector and how it responds to government
policy. Although the report reviews the performance of the DCMS and Sport England in effect it is
reviewing the performance of the rest of us working in the sector because it is us that are
responsible for putting the policy into action.
For those looking to government to do more to save the sector there is some real evidence for what needs to improve but equally the report carefully and respectfully describes the weaknesses of the whole sector over the last decade since the
2012 Olympics. But is this the way we want to go or is the direction suggested here incompatible
with local system change. In this thought piece I will try to share the narrative I think the report is
telling about the last decade which I hope our sector leaders will read and digest before
producing more reports on our future. Unless we learn from the past we may have no future.
The story begins with the 2012 Olympic legacy and how the strategy to use the Olympics to drive
up participation did not succeed. The report concludes that "the proportion of adults participating
in sport declined in the three years following the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games
and government attention to legacy had waned by 2016."
The report explains that "the core element of legacy was the commitment to increase participation
in sport. This was supported by a range of initiatives, including Sport England's £135 million
People Places Play programme, which aimed to encourage mass sports participation by
upgrading local facilities, improving and protecting playing fields from development, training local
sports leaders, and encouraging 100,000 adults to try Olympic and Paralympic sports in a charity
challenge. However, despite the spending and a series of other initiatives across government, the
proportion of adults participating in sport at least once a week for at least 30 minutes fell by 1.1
percentage points in the three years following the Games, a statistically significant decrease."
But the report goes on to criticise the DCMS for not completing a promised evaluation of the
long-term impact of the Games in 2020 and as a result "does not know the full extent of any
sporting legacy delivered from the £8.8 billion that the government spent on the Games. Although
the short-term impact was evaluated in 2013, concluding that the Games had contributed towards
the increases in participation before 2012, in 2021, an independent review of existing research,
concluded that 'little strong evidence exists to show that sporting events can enhance mass sport
participation. Where participation does increase, this tends to be among those who were already
Despite this we continue to argue that major elite events can increase mass participation and
continue to use this to justify the use of declining resources spent on them. The report however
acknowledges that "the legacy plans for the Birmingham Commonwealth Games reflect the
learning that major events tend to have an impact on already active people and the shift towards a
more targeted approach to tackling inactivity. Instead of aiming to achieve nationwide increases in
participation, the aim is to "inspire and offer targeted opportunities for the people of the West
Midlands to improve and sustain levels of physical activity," with a particular focus on the most
inactive and under-represented groups."
Recognising the failures of the legacy strategy in 2015 the government shifted its strategic
approach to focus on the outcomes from sport and physical activity. It published a new crossgovernment
sporting strategy, Sporting Future.
"The strategy promised to target funding at less active groups of the population, believing this
would deliver the biggest gains for public spending". But to achieve this would require much
greater collaboration across government to tackle the shared priorities of health and health
At the same time, the government expanded Sport England's remit to include not only sport but
also certain kinds of physical activity such as walking. "Sport England reflected these changes in
its 2016-2021 strategy, Towards an Active Nation. It aimed to understand and address the barriers
to activity for the least active by working with a broader range of partners than the NGBs of
traditional sports, and by encouraging local collaboration. Its new interventions included allocating
£100 million over the three years from 2018 to 12 community pilots with local partners to tackle
inactivity and inequalities." (Local Delivery Pilots).
The strategy stimulated attempts to invest in different organisations who worked better with
inactive communities and developed mass campaigns like This Girl Can to change the perception
and image of sport now recognised as a key barrier for the most inactive.
So how well did WE do?
In terms of cross government working the report is quite damming concluding that "Leadership
and collaboration across government to increase activity has been inconsistent".
It says "despite (some) examples of collaboration, there are signs that the approach across
government is not joined up. Some stakeholders have reported inconsistencies in the language
and approaches to physical activity between departments. Local government stakeholders we
spoke with had experienced effective collaboration with Sport England, however they had found a
lack of clarity between the DCMS and DLUHC over responsibility for leisure services. They told us
this had led to a lack of leadership in this area during the COVID-19 pandemic, with delayed and
patchy support for leisure providers".
They further point out that "A cross-government Inter-Ministerial Group on Healthy Living met for
the first time in 2018 to facilitate joint working, co-chaired by the secretaries of state for Digital,
Culture, Media & Sport and Health & Social Care. However, it only met four times because of a
lack of ministerial availability, and it did not meet after June 2019 following a change of ministers
and government. This removed one of the Department's key influencing and oversight
mechanisms. Some stakeholders we spoke to told us that the Department by itself lacks the
levers, budget and influence necessary to have a sustained impact on the rest of government."
Clearly this is a major problem for the sector, we don't punch big enough in government. This was
recognised in the recent House of Lords report which recommended departmental and ministerial
changes. But we are now in a period of political change and nothing will happen until the autumn
when no doubt we will have new political leadership and an opportunity to start again and act
differently on this issue of national collaboration. Whilst national leadership can facilitate change
through policy and strategy it can only actually happen at the local level in local places and local
communities. We must now realise that the levers and drivers of change are not just in the hands
of government ministers and Sport England, they are in our hands.
So if the government did not do well on collaboration how well did we do on delivery?
The report is clear that "Population-level reporting does not identify any causation between Sport
England's spending and any changes in activity levels."
"In the year to November 2019, 1.2% more of the adult population were active compared with the
year to November 2016, a statistically significant increase (Figure 9 on page 32). The 500,000
target for increased population-level activity had also been met by November 2019, with the
number of active adults up by 1.1 million against the baseline of year to November 2016".
However,"The activity with the biggest percentage point increase in participation over that period
was walking for leisure (Figure 6). According to Sport England, neither it nor its partners have a
major influence over walking for leisure in terms of direct spending".
But the data exposes the deeper problems in terms of addressing the key policy priority to
address inequality in activity. "For lower socio-economic groups, one of the two less active groups
for which Sport England set targets, Sport England measured changes in activity levels in the
places and projects where it allocated specific funds to this group. In this way, it found that 83,000
more people from lower socio-economic groups in these areas were active, 83% of the target
level, with less than one year of the four-year target period remaining. However, among lower
socio-economic groups as a whole, there was no statistically significant change in national activity
levels before the COVID-19 pandemic."
"Sport England did not set activity targets for other less active groups such as disabled people or
Black or Asian ethnicity groups. It still intended to influence them through its strategic objective to
tackle inactivity, and considered that its targeting of lower socio-economic groups would also
disproportionately benefit Black and Asian ethnicity groups. However, there was no statistically
significant improvement in activity levels for Black or Asian ethnicity groups between the year to
November 2016 and the year to November 2019. In addition, while evaluation of This Girl Can
found that one-third of women who were aware of the campaign reported being more active as a
result, women from Black and Asian backgrounds were less engaged."
So despite the major realignment of policy to address inequality in activity levels cause and effect
could not be demonstrated, national improvement was marginal but dependent on walking and
improvement in the groups targeted was at best mixed. It appears that to some degree change
might have started but certainly not at scale and we therefore need to be honest and ask why the
learning from successful projects did not spread wider and quicker. Why did change not happen
at scale? The report highlights a number of underlying factors worth debate.
Measuring, evaluation and applied learning.
Because data could not confirm a cause and effect relationships and performance was variable
we had very limited ability to show a clear relationship between the national policy to address
inactivity and inequality and what we delivered on the ground outside some specific projects with
targeted funding. We therefore entered the pandemic poorly prepared to make any case to
government for additional funding.
There is a huge challenge in measuring the national impact of policy and delivery across such a
complex sector and if we keep looking upwards to our relationship with central government to
promote our case and fund us we will have to get much better at measuring national impact and
value for money than we have done to date. If on the other hand we choose to rely less on the
central government relationship and focus more on the local relationships particularly with
councils and the new Integrated Care Systems then this will require a much more diverse and
flexible approach to monitoring and accountability. At present I think it is very difficult to measure
both delivery of national and local priorities without becoming overwhelmed by data collection
particularly at a time when the sector wants more simplicity and less burdens.
A new national cross government focus on a wide range of economic and social priorities could
require a huge commitment to collecting more standardised data across the sector. In the past
demands for data has always lead to Sport England being accused of top down management, it
has skewed priorities, risked stifling local creativity and imagination, it has often created
unnecessary fear of being compared unfairly which has then frustrated shared learning. The
sector has always had a uncomfortable relationship with data and measurement whether this has
been National Performance Indicators, Quest or the National Benchmarking Service and the same
arguments are still continuing today in terms of the new Moving Communities database. If we
want to be funded to deliver across multiple government priorities we will be required to
demonstrate our success. Are we prepared to do this?
Widening the supply chain and funding
The desire to deliver Olympic legacy increases in participation was almost entirely driven through
the NGBs even at the expense of supporting councils who were then providing the vast majority
of infrastructure. When it was found that the approach had not worked Sport England sought to
expand the range of organisations it relied on to deliver its participation objectives, but its overall
network of grant recipients did not increase significantly until during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The report says "as part of its 2016 strategy, Sport England sought to expand its supply chain, but
it did not define explicitly what was meant by this proposed expansion. Sport England reduced its
funding to NGBs, awarding them 33% less in 2017–2021 than in the previous four years. It also
told us that the number of what it terms its 'funded partners' – those that typically play a
connecting, influencing or governing role in the sector– increased from 107 in 2015-16 to 134 in
2020-21. Our analysis of the available data on organisations awarded grant funding by Sport
England shows no expansion before the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the number of
organisations awarded grant funding increased almost six-fold in 2020-21 during the COVID-19
pandemic, compared with 2019-20 (paragraphs 2.5, 2.20 to 2.23 and 3.11)."
"There was a high degree of concentration in the money awarded. For example, the share of Sport
England's grant funding awarded to the top 20 organisations in each of the four years from
2016-17 to 2019-20 ranged from 40% to 48%. The top two organisations themselves distribute
Sport England funding to a range of recipients but Sport England does not hold complete data on
these onward awards."
In other words until the pandemic change was limited in terms delivery partners and yet the
purpose of awarding the funding had changed radically. Sport England simply expected the same
providers to change what they did in order to achieve different policy objectives and most
organisations agreed to do so in order to maintain their funding. Of course we now know that this
did not happen or happen at sufficient scale and with hindsight not enough was done to support
and influence how these traditional partners worked. We simply forgot that if you always do what
you've always done you get the same results.
The report goes on to say "Sport England sought to rebalance its grant funding towards the
inactive, in line with the government's new strategic approach. Sport England pledged £250
million, or 25% of its budget, over the four years from 2017 to encourage the inactive to be active,
with lower socio-economic groups one of the areas of focus. It distributed £1.5 billion in grants
during the five years starting in 2016-17, of which £450 million can be traced to specific local
authorities. Of this £450 million, the most deprived local authorities received, on average, 23%
more funding per head of population than the least deprived. Overall, however, the share of local
grants awarded to the most deprived local authorities was less in the five years from 2016-17 than
in the previous five years. In 2020, Sport England commissioned research on under-representation
of lower socio-economic groups in sport and physical activity. This found that applications for
funding can be complicated and unconsciously biased against those from lower socio-economic
groups. Sport England is now taking steps to overcome this by simplifying its application process
and working with partners to reach those organisations at risk of being disadvantaged in
We also once again come back to the lack of data and evidence. The report says "Although Sport
England aims to target its spending at less active groups, such as women and lower socioeconomic
groups, its spending data are not sufficiently granular to track this fully. While it can
identify programme-specific spend, it cannot identity how funds it has issued to national
organisations are distributed geographically across the country."
So whilst priorities changed funding allocations did not change at a significant scale. The report
shares the view of many stakeholders that organisations that are less entrenched in the system
but more in touch with those least active can find it difficult to break in and certainly during and
after the pandemic making it easier to access funding has been an objective of Sport England.
This is at last now happening.
So despite the new strategy setting a clear direction of travel change either didn't happen or was
slow and marginal in terms of widening the supply chain, redistributing resources to priority
groups and places and being able to measure and demonstrate the scale and impact of the
change. At this time I was first writing about these failures or weaknesses and wrote about our
lack of empathy. I also wrote about Michael Marmot and the concept of health inequality and the
need for the sector to adopt the idea of Proportionate Universalism. At the time my focus was on
data relating to the use of facilities and how far use reflected local communities. At the time I
concluded that usage was generally biased towards the better off and therefore those more likely
to already be active, than poorer communities where inactivity was higher and life expectancy
lower. Although austerity had driven a business model that removed council subsidy and almost
no funding came from Sport England to run facilities they were influential at the time in capital
funding to improve efficiency but perhaps with a too limited focus on its impact on effectiveness.
As a result I suggested that the sector was actually making health inequalities worse not better.
The evidence in this report suggests that Sport England funding was also not at this stage
sufficiently skewed to really address inequality and inactivity. At best you could say there was a
realisation of need and a desire to change but then nobody expected what would happen next,
The pandemic, a challenge and an opportunity.
The period of the pandemic had a huge impact on the sector and continues to do so. Clearly we
were ill prepared for what happened but so too were most other sectors. But there were positives.
The sector at a local level found again its heart and soul in that it became central to helping and
supporting communities. We found new friends and relationships with partners particularly in
health and social care and councils realised we did make a major contribution to peoples lives.
Nationally the importance of exercise was trumpeted but we struggled to land the case for more
financial support leaving us drained of reserves on so many fronts.
The report says "The COVID-19 pandemic was a highly disruptive force for sports and physical
activity, and the Department is exploring what long-term learning it can take from the experience.
Government measures to control the pandemic restricted people's opportunities to use sports
facilities but, at the same time physical activity such as walking was one of the few reasons people
were allowed outside during lockdowns. The percentage of adults who were active fell to 61.4% in
the year to November 2021, a 1.9 percentage point fall on the year to November 2019, the last full
year before the pandemic. These falls have exacerbated inequalities in activity for the least
affluent, Asian people and disabled people. However, there have also been large rises in walking
for leisure and innovation in the provision of online physical activity offers, and 52% of people have
found new ways to be active since the pandemic started."
Sport England stepped in quickly to help sustain struggling organisations. "During the COVID-19
pandemic, however, the number of organisations to which Sport England awarded grant funding
increased significantly, with an almost six-fold increase in 2020-21. This reflects the one-off
support it provided to help the sector survive the pandemic, including the National Leisure
Recovery Fund and Community Emergency Fund. This meant that, in 2020-21, 38% of Sport
England's grants by value went to organisations that had not received funding in the previous year,
compared with 24% in 2019-20. Sport England seeks to build on the opportunities from this shift
So in the end it was the pandemic that facilitated Sport England widening their supply chain and
funding different partners and at the time Tim Hollingsworth was very clear and vocal about the
need to apply Proportionate Universalism to the Covid funding strategy to ensure those
organisations that supported those in most need got most support.
Uniting a movement post pandemic
Throughout the pandemic Sport England were developing and consulting on their new strategy. It
was soon clear that it would continue to focus on addressing inequalities in activity but address
some of the weaknesses in the last strategy. There would be a number of fundamental
differences in approach. The strategy would cover ten years not four but importantly it would
focus more on how we work and not just what we should do. Lessons were being learnt from the
Local Delivery Pilots about working differently in collaboration with others at a place level and
there would be less focus on just the national priorities.
The report says "Sport England's new strategy for grassroots sport and physical activity takes a
more localised and collaborative approach, in line with lessons learned and feedback from
stakeholders. This strategy continues the focus on encouraging activity among the inactive and,
within that focus, it gives greater prominence to addressing inequalities in participation between
groups. Sport England's evaluation of its local delivery pilots confirmed that inactivity reduced at a
faster rate before the COVID-19 pandemic in local delivery pilot areas than in areas without the
pilots, and the strategy commits to expanding place-based working. Sport England also identified
that it needed a more collaborative approach to influence and connect the sector more widely.
Some NGBs we spoke to agreed that Sport England could do more to share learning and support
collaboration across the sector."
It goes on to say that "While highly disruptive for sports and physical activity, the pandemic has
also prompted positive change, increasing the Department's collaboration with the sector and
focusing the government's attention on the health benefits of exercise. However, as at June 2022
the Department and Sport England have yet to produce a robust plan for monitoring and
evaluating the effectiveness of their approaches for the future. The Department told us this delay is
so that it can ensure that the new indicators align with its own new strategy due in summer 2022".
But the new strategy comes just when the sector is really struggling with its own sustainability.
Recovery remains well below pre-pandemic levels in both facilities and clubs and the cost of living
and energy crisis is adding to these burdens daily and at the same time inactivity levels remain
lower in those communities in most need. Just when the opportunities are greatest so are the
Many of us in the sector feel we are at "tipping point" and our future will either be very positive or
very negative. Our sector organisations are all busy collaborating more than ever before and
writing reports on what that future could and should be, but nearly all of them focus on what the
government needs to do to help us rather than what we need to do for ourselves. Perhaps we
should spend a little time examining what this report tells us before finalising our vision.
Some concluding observations
The report tells a story not only about the performance of the DCMS and Sport England but about
the performance of the sector as a whole over the last decade and like every good story there are
good bits and some less good bits.
1. Community sport and physical activity brought an estimated contribution of £85.5 billion to
England in 2017-18 in social and economic benefits (including £9.5 billion from improved physical
and mental health), an estimated return of £3.91 for each £1 spent on community sport and
physical activity. We are of great value but still punch well below our weight.
2. The proportion of adults participating in sport declined in the three years following the London
2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games and government attention to legacy had waned by 2016.
That should never have happened but it did and we need to be honest about why we failed.
However, when the failure was recognised government and Sport England were at least prepared
to fundamentally change tack in 2015 by switching focus to activity and inequality in activity. But
by trying to change what we do without changing how we worked our performance did not
3. Despite this new focus nationally participation rates increased only modestly between 2016 and
2019 and progress with specific less active groups was mixed despite being a strategic priority.
This surely shows us that simply changing the policy and expecting the system to just change
how it performs is not a realistic approach. It shows us that there are in fact no national leavers
you can just pull that make the system move in a different way and in fact if you want different
results you have to first change the system from within which in turn means changing the culture
of that system and building its capacity and leadership to work differently. A lesson being learnt in
the Local Delivery Pilots but not yet understood across Sport England or the wider sector.
4. Between 2016 and 2019 Sport England sought to expand the range of organisations it relied on
to deliver its participation objectives, but its overall network of grant recipients did not increase or
change significantly until during the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result attempts to rebalance its
grant funding towards the inactive was only partially successful up till the pandemic. This shows
just how difficult it is to change the system and switch resources in line with policy so that the
system can behave differently. Going forward we have to be bolder in reforming how we work and
who we work with and this requires different leadership styles and approaches and significant
behaviour change and not just more money.
5. Uniting the movement the new strategy for grassroots sport and physical activity intends to
take a more localised and collaborative approach, in line with lessons learned and feedback from
stakeholders but comes just when the sector is facing huge ongoing and growing financial
pressures and whose sustainability and survival is under threat. But we have seen in the Local
Delivery Pilots that new and different ways of working can be successful and generate better
outcomes for local communities. What is clear from these pilots is that what needs to change is
not just what we do but how we work. The success in these places is the result of changing
culture, showing greater empathy for those most inactive and working collaborative with others to
change how the system works. We have not yet grasped this key learning across the sector with
many still believing that simply with more funding the existing way of working can achieve
different results. I think this report shows it can't.
6. But the report also shows us that clear leadership and collaboration across government is also
necessary if the policy changes required are to happen. Opportunities were missed post Olympics
to solidify shared agendas and build new relationships across government which meant when the
pandemic hit Sport England and partners found it very hard to make its case for more support, a
situation that continues today and will for the foreseeable future given current political turbulence.
Joined up policy is as important as joined up delivery but we have to be able to evidence our case
and show that we deliver value for money.
7. The key problem remains our continued inability to measure properly our impact and evidence
the progress we are making on national policies. The sectors historic dislike of measurement and
top down accountability has always directly hindered our ability to make our case particularly in
the pandemic but we now face a new fundamental dilemma. If we want to look up to national
government to advocate our value and provide more funding we will have to come to terms with
more national frameworks to measure our progress and impact against national policies in a
coherent and consistent way. But if we want to look to the local relationships at a place level
perhaps in the context of Integrated Care Systems then any measurement and accountability for
the use of limited resources will need to be reflective of local need and priorities which may be
inconsistent in terms of painting a national performance picture.The DCMS and Sport England
recognise that they need to improve the way they measure success under their new strategies,
but have yet to finalise an approach because I fear due to this tension. Locally councils and ICSs
are also struggling with the tension between local performance accountability and system change
culture that depends more on trust than measured performance. As a sector we need to resolve
how we manage these tensions.
The report ends with some recommendations, the ones you would expect given they are from the
NAO. They are suggesting what is needed is clearer objectives, shared across government, better
measured and better delivered by Sport England in terms of who they partner, how they fund and
who they seek to reach with that funding. But this traditional performance management of policy
model is in many ways out of step with the agendas of devolution, localism, community
empowerment and system change.
The sector will need to decide before the political turbulence ends and a new government is
formed which way it wants to go. Do we want to look up to a stronger relationship with central
government with more top down funding streams and national measurement and accountability
or do we want to be part of local system change and local accountability. Some will say we can
do both but I think this report shows us that trying to look up and down at the same time may be
difficult to achieve but perhaps that's where our future lies.
Martyn Allison July 2020