Initiative-itis. No, I haven’t made a word up, that was Hugh Robertson the new Sports Minister.
Mr Robertson was interviewed in last Friday’s Telegraph, the following is an excerpt;
Robertson sees the legacy of 2012 as his top priority. “The lack of a tangible mass-participation sports legacy from 2012 is the single biggest sports policy challenge facing the government,” he says.
His solution will be an end to what he calls ‘initiative-itis’, “dropping little pots of money here and there without any coherence”, and a shake-up of the way public money is delivered in sport. He is developing a five-point plan for his policy and details will follow, but the gist is clear.
To anyone who has an inkling of what genuine sports development planning looks like, this should be welcome news, that is despite the fact Mr Robertson appears to underestimate how widespread ‘initiative-itis’ has become over the last decade or so. The fact is, in British sport it is at epidemic, if not pandemic levels.
It isn’t only little pots of money being dropped without coherence that have undermined long term sports development planning in the UK, it is also the way many in sport try to create solutions, plug gaps and achieve targets by simply creating more and more unlinked or poorly linked initiatives. The 21st century has seen literally thousands of them.
It has reached the point where for many working in sports development has been replaced with working in sports initiative creation and delivery. Indeed, for many who were not working in sport a decade ago ‘initiative-itis’ has been their only experience of working in the industry. Many of them have progressed to management roles honestly believing the current way is the only way meaning Mr Robertson’s five point plan to rid us of the pandemic will need to address a considerable re-education process.
How bad is the problem? If we take the Olympic Games’ shop window sport, athletics, as an example we have not seen a national strategy for the development of the sport since UK Athletics was born out of the failed British Athletic Federation in the late ‘90s. In the same period we have seen initiative after initiative launched with little (apparent) thought given to even horizontal, let alone vertical integration of these programmes.
That is not to be critical of athletics’ national governing body (NGB) for many other sports have delivered so called development programmes via a series of ad hoc, sounds good this week initiatives.
Some will say that these governing bodies have had proper development strategies, UK Sport and the home country sports councils will have demanded it in return for funding.
You would hope so but that hasn’t been the case. What the DCMS’s various sports delivery bodies have demanded were what they called ‘One Stop Plans’ and ‘Whole Sport Plans’ which were used to evidence how the NGBs would achieve Government targets through various initiatives in their sports. That is not the same thing as a strategy for the development of said sport. It is far too narrow in definition. Indeed in some sports consultation with the grass roots, where it exists at all, has become an irrelevance as the raison d’être of many has become solely the delivery of Government agenda.
In order to look at how things can be improved, let’s take a step back and remind ourselves of something called ‘The Sports Development Continuum’ which is the name given to the four basic stages of sports development planning; Foundation, Participation, Performance, Excellence.
Note that the four stages are not isolated silos to be treated as separate from the other three. They are a continuum; an unbroken, fluid line runs through the four. And yet the NGBs are all answerable for funding to quasi-quangos established in such a way as to deliberately create a stepped approached in place of a smooth, staged continuum. And then, even within those silos further silos have been created.
In England, UK Sport has been responsible for ‘elite sport’, Sport England for ‘grass roots sport’ and the Youth Sport Trust for school sport. Mr Robertson could save money and do sports development planning a huge favour by simply replacing these bodies with a single UK wide organisation for the development of sport and for distributing the funding thereof.
Logically, many NGBs have mirrored parts of this fractured structure and established UK bodies and home country bodies along the same lines. Initiatives have flourished where sound, continuum based planning has withered.
But there will be those who advise Mr Robertson that his aim of “a tangible mass-participation sports legacy” cannot be delivered via the sports development continuum model. They would argue that the sports development continuum model assumes a progression along the continuum which for most is simply not possible, that it focuses on the development needs of a talented elite few.
They are, quite simply, wrong. They misunderstand the application of the sports development continuum to planning. The continuum does not take individuals in at Foundation and seek to channel them through all the way to Excellence at its end, although it should offer that as both opportunity and aspiration to all.
What the continuum offers is a way into sport at every stage for everyone. It offers the opportunity to progress to those who want to at every stage. It offers the chance to stay and enjoy at each stage. It offers the chance to return to a previous stage to all on its path. And, being a continuum there are no clear dividing lines between the four stages, they blur, blend into one large process of sports development focused on the wants and needs of each individual.
Yes, within the continuum there could be any number of ‘initiatives’ but they will be designed to provide ways in and ways to progress on as well as ways to happily participate at each individuals’ current level.
Doing this properly demands a high level of strategic planning. Consider this list;
Participants (those actively taking part); Facilities; Coaches; Officials (referees and umpires); Clubs; Schools; Higher & Further Education; Local Authorities; Communities; Equity; Events & Competition; Education & Training; Staff (paid and unpaid); Funding, Sponsorship & Commercial; Communications; Player Support Services (eg medical, educational, equipment, etc); Recruitment & Retention; And the list goes on and each of the areas stated can be further sub-divided.
Then consider planning that lot into a continuum based strategy to develop sport. It is not good enough to simply plan initiates for (eg) schools without considering the quality and availability of coaching, the links to the community and to local clubs or even the availability of clubs locally. What of competition provision or of the desire to pursue a sport enjoyed once the school child has experienced it? All of these elements and more need considering and properly planning.
And that planning cannot take place in isolation. There is little point in having a strategy for (eg) the development of coaching if it pays no heed to where, how many and of what quality coaches are both needed and wanted (not always the same). Then what of school plans which might create future demand? Then what of….. you get the picture.
A horizontally integrated strategy will cover everything needed to develop coaching but not necessarily to develop the coaching that is needed. To do that requires vertical integration of planning; that is planning that considers the implications of everything on everything! Go back to our list of areas requiring attention and consider planning in a vertically integrated way to cover the impact of each item listed on every other item listed. You soon begin to see why simply designing initiatives in the hope they will be successful is a system doomed to fail.
Consider the school in the East Midlands that offered its students a programme that included one sport that had no club or infrastructure within 30 miles. It’s like offering a taste of the Promised Land and then saying “sorry, you can’t have any more.” Is this how we encourage people to take up AND stay in sport?
Or consider the local authority in Yorkshire which offered a summer full of initiatives for youngsters without discussing any of them with local clubs. Those clubs were then unready and ill prepared for the young people wanting to join turning a positive first experience into potentially a negative second one or even no second experience at all. Is this how we encourage people to take up AND stay in sport?
Then consider the club in Lancashire which ran such a successful recruitment campaign that it was swamped with young people wanting to join. Unfortunately they had forgotten that recruiting more youngsters would also require recruiting and training more coaches! Is this how we encourage people to take up AND stay in sport?
These are examples of where a decade or more of initiative led sports ‘planning’ has led us. We need to get back to strategy led; sports development continuum based planning if the resources of time, personnel and money are not going to continue to be wasted.
And vertically integrating planning would not just be better for the properly planned development of sport, it would also be beneficial to the nation’s purse as money is specifically, strategically targeted rather than thrown at piecemeal initiatives apparently randomly spawned by silo led horizontal thinking.
Mr Robertson’s desire to end ‘initiative-itis’ should be applauded but doing so will require a huge shift in culture for those directing and managing sport in the UK and will demand significant restructuring. It is to be hoped his plans will be supported and not resisted.
© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, 2010.