(If you would prefer to read an abbreviated version of what follows you will find it here).
Hugh Robertson, the Minister for Sport and the Olympics has gone on record on the pages of ‘Inside The Games’ lambasting my blog on the return of ‘Initiative-itis’ only five weeks after he had promised its end.
I am grateful he took the time and exceptionally pleased that, after a decade of Ministers using sport as a tool for social engineering and little else, we now have a Minister prepared to enter into debate and who clearly wants to develop sport and the many benefits it brings to the larger community. That can only be a good thing.
But is his response merely a reaction or does he make a fair point?
Firstly, Mr Robertson seems under the impression that I am being critical of the new Olympic and Paralympic style competition for schools. I am not, in fact in my blog actually said; “It may not sound like it, but I applaud it. It is better to have it than not have it but to maximise its effect, to fully exploit its benefit to the nation please Mr Robertson sort out the wider, urgently required strategy. Do not offer all these young people a taste of the Promised Land only for them to discover the infrastructure to pursue it is not in place.”
So, Mr Robertson and I agree that the new initiative (for that’s what it is) looks a good ‘un. So where do we disagree?
The main point behind my blog was, and Mr Robertson is on record as agreeing with this viewpoint (Daily Telegraph, Friday 21st May), that after a decade of initiative led delivery we needed to get back to a better planned approach, one where we think things through fully and don’t just launch random new initiatives as hoped for solutions to larger problems and as a way of fooling the media that something is happening. In fact it was Mr Robertson in that same Telegraph article who coined the term ‘initiative-itis’.
As a result of this shared viewpoint I was asking the Minister, could we please have that strategy; a strategy which offers fully, vertically integrated planning along the entire sports development continuum. Mr Robertson writes to reassure us that such a strategy is in place. I hope so, if it is that is great news.
Which leads back to my original question; “can we have a strategy please Minister?” Only now having heard his insistence that such a strategy is in place I’m asking; “can we see your strategy, please Minister?”
And, in case I am being misunderstood, let me repeat that I refer to a strategy which offers fully, vertically integrated planning along the entire sports development continuum.
Although Mr Robertson claims the strategy is in place, he offers no evidence of its existence.
Mr Robertson states; “Only last month, I explained the principles underpinning the Government’s sports legacy strategy. There are five key areas- all of which are essential if we are to create a cultural shift towards greater participation in sport. These are: lottery reform, structural reform, elite sport, school sport and mass participation.”
Assuming that the sports legacy strategy is the same thing as a strategy for the development of sport, and given the five headlines it sounds like it is, then we are off to a good start.
Mr Robertson continues; “The lottery reforms will return sport to its original place – as one of the main beneficiary sectors of the National Lottery. By 2012 the reforms will secure a further £50 million for sport each year. This funding will hugely benefit sports clubs and help refurbish sports facilities, so that they are ready for the influx of young people turned on to sport by our Olympic-style competition.”
Better than a good start, Mr Robertson has identified an increase in lottery funding for sport, this is sounding positive. Of course, strategy is about how you are going to do things not what you would like to do, so Mr Robertson’s strategy will need to answer ‘how’ it will benefit sports clubs and help refurbish sports facilities. Let’s be positive and assume it will?
The Minister then states; “Structural reform is about ensuring that we have the best sports system possible at every level – school, community and elite. We have to be confident that every pound of funding being spent on sport is used as effectively as possible and that there is a seamless pathway between schools, sports clubs and the elite level so that no talent slips through the net.”
This is sounding fantastic but a note of caution, planning structure before knowing what the strategy is can be a risky business. Structure should be the servant of strategy, ensuring effective and efficient delivery. Although Mr Robertson has told us about his strategy, we have yet to see it. Let’s assume the new structure meshes with the strategy and continue in positive mode?
Mr Robertson adds; “There are already strong links between schools and sports clubs. On average, schools have links with seven local sports clubs with over 1.5 million young people involved through this route. This new competition will build on this further, and should have its most marked impact at the lowest level – if the Kent School Games experience is typical.”
Mr Robertson will be aware that many in sport question such statistics and point out that they have never been independently audited. On the few occasions independent experts have analysed the data supplied by UK Sport, Sport England, the Youth Sport Trust and/or the National Governing Bodies, the figures have been found to be, putting it politely, exaggerated.
One of the world’s most highly regarded athletics statisticians, Rob Whittingham, is among those few independent experts who have highlighted such discrepancies to both previous and current Governments, so far to avail.
An example of Whittingham’s analysis; “I looked first at the number of children aged 11-15 taking part in track and field athletics as supplied by Sport England. The number is 159,000. Sport England define ‘taking part’ as competing at least once a month outside school hours. The track and field season lasts 6 months so this would give 954,000 athlete/meeting combinations. The Young Athletes League are considered large meetings and they average 140 athletes/match including 16 year olds. So I will use 120 as the number of athletes at each meeting. This would mean 8,000 meetings each year for 11-15 year olds. I have access to 99% of results for official track and field meetings and cannot find even 10% of this number for this age group.”
Whittingham goes on to say; “I can find almost no funded athletic project which has any metrics for measurement. All now seem to rely on polls, surveys and satisfaction reports.”
It is inevitable that if you fund organisations to achieve targets and then ask them alone to measure and report on their success in achieving those targets, such inflated reporting will happen. Those same organisations know there will be no independent checks on the data they report and that if they hit (often self determined) targets there will be more lottery money to come. Hence, performance against any measures will inevitably be ‘good’.
Of course, not all of these organisations do this but it only takes a handful to make all the data reported by UK Sport, Sport England and the Youth Sport Trust to DCMS questionable at best.
So, a slight hiccup here but nonetheless, let’s assume that measurement of Mr Robertson’s strategy will be transparent in a way that leaves no space for the kind of public doubt the Minister will have been well aware of via his post bag when in opposition.
Moving on the Minister’s next point is; “Galvanising mass adult participation in sport is arguably the hardest part of the legacy to achieve. Indeed no other host country has succeeded on this front. But a strong school sport system encouraging young people to play sport for life will only help this ambition.”
I apologise in advance for pointing out this sounds very much like the type of ‘crossing your fingers’ planning Mr Robertson pulled me up for accusing him of? Remember, strategy is about ‘how’, not some vague hope that doing one thing will help some other ambition. However, when Mr Robertson unveils this strategy we will undoubtedly see the ‘how’ he has omitted to mention here?
Of course, from the Government’s perspective much of that ‘how’ will be funding others to achieve their targets and Mr Robertson tells us; “Through Sport England hundreds of millions of pounds of public money are going direct to national governing bodies to help drive sports participation up. The governing bodies are the experts and know where to target the funding but we will be holding them to account so that the investment gets the desired results.”
Mr Robertson will have noted while he was in opposition that the previous Government also spent hundreds of millions of public money funding national governing bodies to drive up participation, invariably via the ‘initiative-itis’ he so accurately named. No doubt when we get sight of his new strategy we will see where it will achieve the same aim so differently? Perhaps, in part, with the “holding to account” which would mean independent auditing of data and transparency in reporting?
As for the National Governing Bodies being the experts? Frankly Mr Robertson, some are, some aren’t, as you are well aware from correspondence from the grass roots of those sports that aren’t; correspondence you apparently agreed with while in opposition.
Having heard what Mr Robertson has had to say, perhaps we should go back to my original question and check whether he has answered it. “Can we have a strategy please Minister?” was the short version of my question by which, as I went on to explain, I meant a fully, vertically integrated strategy covering the entire sports development continuum.
Mr Robertson identifies that funding will support any strategy. He talks of structure and I hope this is structure designed around the successful delivery of strategy. Many have failed in business as well as in sport for not realising that structure is the servant of strategy not the other way round.
Mr Robertson rightly talks of schools and mass participation. He briefly mentions elite sport but does not expand. The sports development continuum covers Foundation, Participation, Performance and Excellence but not as distinct separate sections, rather as a continuum in an unbroken journey.
Good strategy ensures expertise is in place it doesn’t assume it and Mr Robertson may well wish to revisit his comment in the near future, that, “the governing bodies are the experts and know where to target the funding”.
That said, Mr Robertson is getting there with what he outlines but not in a fully, vertically integrated way which would mean planning the impact and consequence of one action on the next and linking them properly together. We have not seen any understanding of this principle from UK Sport, Sport England and the Youth Sport Trust under the previous Government.
Of course, not having seen his strategy I may be wrong, it might do all of this and more.
Mr Robertson tells me I am in the minority in questioning his strategy, although how he has ascertained this he does not make clear. Besides, even if I am clearly a minority view, he is wrong that I am questioning his strategy; We (the ‘minority’) have yet to see his strategy. I am questioning some of the bits he has made visible, allowed the public to see.
As for him apparently believing a minority view point automatically makes a view wrong, Mr Robertson should remember the last election and what that result might make the views of ALL sitting MPs if that were to be the case?
He tells us his strategy, which we have yet to see, has the backing of LOCOG, the BOA, Sport England, the Youth Sport Trust, sports governing bodies and many prominent Olympians who supported the launch, but he clearly hasn’t consulted, as his Prime Minister promised, with a wider public and any independent expert view?
The Minister concludes; “This is a strategy with clear direction. But I know we cannot be complacent. Achieving a lasting sports legacy will not be easy. However, I am determined to succeed.”
Mr Robertson has no idea how much the whole of sport wants him to succeed. The last decade has left a lot of participants, voluntary unpaid club coaches, officials and team managers (who all together actually produce the sport) desperate to see the development of sport planned properly, to be moved away from ‘initiative-itis’.
But Mr Robertson is in danger of emulating the Emperor and his new clothes in the fable; just because he tells us the strategy exists does not mean it does. Further, if it does and it will be as successful as he tells us then why not let us see it, why not open it up to public scrutiny?He would find people like myself are keen to support a lasting legacy for sport in this country providing it is built on sound sports development and vertically integrated strategic principles.
The question has changed slightly Mr Robertson. It is no longer; “can we have a strategy please Minister?” as you assure us of its existence. The question is now; “can we see the strategy, please Minister?”
© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited 2010