Research Impact – National Praise and Local Malaise?

I have recently finished reading a new paper by Katherine Smith, a Social Policy researcher at Edinburgh University. It was entitled “We need to talk about impact: Why social policy academics need to engage with the UK’s research impact agenda.”  In brief, the paper set about to explore the challenges of the ‘impact agenda’ which may constrain or influence academics working within a Social Policy and Health Inequalities field of study.

The main findings of interviews with academics demonstrated 3 key areas of concern:

  • Rewarding ‘bad’ impact
  • Tracing and rewarding impact
  • Practical implications e.g. reifying traditional academic ‘elites’

These findings were corroborated by an analysis of REF2014 case-studies. In conclusion Smith suggested there may be a need to resist critique and challenge the ‘agenda’ or at least think how better the growing depth of empirical and theoretical evidence can inform policy to improve research-policy relations – as presently it does not seem to be happening.

To offer up some food for thought, I briefly wish to consider these findings in the case of physical activity research, which I argue the promotion of which has been constrained by the current interplay between evidence, policy and practice. A situation which has failed to move for the better part of 25 years or more.

The health benefits of regular physical activity are unquestionable in most cases. However, a declining trend in physical activity is a long-standing social issue (we’re about 20% less active than in the 1960s), which is going to need a long-term solution, both in terms of practice and policy, as well as the underpinning evidence.

Smith argues that the ‘impact agenda’ may force researchers to focus on shorter-term research to align to immediate policy goals, thus able to demonstrate impact. Perhaps it is no wonder therefore that a lot of criticism of physical activity interventions centres on the lack of long-term data collection, analysis and longitudinal follow-up. Here lies an issue. Research councils e.g. the ESRC claim that it is impossible to have impact without excellence. In the eyes of research standards agencies such as NESTA, excellence is determined by hierarchical structures, where by long-term RCTs and Meta-analyses rule the roost. Clearly there is a conflict here. How is it that researchers producing swift, policy-oriented research on the one hand can be labelled as impacting when viewed from one perspective, whereas sub-standard on the other. Is it therefore that even those academics with the knack of being cited in new policies are generally not truly creating impact due to the lack of quality in their research? Or is it time that we re-framed what we mean by quality of research? Although not the time or place for this debate, I wonder what drives the current emphasis on hierarchical quality assessment. Medicalisation of social issues is a loose theory of mine.

It is impossible to have impact without excellence!

A second potential implication of the current ‘impact agenda’ is the emphasis on national policy outcomes. If you are lucky enough to be cited in a key national document, you’ve just about made it according to some, on a personal level, not just in terms of research impact. It is not uncommon to see the same academics’ names coming up over and over in such guidance and policies. This is not inherently a bad thing, but the emphasis on national impact may be further constraining physical activity promotion efforts.

My concern, which is clearly echoed in the paper above, is what this means for the relative impact on local policy and practice.  For a complex social behaviour such as inactivity, there are numerous barriers to participation which are extremely local in nature. Many of which are bound up in health or income inequalities. Evidence suggests that in some cases, inherently ambiguous national guidance is inhibiting local efforts by detracting from tackling the underlying issues and barriers.

It is not an exaggeration to suggest that those in the most inactive categories, therefore most able to access greatest benefit, are often found in distinct communities. Without locally-targeted policy and -tailored practice, it is very unlikely these groups will be engaged. I ask therefore is it right that greater impact seems to coincide with national policy citation? Can more meaningful ‘impact’ actually be found in the informing of a single policy or programme that transforms a community, rather than a vague policy which is poorly disseminated from Government, through civil servants and the health sector, only to get lost somewhere before it reaches those who actually may benefit due to a lack of resource?

Perhaps there is an ethical consideration to make too – who is really benefiting from these national policy and guidance a lot of the time? Are researchers actually reinforcing structural inequality through being ‘impacting’?

A few key questions which have since jumped out at me having read the paper are as follows:

  • Can we challenge what excellence and impact look like in physical activity research?
  • How can research findings be framed to have greater impact and influence on policy agendas?
  • What tools or frameworks can we provide research users to make evidence more readily accessible?
    • Is it possible to create syntheses in new ways?
  • Do local practitioners and policy makers understand and value the impact agenda
    • Does it make them feel constrained?
    • Do they feel national policy and guidance is of relevance to them on the ground; which factors would make implementation easier?
    • Do we need a re-think of national guidance to better facilitate local practice designed to overcome local barriers to inactivity?

STEPS to an Active Future

A physical activity centric review of the 2016 UK Coaching Summit – Day 2

The following blog aims to apply the principles and lessons learned at today’s UK Coaching Summit opening. Be mindful that these were provided in the context of the conference theme – ‘Making Coaching Business Critical’ – but I hope they provide an interesting perspective and insight which may be applied to the physical activity sector generally.

I found that day two was more stimulating than yesterday. This was in no small part due to Professor Damian Hughes’s dynamic, humorous and engaging delivery of two sessions centred on organisational change and the psychologies thereof. He is the sort of speaker every credible conference should have. In doing my research ahead of the event, I had earmarked Damian as a must hear attraction – he did not disappoint.

A critical point taken away from these sessions was the need to determine the ONE core message that we wish people to understand, make it an emotionally driven message, contain these emotions in a target audience and then explain the message in a clear, simple and logical way.

I believe that this is an important lesson for academics in particular. So many papers are so full of jargon and technical terminology, I argue that it may detract from the use of the evidence-base in policy making and wider practice if not portrayed in a more appropriate manner. One such designed to tell a simple story, drive policy narratives and highlight promising intervention strategies.


Key note 1 – Professor Nicki Latham – A New Horizon for the Healthcare Workforce
Health Education England

The NHS is on the hook as it didn’t heed the preventive message seriously.

This was a strong statement from Professor Latham, and one which likely resonates well with a number of onlookers and physical activity advocates.

The case was made that the NHS workforce needs to change immensely to adapt to the changing demands of patients – particularly the thirst for increased self-involvement in one’s own care. The self-care agenda is now key for the NHS.

In order to make change, to relieve the crippling burden of inactivity related health care costs, there needs to be a new culture, driven by great leadership, to be flexible and maximise resources to get the greatest return on investment for the taxpayer.  One strategy the NHS are using is to bring departments out of their silos, break down the traditional barriers between them internally and with external organisations too. A more integrated care system can be seen as a positive step in my view – given the multifaceted constructs which influence behaviours such as sedentariness and physical activity.

Reflecting a key message underpinning much of the conference, Professor Latham discussed the values of the workforce, creation of culture and room for innovation and technologies. Recruitment and continued development are vital aspects of this.

We need to invest in the intellectual property of our country now.

Workshop 1 – Professor Damian Hughes – How to Change Absolutely Anything
Liquid Thinker

Change is the bleeding obvious.

Having touched on the speeches of Damian above, I can summarise this first session in the premise that change is not hard. It’s right in front of us. We simply need to think a bit differently about what we have at our disposal. Much of this is to trigger our brain to use the various functions of its opposing hemispheres.

  • Left brain = logical and process driven
  • Right brain = flair and change driven

What Damian argues is that when confronted with the need for change, many of us revert to the logical and the process orientated mind-set. This puts up barriers and prevents action. This notion is said to be reinforced by our education system, such that is ingrained in many of us.

We need to find ways to engage our right side brain. Ways in which this may be done include:

  • Start by asking what are we good at?
  • Ask what are we proud of?
  • Use solution focussed therapy
    • The miracle question – what does perfection look like?
    • Exception question – what made something a 4/10, if not a 0/10 – build on this factor.
  • Look at the mission – if an intervention or action meets this, look at the core behaviours – if these are met, experiment away
  • Presentation of stats, facts and figures are instantly forgettable – add some emotion in too.

I will attempt to summarise these in a physical activity-related manner. Firstly, our mission is to have an active nation, with a reduced burden of inactivity related health care. What does a perfect picture look like; is it everyone active, above 60%, we need to decide in the context of desired outcomes of policy and intervention. To start these, what do we do that currently works well and how can we build on promising practise? If we provide an emotional message, engagement in change of behaviour is far quicker than a process orientated change.

Workshop 2 – From student to foot soldier – mobilising an army of volunteers
Ulster Sports Outreach

People need to know that you care before they care what you know.

This session complemented the day 1 keynote from Professor Brennan about a University-based programme to address issues in disadvantaged communities in Northern Ireland See my day 1 blog for a write-up and key learning points.

Similar to many physical activity programmes and interventions, the need for partnerships was highlighted and to generate an ethos of mutual benefit. They encouraged everyone to think how they could work differently, particularly practitioners making new links with Universities to address a workforce gap.

Taken from Kostner et al. (2000).

  • Change = vision, skills, incentives, resources, action plan

Without these = confusion, anxiety, resistance, frustration, treadmill.

Keynote 2 – Professor Damian Hughes5 STEPS to Change

Tell a good a story.

I have covered much of this session in my opening passage above so will not write too much here. However, there were a couple of interesting points to share:

  • Create tripwires – these are moments which cause us to stop and think about what we are doing and why.
  • The art of story-telling is key and can be founded upon 6 key sentences:
    1. Once upon a time…
    2. Every day…
    3. One day…
    4. Because of that…
    5. Because of that…
    6. Until finally…

The sports coach UK Coaching Summit 2016 was held at the Hilton Manchester Deansgate Hotel on 7th and 8th June 2016.

Create Space for Active Conversations

A physical activity centric review of the 2016 UK Coaching Summit – Day 1

The following blog aims to apply the principles and lessons learned at today’s UK Coaching Summit opening. Be mindful that these were provided in the context of the conference theme – ‘Making Coaching Business Critical’ – but I hope they provide an interesting perspective and insight which may be applied to the physical activity sector generally.


Meet ‘Hahrey’!  ‘Hahrey’ was born of the quick draw exercise we conducted as part of the Effective Mentoring Relationships seminar. The rules were simple, in pairs we took turns to draw elements of the face, and adding a letter to his name. Once one of us hesitated the game stopped. We came up with ‘Hahrey.’

On the face of it (no pun intended), this could be just another silly corporate ice-breaker. However the message provided was pertinent. For those few seconds, we were completely present and absorbed in our task – not thinking about what was for lunch or how many emails were sat in our inboxes. We were 100% focused on the task at hand. And so it must be for physical activity; we need to ‘create space’, the cornerstone of quality conversations. We need to dedicate the time to focus on the problem, ask the right questions and really listen to the needs of inactive sub-populations.

Let’s stop paying lip service to this potential wonder drug.


Key note 1 – Barry O’Neill – Man vs. Machine
Catapult Sports

“If it isn’t broken, consider breaking it.”

Drawing upon his experience in elite sport, formerly with ProZone and now Catapult, Barry gave a lively and insightful speech into the role of technology in assisting coaches in asking the right questions of their athletes, not simply looking for the answers.

  • Disruption is the key to human endeavour. We need to challenge the status quo
  • Don’t underestimate people’s lack of technical literacy
  • We must always be innovative – treat the sector as a burning platform at sea, move with the times, never get complacent
  • Culture, people and leadership remain paramount and underpin any successful technology intervention
  • Educate the customer, don’t exploit them

We are now living in a digital age, with digital natives – so called Generation Z.  A population of fast decision makers and instant information cravers. One issue we have with physical activity is appropriate measurement, especially of children. Technology adds objectivity. Can we delve into this market, using existing apps and technology young people are familiar and want to engage  with to monitor and track activity better? Data needs to deliver one single, easily understood message which drives action. We don’t need to consider breaking physical activity, in many spheres its already broke. It’s time to be brave and innovative, to confront this opportunity.

Seminar 1 – Liz Dimmock -Effective Mentoring Relationships
Women Ahead

“Feedback is the Oxygen of Champions”

Liz and her delivery partner, Monica, led an interactive discussion on mentoring, which was directed by their experiences and work in the corporate and elite sport sectors. Whilst portraying the qualities of their services, they made the case that structured mentoring programmes are well evidence. Some key points included:

  • Mentoring has a network effect
  • It is a reciprocal relationship based on trust, through which both parties learn and develop
  • It can be informal or formal
  • A fixed end point to a formal programme can be the catalyst for concentrated effort on development
  • We can learn a lot from the business world who tend to have much more comprehensive, successful mentoring programmes
  • Diversity in background and thinking are vital to a successful scheme
  • Consider a growth mindset, not a fixed one
    • Placing the word “YET” after negative thoughts, such as “I can’t…,” “I won’t…,” “I shouldn’t…” can transform them into powerful motivation growth statements

Aligned with the passage at the head of this blog, was the notion of giving people time to think. Many people do their thinking about their key tasks or struggles away from the setting in which these are based, for example at the gym, over a pint, or lying awake in bed at night As a physical activity sector, this may give us two potential pathways to impact:

  1. Identify the times in a person’s day, week, life which they set aside for thinking about the issues which are important to them, intervene here and be able to support and guide (mentor) through a development process to become more physically active.
  2. Through use of personal lifestyle mentoring, we can ‘create a space’ in hectic schedules and busy everyday lives to talk about these issues, have quality conversations and guide through a development process.

Seminar 3 – Tracey Lines – Fundamentally Changing Lives
Inspiring Change

“You’ve really got to understand the triggers and barriers. Ask the difficult questions.”

On her second day in post with Derby City Council, Tracey was given the following task – with £200k, increase physical activity in primary and secondary school children by 13.5% in three years.

To help achieve this, Tracey enlisted the support of Professor Jim McKenna and his team at Leeds Beckett University (formerly Leeds Met).  Using a 7 day recall measure, they ascertained the activity levels of 8000 subjects across years 4, 6, 8 and 10. Sixty of these were calibrated measurements via use of accelerometer.  The research group tried to nudge those close to the  60 minutes daily CMO recommendation to reach this, to no avail. What they found was that there are two distinct group of young person with no middle ground:

  1. Actives
  2. Inactives

A fundamentally new approach was required. Using the COM-B model they looked at the competencies, motivations and opportunities, all antecedents of behaviour, available to the inactive. They found that physical literacy levels were extremely low in many groups. There was a fundamental need to develop the workforce to improve this, as well as self-esteem. A comprehensive recruitment and development process was undertaken (teachers, sport development, carers, parents, schools, coaches etc.), a mass media campaign was conducted, and a whole host of physical activity opportunities were put on.  After 3 years the results were marked:

  • Year 4 increased PA by 15.5%
  • Year 8 increased PA by 12.2%
  • Year 10 increased PA by 10.2%

This research has led to international recognition, recently being taken on board by the UK Government as an example of practice they wish to scale up. It has branched into other partnership-based programmes with health, and addiction emphases.

Although the 3 year results are very positive and the changes made in a structural and operational level in this sport development locality represent progressive change for the better, such programmes should be treated with a degree of caution. Firstly, no evidence was provided today (although it may exist and be communicated to different audiences), as to the relative merits of individual intervention components which led to increased PA. Was it the teacher/parent intervention; was it workforce CPD; was it partnerships; was it the evidence-base which was the most important mediating factor? A second cautionary note can be attached to the behavioural approach, across an entire population. Such an approach may better be applied to a small environment, and it is doubtful the extent to which they may address the intricate level of influences on said behaviour which ought to be addressed for longer term sustainable change, such as those in ecological, multi-level or even economical models.

Follow-up measurements suggest that the longer-term effects of the above programme are mixed.

As with many of these multi-modal childhood interventions, we see results in the shorter term. An important learning point from this research is to listen to the customers views, even if this is not what you wish to hear. Produce a service that the customer wants, not what the services currently find easiest to deliver.

Inspiring Change

Keynote 2 – Professor Deidre Brennan – Sports Outreach
Ulster University

Don’t just build a bridge – understand who is crossing and what it takes for them to do so.”

Professor Brennan delivered a powerful speech about her time growing up in rural Northern Ireland, before moving into teaching in sectarian Belfast. In attempting to use sport to bridge the gap between the Republican and Unionist schools through sport, she learned that she had in fact reinforced deep-set issues.

Upon moving to the University, it was decided to start up a student-led outreach programme, ‘an army’ of volunteers who engage the most disadvantaged communities. Professor Brennan is a strong advocate for sports ability to address the poverty of aspiration in NEET youths. One of the fundamental requirements of engaging with lower SES groups is to have joined-up thinking and multi-sector buy in, to an intervention targeted specifically to the said group. To this end, the Sports Outreach programme is a beacon of best practice. Without greater alignment of policy direction, wider-scale change will be prohibited.

Interestingly, the point of public money in the University was raised, which led to the statement that the University therefore had a higher moral obligation to improve society over and above is education, for the ‘typically elite’.

I will close this blog with Deidre’s 10 key learning points about making interventions, and making coaching business critical – points I believe are pertinent to the whole Sport and PA sector:

  1. Be creative and solution-based
  2. Know internal and external environment, be strategic
  3. Don’t be a know it all, listen to others, knowledge is everywhere
  4. Take well planned risks, have confidence to be vulnerable
  5. Be prepared to fail and be taken down a peg or two
  6. Work in partnerships
  7. Be passionate
  8. Prove your worth
  9. Create a culture – lead by example
  10. Hire good people

    The sports coach UK Coaching Summit 2016 was held at the Hilton Manchester Deansgate Hotel on 7th and 8th June 2016.


Get your house in order!

In the New Year, Ireland announced its first National Physical Activity Plan. A recent interview conducted by David Lynch of ‘The Medical Independent’ with Professor Sean Gaine from the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland (RCPI) Policy Group on Physical Activity, portrayed a refreshingly optimistic picture of the public’s perceptions on active living.

One of the key talking points in this interview was the role of doctors in physical activity promotion, how they are being trained in the subject and the need for a defined consistent message to take to the public and patients.

Barrett et al. released a paper in 2013, which identified that a meagre 33% of General Practitioners in Ireland were aware of the current physical activity recommendations. Similarly alarming results were found in a House of Lords’ Select Committee Report based on 48 London practices. These are two of the most up-to-date studies of their kind and present a damning case of the knowledge-base amongst GPs.

However, if as Professor Gaine indicates there is a public willingness to confront physical activity, it is vital that their doctors are equipped with the answers to questions brought before them by patients wishing to find out more about the benefits of an increased active lifestyle. In no small part due to their prominent position in the health care system, GPs are viewed as gatekeepers for public health and lifestyle issues. Seventy-one per cent of people visit their GP annually because they see them as a credible source of advice.  The notion that GPs can influence population physical activity has received consistent political support.

Simply put, in order to promote active living to the public, the medical profession needs to get its “own house in order.”

Once we understand that our own house is in order then we will reach out with a more defined message – that is what we hope to have in terms of a more defined message for the public and the patients.

Prof. Gaine (RCPI Policy Group on Physical Activity).

Throughout 2014-15, offering a contemporary UK-based perspective, I assembled my Undergraduate Dissertation entitled:

“It Would Be Lovely to Have Some of the Answer!” An Investigation into the Knowledge and Application of Physical Activity Guidelines and Interventions by General Practitioners.



My study found that no greater than 33% of the 120 GPs surveyed could accurately recall each of the UK Government’s Physical Activity Recommendations.

Over 80% of GPs in this study completed their undergraduate medical training before the issuing of the current guidelines.  Therefore, coupled with poor dissemination of policy, the glaringly low number of postgraduate qualifications held by the surveyed GPs likely contributed to poor knowledge levels.  An urgent requirement for formal training opportunities to improve knowledge and acceptance of physical activity guidelines was identified. This requires support for GPs to undertake postgraduate study (e.g. time off and affordable locums) and a restructuring of undergraduate medical training.

Weiler et al.  surveyed all UK medical schools and discovered a widespread omission of teaching of physical activity guidelines, and that on average, 4.2 hours of teaching was spent on physical activity as part of undergraduate curricula.  This is inconsistent with the Royal College of Physicians’ stance that all doctors should be able to deliver primary preventative care through behaviour change strategies.  It is clear that physical activity needs to be better incorporated into all curricula, embedding its significance within medical education to reflect national guidelines.  However, change cannot happen without a policy-derived, united recognition of the condemning shortfall and a collective desire.

The above is an adapted extract from the discussion of my undergraduate dissertation. To request a full copy of this paper, please use the contact form.

Attalin, V., Romain, A.J., Avignon, A. (2012). Physical activity prescription for obesity management in primary care: Attitudes and practices of GPs in a southern French City. Diabetes and Metabolism. 38, (3), 243-249.

Barrett, E.M., Darker, C.D. and Hussey, J. (2013). Promotion of physical activity in primary care: knowledge and practice of general practitioners and physiotherapists. Journal of Public Health. 21, (1), 63-69.

Department of Health. (2011). Start Active, Stay Active. A Report on Physical Activity from the Four Home Countries’ Chief Medical Officers. London: Department of Health.

Douglas, F., Torrance, N., van Teijlingen, E., Melonis, S. and Kerr, A. (2006). Primary care staff’s views and experiences related to routinely advising patients about physical activity: A questionnaire survey. BMC Public Health [online]. 6, (1).  Available from: [Accessed: 6 January 2015].

Francke, A.L., Smit, M.C., de Veer, A.J.E. and Mistiaen, P. (2008). Factors influencing the implementation of clinical guidelines for health care professionals: a systematic meta-review. BMC Medical Informatics and Decision Making [online]. 8, (38). Available from: [Accessed: 4 March 2015].

Grimshaw, J.M., Thomas, R.E., Maclennan, G., Fraser, C., Ramsay, C.R., Vale, L., Whitly, P., Eccles, M.P., Matowe, L., Shirren, L., Wensing, M., Dijkstra, R. and Donaldson, C. (2004). Effectiveness and efficiency of guideline dissemination and implementation strategies. Health Technology Assessment [online]. 8, (6). Available from: [Accessed: 3 March 2015].

Taylor, A. (2006). ‘The role of primary care in promoting physical activity’, in McKenna, J. and Riddoch, C. (eds.) Perspectives on Health and Exercise. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 153-180.

Weiler, R., Chew, S., Coombs, N., Hamer, M. and Stamatakis, E. (2012). Physical activity education in the undergraduate curricula of all UK medical schools. Are tomorrow’s doctors equipped to follow clinical guidelines? British Journal of Sports Medicine. 46, (1), 1-3.

Yao, A.C. (2012). Commentary on “Physical activity education in the undergraduate curricula of all UK medical schools. Are tomorrow’s doctors equipped to follow clinical guidelines?” Annals of Medicine and Surgery. 1, (1), 21-22.



Is Data King?

In the end you should only measure and look at the numbers that drive action, meaning that the data tells you what you should do next.”

Alex Peiniger, CEO of Quintly, a social media analytics and benchmarking firm.

Of course, when one considers data collection applicable to physical activity intervention, it is important to look beyond simple numbers and generate a deeper appreciation of the motivations and experiences of those engaged.  However, the premise of the statement remains.

It is coincidental that I have chosen a quotation from a social media mogul, although nonetheless rather apt, given last week’s headline launch of Sport England’s New Strategy: Towards an Active Nation, which promises the quango’s commitment to keeping pace with the digital age.  Sport England’s Strategy sets out a new five year vision for Sport and Physical Activity, one which targets inactivity, young people and the customer journey like never before. A quarter of all spending is being dedicated to engaging the most inactive sub-populations.

The response to the New Strategy seems to be relatively warm.  And why would it not be? On the face of it, Sport England is going to be targeting areas which potentially have greatest societal benefit; they have simplified their investment principles and have made a bold step away from the status quo of sport for sport’s sake.

One only needs to look on Twitter to find many an individual or organisation proclaiming their support, welcoming the New Strategy with open arms. From UK Active to EFDS, from CSPs to university professors.  Even I muttered my approval to what few followers I have and even fewer who care.  Of course Tracey Crouch, Minister for Sport, Tourism and Heritage provided her seal of approval with the somewhat customary foreword to the Strategy.  In short, a lot of people are making a lot of noise about Sport.

Politically, people making a lot of noise about something can be seen as a good thing, as it is likely to move a topic, such as addressing physical inactivity, up the political agenda. With the swell of national pride and verve, sweeping from Rio across the Atlantic and on to our shores this summer, one may assume that Sport may remain lofted on a political pedestal.

However, as American political scientist John Kingdon pointed out, for a social problem to truly find itself on the political agenda, whereby significant action is to take place, those shouting about the problem need to come armed with viable solutions.  The fact that we are seeing changing strategies in response to the annual £7.4billion burden of inactivity on society, highlights that when it comes to physical activity intervention, we still do not know what works. We do not have the solution.  To that end, one of the investment streams from Sport England is to support local delivery pilots.

This tweet (see above) by Russ Jago, Professor of Paediatric Physical Activity and Public Health at the University of Bristol, prompted me to think about elements of the New Strategy in a different light, and struck a chord with some reading I have been doing recently, as well as my day job as a Development Officer for a County Sport Partnership (CSP).

In my role, I have been perhaps closer to the evolution of the New Strategy than most and have been tasked with delivering against the Coaching Plan for England (CP4E, not released until September 2016). Therefore, my insider understanding means that there were not too many surprises in the Strategy when announced last week.  The idea of evaluation is pertinent to my work, as we as a national CSP network are being asked to design, and generate rich data from, a series of innovative pilot projects which meet the CP4E principles, therefore by extension the Sport England Strategy.

We are being told by sports’ governing organisations that data is king. The more that we can generate, the better. The greater our insight, the greater our impact. This is all-being well, but considering Peiniger’s earlier assertion about direction, may we get lost in a myriad of mixed messages, unable to see the way-markers for the haze of data, meaning we head off in a lack of unified direction.

Admittedly, it is essential that we continue to trial projects, but this demands evaluation that is rigorous, reportable and standardised in many respects such that it can stand up to review and inform the next step – scaling up of intervention, or at the very least sharing of best practice.  However, evaluative efforts to date in physical activity are known to be poor.

Public Health England’s report into local level interventions for physical activity, revealed that the quality of evidence was low when rated against NESTA’s criteria.  Granted, there are numerous barriers preventing such stringent research, not least financial, but this has resulted in practitioners and policy-makers being left without the critical information required to utilise interventions, or selected components, more widely.  In tight-fisted local government coordinated sport development projects, or from NGBs whose money has just been cut, this matter becomes compounded.

The lack of high quality evidence says little for the National Obesity Observatory’s ‘Standard Evaluation Framework (NOO SEF) for Physical Activity Interventions’. This framework was conceived to standardise evaluation efforts of research interventions and is still offered by Public Health England as a preferred tool to inform future policy and practice. However, UK Active are critical of the current knowledge transfer landscape and call for the development of a new UK-wide framework to support the development of a more data-oriented approach to measuring outcomes and benchmarking progress across the physical activity sector.

I recently read an abstract of a 2016 undergraduate dissertation which concluded that out of necessity many projects had idiomatic evaluative methods.  Meant in the nicest possible way, if a mere undergraduate recognises this issue, then the powers that be in Sport need must too. There is currently a general lack of understanding of how to conduct meaningful evaluation, what to measure and why amongst sport practitioners.  To illustrate this point, just two weeks ago I sat through a WebEx with network colleagues and the question of how do we evaluate our projects for health outcomes was raised. There was a stony silence on the line. I did my best and chipped in a few ideas, theories and models. Safe to say they had not been heard of. This is not to apportion blame, simply to emphasise my point.

It is vital therefore that the industry is provided with the skills, the knowledge and tools to be able to conduct evaluation of its pilot projects, to measure their true impact.  Once we know what works, as a sector of political entrepreneurs championing the cause of physical activity on whichever digital platform reigns supreme at that time, we will be able to bring a solution to the table and host the social problem of physical inactivity strongly on the political agenda.

It is possible therefore that data can be king and reign supreme, exorcising judgement across our land, paving the way to a physically, mentally, individually, societally and economically prosperous country.  But it has to be the right kind of data, collected in the right way to generate the right outcomes. One such outcome is to place physical activity in the political limelight. Until such time is possible, it is perhaps pertinent that Sport England have chosen a somewhat tepid title for their New Strategy – Towards an Active Nation – there is still much exploration (and evaluation) to be done.

Cavill, N. 2015. Understanding the role on evaluation in improving service development and delivery, and how to do it. Everybody Active, Every Day: One Year On Conference, 19 October, London.

Cavill, N., Roberts, K. and Rutter, H. 2012. Standard Evaluation Framework for Physical Activity Interventions. London: National Obesity Observatory

Kingdon, J.W. 1995. Agendas, Alternatives and Public Policies. 2nd ed. London: Harper Collins College.

Public Health England. 2014b. Identifying What Works for Local Physical Inactivity Interventions. Public Health England: London.

Sport England. 2016. Towards an Active Nation. Strategy 2016-2021. Sport England: London.

Waters, E., de Silva-Sanigerski, A., Burford, B.J., Brown, T., Campbell, K.J., Gao, Y., Armstrong, R., Prosser, I. and Summerbell, C.D. (2011).  Interventions for preventing obesity in children (Review). Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 12, pp.1-212.

UK Active. 2014. Steps to Solving Inactivity. London: UK Active.