Part 2 of the Jim Cowan interview which deals with relationships and structure of the sport

Click here for Part 1 and Click here for Part 3



ABAC: You refer to the volunteers as a “workforce” yet athletics’ NGBs have recently defined the grass roots as “customers”, which is it?

The only customers are those who participate, by which I mean take part as competitors, in the sport and fulfil no other roles. Everyone else is part of athletics’ workforce. Because someone is unpaid does not mean they are not working towards improving ‘the product’ and increasing ‘productivity’, in fact to assert otherwise is to undervalue the sheer volume of work contributed by volunteers and can only add to the ‘compliance’ Horovitz warns against.

Coaches, for example, work for the athletes in their care, for their clubs and for the greater good of the sport. Someone not grasping the bigger picture might suggest that they are customers when it comes to coach education but that should be seen in the context of in house workforce development not as external customers buying a (sadly deficient) product.

ABAC: Earlier you talked of the structure that has been forced on athletics fracturing the development continuum and actually making the respective jobs of UKA and England Athletics harder than is necessary. Can you explain what you mean by this?

JC: We are encouraged to buy into a structure which has England Athletics delivering services to the grass roots and UKA taking responsibility for elite performance. Or at least, that is what we are told and if it is true, it is a flawed model before we have begun.

Starting at the beginning; the primary question should be which comes first, strategy or structure? If you look at successful commercial models such as Microsoft or Nike, you will see that strategy always precedes structure (or restructure). Why is this? It is because the strategy will define not only what an organisation is aiming for, it will also define the best structure to ensure it happens. The strategy will define the best/most effective/most efficient structure to ensure success.

However, with UKA (and now EA) we have an organisation which has never produced the strategy and restructures on average every two and a half years, to no defined end/reason. Without strategy (and no one seems to be disputing that we don’t have a strategy for the overall development of the sport) the structure is guess work. It might look good in a theoretical, paper exercise but it is that strange beast, form without function. Or, worse, form without reason.

The secondary question is one of sports development which, at its most basic level services something called ‘the sports development continuum’. The continuum is (simply); foundation, participation, performance, excellence. Strategic planning should seek to ensure entry and exit roots at and between all levels and the support for the infrastructure that delivers this. It should also include plans for the growth of each level. This is a continuum, an unbroken chain. By splitting the chain you pull on one end, the other end won’t move (respond). UKA are hoping for a stream of performance athletes from a supply chain that has a designed in split. In most walks of life, that would be called insanity planning.

At this point, let me defend UKA and EA. This split is not to their design but to the Government’s via their unholy trinity of quasi-quangos (UK Sport, Sport England and the Youth Sport Trust). There is nothing UKA and EA can do about this but they can apply a large dollop of common sense and create a properly consulted, top to bottom and bottom to top strategy for the development of athletics which is ‘owned’ by the sport, that is all the involved partners. The Government’s agencies can be partners in that process (ensuring no drying up of funding) but the sport itself is, vitally, also included as the priority concern.

ABAC: We’ve been told by Government, Sport England, Sir Andrew Foster, UKA and many others that athletics needs change, that any transformation will not have visible short term impact. We are also told that in order to do things better we need change but there are always those who oppose change, people who believe that they could do much better and people who represent their own self interest. Why shouldn’t we accept that this is not a perfect world and recent changes to the structure were made for good reasons?

JC: (Laughs) But what I propose when I talk about the need for a strategy for the development of athletics and when I point out that strategy should precede structure would be change, not just change but change for the better.

Things can always be done better and in this mini world that is athletics in the UK, they can definitely be done much better. I must confess to having a little chuckle every time I hear the old chestnut; “there will always be those who oppose change”. I’m not sure whether it is a naive or arrogant statement. Naive in that it presupposes change is essential; it isn’t. The purpose of change should be to improve things not to merely alter them. Arrogant in that it assumes the deliverer has the only valid version of the future worth considering. Remember that EA was brought about via ‘Moving On’ (the discredited Foster Report) which was driven by, paid for and designed according to Sport England (Foster was/is a Sport England employee, so much for independence), to the clarion call of “change is needed”. Yet, no other versions of the future were even considered and consultation on proposals was a sham. That is arrogance at its best (or should that be worst?).

ABAC: It appears the Foster Report gets blamed for a lot of athletics’ current ills yet surely any change should not be expected to have immediate or even short term effects? It’s a little like people claiming much is wrong because UKA’s leadership is not democratically elected or that the decline in performances in endurance is because of Foster.

JC: UKA have been in place for over a decade. When, exactly, do we move from an NGB having medium to long term impact over short term? As for endurance, it was in decline long before Foster came along. The decline in endurance is down to neglect brought about by the paucity in strategic planning.

I hear people say that decline is contributed to because young people are less active. If that is so, a fact, then where are the NGB plans to counter this?

I have a personal belief that there are two kinds of people involved in the development of sport, those who look for excuses and those who look for reasons. Those who look for excuses can always explain why thinks didn’t work. Those who look for reasons accept they don’t always work but then seek reasons, learn from the reasons and develop plans to get over those reasons. The endurance elements of cycling, swimming and rowing seem to have grasped this, even with a decline in young people’s activity.

That UKA’s chiefs are not being democratically elected is irrelevant. What is is that they are not accountable to the sport. We are told by those in the influence of Government agencies that such accountability would be unworkable. And yet it is the corporate model of just about every successful company in the world. Paid professionals run the day to business but remain answerable to those who own the business, usually at an AGM, in exceptional circumstances at an EGM. The issue is ownership and accountability, not that the CEO isn’t elected.

ABAC: Isn’t it a problem that there is a vocal minority who oppose the very existence of UKA and England Athletics and therefore any strategy for the development of the sport would be nigh on impossible to implement due to blinkered opposition to all things UKA?

JC: There will always be a minority who are opposed to x, y and z. That happens in those successful companies I just referred to as well. The point is that a transparent system would show who is and isn’t the minority, in today’s athletics we have no way of knowing, although the recruiting of Celtic votes to bring about the introduction of England Athletics might suggest the minority are those blindly accepting the NGBs’ work? We simply have no way of knowing without a more transparent way of operating.

It is normal to assume yours is the majority view yet without consultation we have no way of knowing whose the majority view points are.

The key to implementing a strategy successfully lies in the ground work which precedes it including proper consultation. That brings us back to the difference between commitment and compliance. With commitment a strategy will work, without it depends which way the wind is blowing today. The difference is inclusive, transparent, planning versus crossing the fingers and hoping things will turn out alright.

I am not naive enough to suggest that there would not still be some opposition; that is an inevitability. The point (fact) is that a clear majority can be evidenced and have ‘signed up’ to a strategy they contributed to and believe in, creating a shared sense of ownership and direction. That is commitment which has to be better than the current status quo of enforced compliance and finger crossing?

ABAC: Is a strategy for the development of athletics really that important or is it just another stick with which to beat UKA?

JC: A strategy for development is vital for the future well being of our sport. Guaranteeing the future health of athletics is why proper planning is so important.

Imagine we removed all of the different views (I prefer to think we are all on the same side, that of athletics, we just hold different views) and entered a world where everyone thought the Government/UKA/EA route was perfect, that still does not explain why, in a decade we have yet to see a strategy for the development of athletics? Even if it is the gospel according to UKA, without consultation, as an NGB they have singularly failed in this most important aspect. In short, consultation or not, we have had a decade of ‘hope driven’ rather than ‘strategy driven’ sport.

Athletes, coaches, clubs, officials, in fact everyone involved in athletics deserves better than that.

ABAC. We will end Part 2 here

Category: Governance