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24 Feb 2021 | 11:11

Darcy HareAs the UK seeks to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic, never has the contribution of sport and physical activity been more important to society. Proving its impact and contribution to wider outcomes will be essential to the nation’s recovery. In our ‘Thought Starter’ blog for February 2021, Sport England’s Strategic Lead for Evaluation, Darcy Hare, reflects on how the past year has led to a marked change in the funding body’s approach to evaluation and learning. 

As we approach the first anniversary of the start of the pandemic in the UK and look towards what we all hope will be a brighter future, it’s important to acknowledge that our approach to evaluation and learning has had to shift in line with everything else. The past 12 months have shown the value of more context-specific qualitative work, and really understanding how and why things are happening. 

There’s no doubt that, during the past year, we have witnessed great flexibility and agility across the sector in relation to planning, evaluation and iterative learning. Needs and priorities have changed rapidly, with in-person delivery of sport and physical activity stopping completely during lockdown, and continuing restrictions on social mixing, for example.

DISRUPTION

The needs of individuals have also changed, with disruption to routines and anxiety about catching or spreading the virus. So many have had to cope with additional caring responsibilities, or negative financial and mental health impacts. At the same time, we have seen people respond to positive messaging about the benefits of exercise, and a new-found openness with regards to experimenting with different forms of activity. 

Communities have been forced to adapt, including with the need to support those that have been shielding, access to food and medicine, and impacts on businesses and employment. Organisations are managing lost revenue, uncertainty about the rules, whilst being required to keep staff and participants safe.

Palace for Life Foundation

Ways of working have changed significantly with the requirement to work from home where possible, redeployment to fit changed priorities and furlough. At the same time we have seen lots of creativity and new ways of supporting people, such as moving activity online or into outdoor spaces, hosting online social events and delivering activity packs alongside other community support.  

As a funding body, it has been crucial for Sport England to help organisations deal with the financial impacts of lockdown, and allow them to respond to the changing needs of individuals, businesses and communities. Our approach to evaluation and learning has had to change in response to new contexts – in the majority of cases, planned activities were no longer possible or relevant. Organisations, including Sport England, have been forced to review and change their objectives.

COLLABORATION

In many cases, stakeholders have changed how they work together, which has led to an increase in trust and collaboration. Partners operating locally have worked together to meet the needs of individuals and communities; funding flexibility has helped to build trust between funders and those directly supporting individuals and communities, and additional dialogue and joint working has been required to co-ordinate and agree activity. 

We have found that the focus of our learning and evaluation has been very much on real-time, practical learning to iteratively shape immediate priorities and delivery. As an example, with the Tackling Inequalities Fund – which many Coalition supporters are involved in – we are seeing partners working together to share learning on themes of common interest such as the use of activity packs and online delivery. Correspondingly, there has been less of a focus on longer-term impact evaluation.

What this changing landscape will mean in 2021, especially with the vaccination programme being rolled out, remains to be seen, and we must remain open and responsive. We are keen to hear from the Coalition’s network as part of the open consultation which followed the launch of our new 10-year strategy, ‘Uniting The Movement’, in January. 

We will be continuing to review and develop our approach to evaluation and learning. There are some guiding principles beginning to emerge that could inform this approach, such as being responsive to context, and stakeholder-led.

On methodology, I don’t think it’s helpful to promote one research design ahead of another. There is a place for using standardised quantitative measures, just as there is also a place for more qualitative exploration. And often there will be good reason to use the two alongside each other.

IMPACT

We’re pleased to see the Coalition developing an impact portal, a wide-ranging platform featuring tools, datasets and sector-wide learning. It is working with State of Life to develop a collective survey tool to help individual organisations and the sector as a whole improve the ways that they measure, record and demonstrate the impact they are making. This will use standardised outcome measures taken from national UK population surveys enabling data to be compared with national datasets, which can help with advocacy for investment into the sector or a particular initiative.  

However we are also mindful that standardisation isn’t always sensitive to the specific objectives and circumstances of a particular project or group of respondents, and that this type of measurement on its own does not always ‘bring to life’ to story of how people and organisations have been impacted, or help improve practice by revealing how and why results are occurring.

Sport England archive

That’s why the need for context-specific, qualitative understanding has come through particularly strongly this year. Tailoring the approach to fit the specific circumstances, and including more qualitative methods of exploration is helpful for generating learning about how and why changes are occurring. If this type of information is used as a basis for reflection and discussion by all the different groups involved, then it can provide a rich basis for improvement. On its own, however, it may not provide the necessary evidence of impact to persuade all stakeholders of the value of the work, and findings cannot be generalised to different contexts.  

In summary, if you compared our approach to this time last year, I would say that we might be a bit less quick to give advice and a bit more likely to stop and listen and explore an issue with colleagues and partners. I believe our approach to monitoring, evaluation and learning should be developed collaboratively where possible, and responsive to context. 

The specific methods, tools and approaches used should then be determined by the particular objectives and circumstances of the project or intervention of interest. There’s no single, magic, best way of doing things – but if we work together and focus on what’s most useful to the stakeholders involved, then we shouldn’t go far wrong.  

Read Sport England’s new strategy ‘Uniting the Movement’.