(If you would prefer to read the full, long 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.
Mr Robertson seems under the impression that I am being critical of the new Olympic and Paralympic style competition for schools. I am not, 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.
Mr Robertson is on record as agreeing with my viewpoint (Daily Telegraph, Friday 21st May), that after a decade of initiative led delivery we needed to get back to a better planned approach. In fact it was Mr Robertson in that same Telegraph article who coined the term ‘initiative-itis’.
We need a strategy which offers fully, vertically integrated planning along the entire sports development continuum. This 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.
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.”
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.”
Mr Robertson has identified an increase in lottery funding for sport, a positive start. 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.
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.”
However. 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.
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 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.
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’.
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.”
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.
“Holding to account” should mean independent auditing of data and transparency in reporting.
As for the National Governing Bodies being the experts? Some are, some aren’t. Mr Robertson agreed with correspondence about this when in opposition. I can find no evidence of any DCMS Select Committees seeking alternate independent expert views. Seemingly relying on NGBs often run by people with little or no background in the sports they now head and who are suddenly cast in the role of ‘expert’ by Whitehall.
Good strategy ensures expertise is in place, it does not 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”.
He tells us the 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 all of these bodies have a vested financial interest in any new funded initiative. The Prime Minister promised wider public and expert views would be taken into account.
My original question was; “can we have a strategy please Minister?” Having now been assured us of its existence, the question is now; “can we see the strategy, please Minister?”
If the strategy was open to public scrutiny Mr Robertson 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.
© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited 2010