Cross-government working: Whitehall jargon, or a genuinely joined-up approach to sport and recreation policy?

Cross-government working has been widely cited in government strategies in recent years. Cross-government or collaborative working is described as departments’ committing to and implementing shared policy ambitions. But has this worked in practice and has government delivered its cross-departmental commitments in sport and recreation?

Sporting Future highlights the wide-ranging nature of physical activity which covers issues from health and wellbeing, to business and travel. Given the reach of sport and recreation policy and the many benefits it brings, the sports strategy puts forward an ambition for all departments to work more closely to embed a physically active nation – something which the Alliance supports.

As we approach the two-and-a-half-year mark since the strategy’s publication, it seems appropriate to assess the extent to which government has made genuine progress in taking forward its cross-departmental ambitions. While progress is being made in some areas, others seem questionable when tested within a joined-up framework:

  • The cross-departmental spirit evidenced in Sporting Future has not completely materialised in to the delivery of outcomes – the childhood obesity strategy, for example, states an ambition of all children receiving an hour of physical activity every day. There appears to be no definitive process for making sure that relevant stakeholders, including sport organisations, are contributing to the 60 minute a day objective and that it is being appropriately measured. Referencing cross-departmental aims related to sport is welcome, however, government needs to state how they will meet these ambitions and be held accountable if they are not met.
  • Genuine cross-departmental outcomes vs fragmented decision making – there have been disappointing examples of where government dismissed the sector’s views when taking cross-departmental decisions related to sport. The decision to cut funding for the Healthy Capitals Pupils Fund (HPCF) by £315 million, combined with a lack of clarity over the bidding process and the accessibility of HPCF funding (which is grouped into schools’ core maintenance funding) shows disjointed decision making and a feeling that physical activity is a second-rate priority. Government must make sure that future policy decisions related to sport are transparent and are not made in a vacuum.
  • Sharing cross-departmental best practice – the work undertaken by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) reviewing the provision of sport and PE in youth justice is positive. Their review will publish recommendations aimed at improving the delivery of physical activity in custody and such actions show the potential for effective, cross-departmental working. However, the MoJ must share the outcomes of the review with other departments to help promote best practice and encourage a coordinated approach to sports policy.

Sporting Future has shifted the narrative for departments beyond DCMS taking responsibility for sport and recreation policy. These shared policy ambitions are positive, but citing references to sport and stating ambitions is the easy part. All departments must focus on the delivery of cross-departmental ambitions to help more people lead active, healthy lives.

Increased transparency over key policy decisions related to the sector and sharing best practice will also allow more people to benefit from the power of sport. Regarding school sport specifically, government should seriously consider jointly allocating the school sport brief between the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport and the Department for Education to help improve visibility and prevent HPCF scenarios from happening again in the future.

Great progress has been made in terms of the cross-departmental recognition of sport and recreation policy. But to genuinely achieve a physically active nation, government must build on this positive rhetoric and make sure that sport policy decisions have the sector’s best interests at heart. Failure to deliver these ambitions will result in cross-government working simply becoming another bit of Whitehall jargon.