National Council - Chair's Blog - April 2016

I have had a few (literally) requests for another Blog so here goes. I wanted to attend the first of the Regional Consultations which was held in London this Monday to get some sense for the mood of those present to inform my views.
 
Over the last 2-3 years my overwhelming view has been that the sport needs to modernise. But the way it is run creates a major obstacle to that happening. The information technology miracle does not appear to have reached athletics and we are getting further and further behind where athletes and potential athletes expect even minimum standards to be.
 
The two great success stories within the sport over the past 30 years have been the London Marathon and the Power of 10 in my view. The former is not in dispute but the latter is incredibly popular with athletes themselves and their supporters. But it also provokes hostility from many in athletics who see it as a threat to more established forms of competition. I don’t want to over-simplify the debate but it seems to me that our existing competitions would benefit greatly from better technology to make them more attractive to competitors. The range of possibilities is wide – from speeding up meetings to rapid production of results to competitor mobiles, to event replays, again to mobile. So far as I am aware there is no work along these lines going on anywhere within UKA or England.
 
The London Consultation highlighted for me two key issues. Virtually none of the debate was about modernisation – overwhelmingly the open-debate focused on the detail of how the current system works. Second it was pretty clear that few in attendance understood the process by which decisions are taken in the sport and assumed that changes can be made fairly easily within the existing system.
 
The purpose of the Consultations is always to allow people to speak to England Athletics and make their views known. England uses the meetings to prepare an online survey covering the main areas brought up and the whole exercise finds its way to the EA Board in mid-year. In theory this shapes EA priorities going forward.
 
This can be pretty much a direct communication between member clubs and EA. In practice a lot of the follow-up results from the clubs’ representative volunteer body, the Regional and National Councils, making sure that the clubs’ interests are actively represented in areas like Coach Education, Officials Strategy and Competition Strategy.
 
It was clear from the Consultation on Monday that many of those present do not understand that this is how the system works. That is completely understandable because the way in which athletics is organised in the UK is very difficult to fathom out.
 
At its simplest you have UKA (British Athletics) and its member clubs. Why can’t UKA make the rules and communicate them direct to the clubs without all the rest of the admin? The answer is that UKA does not have the capacity nor the financial incentive to do this. It receives its funding from UK Sport and commercial activities – mainly televised meetings and ancillary sponsorship deals. UK Sport pays UKA to deliver medals at major championships. So that’s what it does. But it also runs the major meetings directly and that is a major time commitment.
 
UKA focuses on elite level performance athletics. But it also retains powers to set policies that cover the whole of the way in which the sport is run in the UK mainly through the Rules for Competition which cover more than just competition. They also control which domestic competitions can take place through a system known as Permitting.
 
The confusing bit is how these rules are set and how they are implemented. UKA sets the rules and the four Home Countries are meant to implement them. But in the case of England the picture is complicated because this is not the only thing it does. EA is significantly funded by a Sport England grant and has other priorities as well as athletic competition.
 
The other main thing that EA does is encourage wider participation in running in the broadest sense. This is driven by wider government policy as directed by Sport England. Clearly this is a good thing even if it does not have the same relevance to all affiliated clubs. For context EA affiliated just under 150,000 members in the year to March 2016, while Sport England reckoned that around 2.4m people ran for at least 30 minutes at least once a week in England.
 
So EA has a broad remit and is responsible for promoting the wider sport in a way that is very relevant for many of our clubs which are heavily focused on recreational participation – as well as many aspects of the competitive athletics side of the sport. UKA is focused on top level competitive athletics and so has less experience/knowledge of this broader way of running the sport. 
 
EA could – and does – communicate directly with the clubs. So why do we need the Councils? The answer is simply that they give you a voice. Much of the Board of EA (and the same for UKA) and most of the employees are not actively involved in athletics clubs. Virtually every regional councillor is out there on training nights and at competitions most weekends. We know the sport at the level that is relevant to you. The Councils present your case and monitor how EA and UKA are acting.
 
As I write an already complicated system is about to be tested further by the London 2017 World Championships. The point to understand is that UKA is providing much of the staffing for these Games. The way in which UKA administers the domestic sport is already not very efficient as described above. Taking staff away from domestic matters in 2017 is bound to put extreme pressure on those left behind.
 
This looks like a problem in the making. But it could easily be turned into an opportunity to sort out the current system and replace it with one which is more fit for purpose. The danger is that 2017 will turn into either a year when very little indeed gets done on the domestic front or that some sticking-plaster short term solution is thought up. What is needed in my opinion – having spent three years as Chair of the National Council seeing how dysfunctional the current system is – is to separate the international/elite functions away from the responsibility for domestic matters completely.
 
However domestic strategy/operations were organised subsequently it should be reorganised so that the paid staff part of it is much more streamlined with a wider volunteer involvement stretching across all the Home Countries.
 
I set these thoughts out partly because I came away from the London consultation thinking that the members need a simpler more transparent system and partly because I personally believe people only get behind bodies/people that they really believe in. This to my mind has not been achieved by the current set-up.
 
While it is important that we all give our views on strategy priorities for the next four years before EA makes its submission to Sport England for the 2017-21 funding cycle we stand much more chance of making meaningful progress if we believe that we have a sensible system that allows us to work together with clubs/athletes knowing that their views will not be “lost” in that system. That requires major changes to the current way in which the sport is organised in the UK.
 
So in my view we as a sport need to make modernisation our urgent priority to re-build our relevance to an audience of athletes which is becoming very different from the administrators running the many systems the constitute athletics in Britain. To do that we need a major simplification of our decision-making structure with re-focus on the core of the sport, led by the sport itself rather than imposed by those with interests not aligned to the growth of the grass roots. Now is the time.

 


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