Collaborative Creativity Shaping the Future of Sports and Physical Activity
Over the last year, the Leadership Centre has been supporting Cheltenham Borough Council to develop their Sports and Physical Activity Strategy. Richard Gibson, Head of Communities, Wellbeing and Partnerships at the Council, has kindly shared his experiences of developing the strategy – the challenges, insights and rewards of working in a slightly different way.
Supporting People to Be Active
As a Council we are very interested in how to keep people active and tackling health inequalities is always at the forefront of our mind, but we lacked a collective Sports and Physical Activity Strategy. It was clear that we needed to develop one to set out where we need to invest in the town’s physical and community infrastructure to improve wider health and wellbeing outcomes, whilst also creating a framework to secure the long-term future of the Council’s own sporting assets – including a large leisure centre and an athletics stadium.
We are fortunate to have a good working relationship with Active Gloucestershire who recommended working with the Leadership Centre to help develop a new strategy for sports and physical activity in our area. We didn’t want a consultant to come in a write it for us, or even tell us what should be in our strategy. We very intentionally wanted to work with stakeholders as part of a collaborative process.
A Participative Process
The Leadership Centre’s approach struck me as very participative, collaborative and inclusive. We began the work by getting stakeholders together to think about where they saw gaps in physical activity in our area; where they saw the most opportunity or risk, and crucially how we could work together to create a new vision for sports and physical activity in Cheltenham.
There is no getting around the reality that participative processes are longer than those which aren’t. We held a series of follow up sessions and some large-scale stakeholder workshops, all to collate information, feedback and data, which was vital in helping to refine our thinking. But we were very committed to working with as many stakeholders as possible and we were really pleased that in total 77 stakeholders were involved. Hearing from diverse voices meant we could pull in a wealth of information about our communities and from our stakeholders to design a Sports and Physical Activity Strategy for all.
The Leadership Centre worked with us throughout this time, making sure that our interactions worked as well as they possibly could. There was very intentional design built into the workshops and preparation beforehand which created the conditions for really good collaborative creativity.
I think we underestimate the power of creating thinking time and capacity to bring together all of the knowledge and experience in our system to create the opportunity for collective decision-making. We had the benefit of information and data from Active Gloucestershire, but quite often stakeholders were also bringing their own data and were working in groups to understand what that data was telling us. It was great to be able to balance the hard data with anecdotal information. Ultimately, the more we developed collaborative understanding, the better the outcome.
The Next Phase
It is testament to the work that we did as a system, that the final document has been very well-received. We are now moving into a second phase where we will look at governance and how to take the strategy forward. There is a common theme that there is insufficient investment going into physical activity – whether that be a small walking group or a big asset like a leisure centre. There is such a vast span of different types of investment so ultimately what we want is a focused, evidence-based investment document. A document which says, ‘For every pound that we bring into Cheltenham, where are we best spending that?’
In this phase we know we will need to broaden and deepen the engagement pool because this is where the strategy starts meaning things to a much wider cohort of people. It’s important that we go out and listen to communities about the barriers they are facing and their perception of the potential solutions.
One thing we need to look at in the future is whether we are going to set up a partnership around physical activity and sports in Cheltenham. That’s in part because of the work we have been doing together over the last year. We’ve involved a very diverse range of partners, from the voluntary and community sector to schools, community groups and sports clubs, associations and governing bodies. For me, it feels like a natural continuation which would really benefit everyone working in that space, because long-term we want to embed the culture of physical activity in Cheltenham. We want everyone to have the confidence to get stuck in and do a little bit, in a way that suits them and their lifestyle.
Shortly we will begin working with stakeholders to design the engagement process. The beauty of this way of working is that I have learnt enormously from the work we have done together, so I will have the Leadership Centre’s words of wisdom in my ear as I facilitate future sessions. The knowledge, expertise and challenge that they brought was so helpful.
If the culture of your organisation is very ‘command and control’ then this may not be the approach for you, but at Cheltenham Council we put a lot of store on relationships – we believe everyone has something to contribute. Your product will be far richer and stronger by involving more people in the process to reach the solution. And of course, if we get it right, the dividends are enormous.
Head of Communities, Wellbeing & Partnerships
Cheltenham Borough Council