Having lived in the UK for a few years now, I have witnessed a near constant cascade of physical activity policies. In 2014, the UK Government wrote “Move More Living More”, a short document aimed at salvaging something of the Olympic participation legacy. Later that year, Public Health England’s “Everybody Active Everyday” was published, which tried to take an “evidence based approach” and inspire radical change in “this green and sedent land” (to butcher Blake’s famous line).
More recently, in late 2015, the DCMS published “Sporting Future: A New Strategy for an Active Nation”. This contained a clear directive to merge sport with health and economic outcomes. And now we are presented with Sport England’s “Towards an Active Nation”. One might think with such an array of organisations and such a compendium of policy statements, the country would be on its way to health, wellbeing and fitness. Of course, I sincerely hope that change occurs. And it looks like the most recent policy offers some significant concrete solutions.
To judge a policy by its cover and imagery, the most striking thing about the Towards an Active Nation is that it doesn’t look anything like a traditional “sport” strategy. The images include
– a couple of girls running in a forest
– a group of young people paddling on a misty lake
– a woman in a field with a rounders bat
– a couple of older adults playing badminton
– a young woman playing wheelchair basketball
– a coach with a young athlete at an athletics track
– a group of older women in an informal running group
– a group of young boys at an indoor climbing wall
– a group of young students being coached in football
– a young girl playing social tennis
There is very little imagery of competitive traditional sports. A traditionalist might ask Where is the cricket!? The rugby!? The Olympic athletes!? The role models!? The images make us imagine a nation with all manner of outdoor landscapes, with diverse participants enjoying non-adversarial, non-competitive activities. The pictures subtly move the reader away from the traditional English sports and towards a Scandinavian model of “sport”, a perceived utopia where traditional sport is just one aspect of an active life.
So how does this new policy aim to get there?
Well, there will be a massive restructure of funding. Pie charts on pages 16 and 17 are revealing. Two charts are presented, one of the previous funding allocation, and the projected investment. Confirming some of the pre-release rumours, it looks like NGBs will be sweating even more than they usually are, with their funding becoming even more contested.
The core “outcomes” (or values) emphasised in the document are physical / mental wellbeing, individual, social, community and / or economic development. The policy appears unequivocal in how it will decide on funding. It can be boiled down to this quote:
“whether an organisation receives public funding should be based on what it can contribute to the outcomes …. not on its nature or structure. Put simply, it’s what you can do that counts, not who you are.” (p. 12, bold in original)
And so what changes might we expect in the sport sector? Well, key word searches are revealing. “Change” is mentioned 31 times, “New” – 72 times and “Funding” – 33 times. So the new change to the funding is based around organisations’ potential to achieve the “outcomes”. This will mean that organisations around the country will be auditing themselves to reflect on what they offer and how their offering could be attached to the outcomes.
Picking on one in particular, I suspect “economic development” has not been high on the list for most sport organisations, nor has it been emphasised in previous strategies. “Customer” is mentioned 32 times. And so I think business orientations and commercial incentives might become more important very soon. Sport England states:
“WE WILL … Provide insight, advice and funding to those who deliver to regular players, focusing on customer needs and delivering excellent experiences.” (p. 27)
Maybe I have not kept up with the fluidity of language, but I can’t help but think of “customers” as a term which is a bit too business-like, a bit too corporate. A search of the old Sport England’s “Creating a Sporting Habit for Life” reveals zero instances of the word “customer”. So not only are sport organisations being reframed, so are people. What might the effects of this be I wonder? Time will tell!
Lastly, I see that the policy is guided by “behaviour change theory”. In a nutshell, this assumes people do not have a sporting habit for life. And so something which had been the catch-cry of Sport England for 5 years, will need to be unlearnt. Pragmatically, I wonder how difficult it is for people in an organisation to change the basic assumptions of their work. As Sport England note, this will require some change for the organisation as well. I wish them good luck!