Back to the Future: Reflecting on value creation and a new role for Active Partnerships

This time of year always presents an important opportunity for us to take stock and reflect on how things might be changing, the impact of the work we all do and what this tells us about moving forward. Last week’s release of the latest Active Lives data for adults is the first that covers the easing of lockdown restrictions including four months with no legal restrictions and therefore provides some indication of how sport and physical activity is starting to recover.

Having suffered some of the biggest drops in activity levels (and increases in inactivity) as a result of lockdown, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly is starting to show some strong signs of recovery with one of the largest increases in activity (+3.3%) and reductions in inactivity (-3%) across regions and Active Partnerships. This latest data set places CIOS as the leading county for population activity levels in adults (68%) and amongst the lowest for levels of inactivity (21%), returning close to levels last seen before the pandemic (see the full report here).

Whilst this is good news indeed and let’s face it everybody loves to see how they are doing (especially in relation to others), this official national measure of adult activity levels across a whole county population is only one (quantitative) measure of change and my thoughts during this reflective period cause me to wonder whether it is fair or even useful to assess the fortunes of a complex system like physical activity behaviour only in this way?

There are parallels here in how school league tables don’t fully capture the whole educational experience. At Active Cornwall we are challenging ourselves and our partners to think about the impact of our work together in a much more rounded and holistic way but with a very keen eye on the people and communities who might benefit most. With the new ‘systemic role’ for Active Partnerships in mind we have started to look back at our work over the last year through the lens of how and where we are creating value with a greater emphasis on measures that are less visible and perhaps more qualitative in nature to really capture the story of change.

Of course the value created for the individual is central, but understanding more and more that this is arrived at via a combination of interacting influencers we are also asking where are we delivering value/change in the ‘system’ that creates the conditions for behaviour? So we are looking again at the social networks that support individuals (e.g. family, friends, neighbours, colleagues) and our work with the local organisations that participants come into contact with (in for example education, health, voluntary and community) as well as the physical environment where people live, work and play.

As we seek to identify value created in these spaces we are looking for examples of positive change characterised by; changing mindsets and behaviours, better connectivity, more collaborative relationships, improved pooling of resources, local assets being developed and fully utilised and a greater appreciation of the difference physical activity can make to a wide range of outcomes, especially reducing the inequality gap for some under-represented groups.

None of this is captured in the single measure of the Active Lives survey or even the number of sessions delivered or £ invested and is of course much more challenging to think about, capture and evidence. Looking back to the future in this way is however an important exercise as this way of approaching improved physical activity levels should define much of what we do and how we measure ourselves in the next five to ten years.

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