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  • Eddie Knight

Getting England active – removing the hurdles to physical health

Raising physical activity levels has been a priority for consecutive governments owing to the associated health, social and environmental outcomes that can be achieved. However, there are deep inequalities that exist in our physical activity system. The most active places in England have almost double the activity levels of the least active and life expectancy can vary by up to 17 years depending on where you live. Tackling these inequalities is a core principle of Sport England’s ‘Uniting the Movement’ strategy.


What has been announced?

Sport England recently announced the expansion of their Place Partnerships by investing a further £250 million into their place-based work. It includes £190 million of investment into 80-100 places identified as having the greatest need for support. This work directly builds on the insight and learning developed through the investment in the Local Delivery Pilots(LDPs).


In addition, Sport England have announced a universal offer for place-based support which is set to include: leadership development, transfer of learning and access to resources, advice and guidance. The intent is that the learning generated through the place partnership investment can be applied to places across the country.


What is a place-based systems approach?

Place-based systemic working is a departure from the ‘build it and they will come’ approach that has been prevalent in sports development over the preceding decades. It seeks to move away from isolated projects or programmes focused on overcoming an individual’s barriers to inactivity. Rather it acknowledges that physical inactivity is a complex problem influenced by a multitude of interlinked factors.


A systems approach requires joined up actions across multiple layers of society to influence positive change. It considers the natural environment, the social environment, the rules and regulations, as well as the organisations and institutions that make up the system. It requires buy-in from partners across local systems, including policy makers, managers, communities, and individuals, to work together to identify opportunities that can initiate change.


The place-based element reflects the highly focused nature of the approach, acknowledging the fact that no two places are the same, and that this work should be heavily influenced by an in-depth and shared understanding of the context and characteristics of the place.


This video produced by Sport England’s National Evaluation and Learning Partners (NELP) provides a helpful overview of the approach alongside the conceptual framework and cross cutting conditions they identify as being important in addressing physical activity inequalities.


What are the implications for evaluation?

Evaluating a typical physical activity intervention may involve pre and post test data collection aiming to uncover sustained changes associated with predefined outcomes usually around physical activity levels and aspects of wellbeing (see for example our evaluation of Get Out Get Active).


In contrast, systems change evaluation must explore the efficiencies of a range of interrelated factors including the relationships, interactions, cultures, pathways, and structures that influence how well a local system is working.

Evaluating the impact of systems change can be complex. It requires an approach that is sensitive to capturing shifts in cultures and ways of working. The focus should be on identifying changes to the way the whole system operates as opposed to the impacts of a singular action or intervention.


Which methods are best suited to evaluating systems change?

There is no one-size fits all method for this type of evaluation. What is more important is that approaches are selected that enable stakeholders to understand progress and impact to enable learning and action to take place.


There are, however, some common principles that can be adhered to that can help guide and inform the evaluation process. These include developing approaches that:

  • Are participatory in nature and bring partners along the evaluation journey and that establish a learning culture.

  • Embed evaluation and learning within the design and delivery of the work to ensure decisions are informed by the latest insights.

  • Are iterative, flexible and align with the explorative nature of the work and report on how theories and understanding evolves over time.

  • Enable findings to go beyond simply describing the change but attempt to explain how any changes have occurred, for whom and under what circumstances.

There are a range of methods that are commonly used in this type of evaluation and selecting methods that are best suited to the evaluation questions or focus is important. For example, methodologies could include a combination of:

  • System mapping workshops

  • Action Learning Sets

  • Ripple Effects Mapping

  • Storytelling approaches

  • Case studies

  • Social listening

  • Attitudinal surveying

  • Interviewing

What have we learnt so far?

Based on our experience of evaluating place-based approaches for a number of Active Partnerships in England, we have found:

  • Finding a way to communicate the objectives of the work is vital to engage partners, particularly those that are accustomed to having to demonstrate short term impacts.

  • It is important to establish a diverse partnership of actors and influencers within the place. Having a multi-disciplinary network of partners with a broad range of knowledge, experiences and perspectives is crucial to developing a shared understanding of the place and implementing actions.

  • It is important to seek to understand the strengths and weaknesses across the whole system and avoid overly focusing on individual (capabilities, opportunities and motivations) barriers.

  • Often, progress can be dependent on the individuals engaged in the work and their values, attitudes and behaviours. However, there is a need to establish both individual and organisational commitment or buy-in.

  • Effective collaboration is an important enabler and complex problems cannot be solved without collaboration. Fostering collaboration through establishing common purpose and shared vision is crucial.

Sport England’s announcement to invest further funding in place partnerships provides an opportunity for communities across the country to address the physical activity inequalities that exist. But to make the most from this investment, it has to be combined with effective and more nuanced evaluation approaches. These approaches have to gain a deep understanding of the context, foster active participation amongst communities and partners in the evaluation process and be reflective of the more nuanced outcomes place-based systems working seeks to achieve.


If you would like any more information or to discuss this further, contact Eddie Knight.


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