Are policy-makers' efforts to maximise sport's social impact working? Could academics do more to influence what's happening in communities across the country?
These are some of the challenging questions that will be posed by James Allen, Director of Policy, Governance and External Affairs for the Sport and Recreation Alliance, when he delivers his keynote speech at next month's UK Sport Development Network (UKSDN) Conference.
Tickets are selling quickly for the event, entitled 'Developing Community Sport', which takes place at University Centre Hartpury in Gloucester on July 2-3. Over the two days, many critical issues for the Sport for Development sector will be debated.
James has been working in sport for five years, having previously worked in public affairs, policy and communications as well as the voluntary sector. His insight into sports governance, policy, legislation, regulation and funding will offer delegates in Gloucester a top-down view of some of the key issues in Sport for Development.
"In my time in sport there has been a big and positive shift towards valuing the social and economic impact of sport rather than just being concerned with raising participant numbers and assuming that would do all of that work automatically," James (left) told ConnectSport.
"In some respects, though, it's also got tougher; there's less money around, more competition for funds and issues like facilities management have got worse. We're seeing the real impact of pressures on local authority budgets, with decreasing numbers of community and grassroots members and projects.
"It has been a turbulent period, but sports deliver strongly in terms of their social purpose and we'd expect more opportunities moving forward, they might just have to compete with more people to secure that kind of funding."
The Sport and Recreation Alliance works with stakeholders including national governing bodies (NGBs), academics and the UKSDN to ensure Government policy on increasing sport's social impact translates into tangible change on the ground.
James added: "People are understandably focused on their day job, often delivering the next six months' worth of funding rather than worrying about what's happening further up the chain. It's possible to miss out on opportunities and miss the point of what strategy is trying to deliver. That's why we try to engage with academics and UKSDN specifically because it's a way of exposing our members and ourselves to critical and theoretical outputs and the wider context, rather than focusing on just, 'what are we doing next week?'"
In his keynote speech at the UKSDN Conference, James plans to provoke debate on that disconnect between recent fundamental changes to theory and policy, and how that translates into action, something he feels is "a real issue".
He said: "Social impact and purpose is in the DNA of what a lot of sport organisations do and I'm interested to assess the extent to which the new strategy has changed that, or whether people are just carrying on doing the same as they always did; whether they've even heard of these documents and whether they are being well-served by their NGBs and leaders to help them engage with it. Personally, I don't detect that things have moved on very much at all.
"My challenge to the academic audience at the conference will be to think how they can transition some of their work. Rather than critiquing things historically – which is clearly of value, but takes quite a long time - what can they do more of in real-time to influence strategy and develop what is happening now?
"While being mindful of the constraints they operate in, I'll ask are they interested in their work having more practical outputs? Can they do a bit more to benefit the sector?
"Being a little bit provocative, it's quite easy to sit back, review things over quite a luxurious period of time, talk to lots and lots of people and have a think about stuff. It's tougher to actually do practical and helpful things. That hopefully is one of the purposes of this conference, to find out what collectively we can do to bridge that gap a little bit."