THE NEED FOR A STRATEGY FOR THE DEVELOPMENT OF ATHLETICS IN THE UK Part 1

Part 1 (Click here for Part 2)

ABAC ASK THE QUESTIONS AND JIM COWAN ANSWERS

ABAC: Jim, you have been quoted as saying that Government policies have adversely affected the effectiveness of sports development on the ground. Could you explain what you mean by this?

JC: Using athletics as an example, the structure of athletics in the UK was forced on the sport via the Government agencies UK Sport and Sport England. Neither the UK body nor the England body (apologies to the Celtic countries but I live in England) are answerable in any way to the sport of athletics. They are answerable to the Government via DCMS and its agencies.

This structure fractures the development continuum actually making the respective jobs of UKA and England Athletics harder than is necessary.

A by product is that both UKA and EA build plans around the securing of funds from DCMS (via the named agencies). Although athletics is the tool, the development of athletics is not the focus. Instead initiatives dressed to look like development, use athletics to service the Government demands. While I sympathise with UKA/EA in that they need to secure funding their approach is naive and strategically misconstrued.

As an example of the impact of Government interference as it cascades down, during his brief tenure at DCMS, James Purnell called in the agencies UK Sport, Sport England and Youth Sport Trust and in one sweep altered their targets and demanded new strategies in unrealistically short time frames. These agencies, having to do as the Government department they answer to demanded, did a reasonable job in the time available. Unfortunately proper, in depth consultation with sport was not possible in the time allowed.

Using Sport England as the example, they then ‘informed’ England Athletics of their new targets and what England Athletics will need to do to secure funding. EA then put together and submitted a funding bid built on Sport England demands not the sport’s needs.

UK Athletics current focus is almost exclusively on 2012, again largely driven by Government agendas and reinforced by post Beijing panic. There are no plans in place for post 2012, the so called ‘legacy’ years.

Neither UKA nor EA has consulted with athletics on aspirations, wants, needs, etc – they don’t have to. In the Government driven structure they are little more than ‘Government sports agenda delivery vehicles’.

As a result, NGB led athletics has become focused on its role as delivery tool rather than that of servicing athletics.

Lower level funding has become dependent on various administrative exercises foisted on volunteers who have no added support but are expected to find the extra time required. UK Athletics led the way in these exercises with ‘Clubs Future’ which they later put to one side to adopt the sport generic Club Mark scheme. Don’t misunderstand me, much in schemes like Club Mark is good and (sadly) necessary. The issue is that they absorb volunteer time which removes that time from the delivery of sport.

I know of one County Sport Partnership that recognised this issue and employed an individual to specifically support clubs with Club Mark (and funding) applications. Any scheme forced on volunteers which requires that kind of professional intervention needs reviewing. If it is essential it needs redesigning in a format that works for all.

That is something that can be achieved via consultation; something Government gave Sport England too little time to do and which UKA/EA do not do as it does not impact on funding bids and associated plans.

Even with the current model of Government using sport as a tool for social engineering, it doesn’t have to be this way. The sport needs leadership which is strong enough to stand up for the sport (having spoken to it to understand its wants, needs and aspirations). The sport also needs leadership which is wise enough to realise that inclusive, comprehensive development planning for the sport should be the priority but can (and even should) include the servicing of Government agendas.

In over a decade of UKA as NGB we have yet to see a development strategy for the sport of athletics. Yet such a strategy (properly consulted) would heal many of the rifts in athletics, would service a healthy future for the sport and could still incorporate the policy of any Government of the day.

Government interference has confused the issue and driven athletics NGB planning in recent years. It is athletics leadership’s lack of strength and wisdom (especially strategically) that has allowed this situation to continue and which continues to split the sport.

ABAC: That sounds logical yet at a recent meeting the Chief Executive of England Athletics, Mike Summers, was asked; “who do you primarily see yourselves (EA) in the service of, the sport of athletics or Sport England?” He responded emphatically that it is the sport of athletics. Doesn’t that contradict your assertion?

JC: No, not at all. In fact at the same meeting Mike Summers was asked if he could give just one single example of an England Athletics target which had come from the sport itself rather than a need to service Sport England demands. He was not able to.

Mike Summers may believe that his organisation is putting athletics first but the evidence says differently. I would challenge anyone who thinks otherwise to ask themselves when they were last consulted by the NGB and when they last saw a strategy for the development of athletics?

England Athletics and UKA are under tremendous pressure from Government and its agencies however, the leadership of those two NGBs have been entrusted with a duty of care for athletics and while they must service Government agendas in order to secure funding, their priority should be the long term health of the sport. That requires the kind of wise and strong leadership I referred to previously.

ABAC: Are all sports suffering under Government demands in the same way then?

JC: Not at all. While they are all having to come to grips with the need to service Government agenda if they want any significant funding, many have also managed to pay heed to the aspirations, wants and needs of the sport in their care and have planned accordingly.

For example the Football Association conducted a broad consultation with the sport which elicited over 40,000 responses which helped inform their new strategy. The much publicised ‘Respect’ campaign in football was a direct response to a grass roots need highlight as part of that consultation.

ABAC: So with proper consultation and planning the grass roots of athletics should expect better support from the ‘paid professionals’ at UKA and EA?

JC: Yes and no. Having paid professionals help with the added administrative burden (including but not limited to Club Mark) is a short term solution. In the medium to long term the funding that provides for these professional posts cannot be guaranteed. As well as local authorities changing focus, Sport England have never in their history planned more than three years ahead and they are yet to actually see out any of those three year plans before Government has demanded change.

Long term sustainability depends on putting systems in place that can be willingly taken on by the volunteers who are at the heart of sport. You will note that I have not said drop Club Mark; I have said it needs to be consulted on and relaunched in an agreed, ‘user friendly’ format.

World renowned strategist Jacques Horovitz regularly makes the point that “compliance is not commitment” and states that commitment is gained through consultation. In athletics the majority volunteer workforce is exactly what Horovitz warns of, compliant. Unlike in the paid work force where the compliant still take a wage while moaning about the job, company, management, etc, in the volunteer workforce the compliant can refuse and even walk away. In both workforces production is always lower than with the committed.

ABAC. We break here. Part 2 coming tomorrow

Category: Governance