Improving culture, changing times

Like all the best stories, Towards an Excellent Service (TAES), the performance management tool for the sport and leisure sector, began with a round table and a small group of determined individuals committed to a better future. Jonathan Ives spoke to Martyn Allison about how it started, the impact it has had and his hopes for the future of leisure

Martyn Allison
Martyn Allison: working towards an improving future for sport and leisure

Martyn Allison has spent a long time in leisure. Having started his career as a planner, he moved into leisure at Coventry, where he was involved in the nurturing of sports development as a specialist sector. He worked through the era of compulsory competitive tendering at Scunthorpe and then at Leicester as deputy and director of one of the biggest leisure departments in the country. Another move took him into the role of assistant chief executive at Leicester, out of direct involvement with leisure and into the realm of corporate and political management of the authority.

At a time when the performance of local government was under renewed and arguably unprecedented scrutiny, this step away from the leisure environment allowed Martyn a clearer view of the sector in which he had been involved throughout his career.

“Here I was right at heart of public service reform agenda but from a corporate perspective,” Martyn recalled. “I was watching my former leisure colleagues increasingly struggle to compete alongside education and social care. Within a unitary authority, they were competing in a world where performance management and being able to manage your performance and demonstrate your contribution was the norm; a world where the CPA [comprehensive performance assessment] was starting to bite but where culture was in division three at the time of three layers. I was seeing a sector that I had been passionate about for years struggle to exist in a modern local government context.”

It became apparent that others had come to a similar conclusion. Tim Garfield, director of Sport England’s East Midlands region, invited Martyn to be part of a discussion group of senior leisure figures to explore why leisure services, and sport in particular, was becoming marginalised within local government. Individuals from government departments, the Audit Commission, the professional bodies and local government debated the question of what had gone wrong for sport and leisure. The conversation around the table produced an unusual result.

“The debate didn’t come to the normal conclusions that a lot of these debates come to – [which is] we don’t have a voice, nobody loves us, the advocacy is not very good,” Martyn said. “The actual conclusion was that it was our fault. And it was our fault because the sector was fundamentally weak in terms of performance management.

“Looking back on it, I think it was quite an enlightened moment. Here was a group of people that were saying, ‘Look, the world’s moved on. It’s all about measuring what you do, whether you’re progressing, whether you’re making a difference. That’s what the CPA is all about, that’s what best value’s been about, but we’re not in that game. We can’t measure what we do. We’ve got no performance measures. We’re just not in this game so it’s not surprising we’re not at these tables any more. We don’t have the tools to be at those tables.’”

The next issue was the question of what was to be done about it. The sector’s most prominent organisations – including the DCMS as the government’s most relevant department, the national governing bodies of sport, Sport England, the professional bodies – were providing no lead and were not likely so to do in the near future. Those around Tim Garfield’s table realised that they themselves had to take the opportunity and the responsibility on behalf of a sector struggling to maintain its relevance within local government. A mechanism to improve performance management was agreed to be the key but Peter Murphy and Brian King, from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Audit Commission respectively, noted that the trend of thinking regarding local government performance was away from the notion of inspection.

“What emerged was that the future was likely to move towards concepts of self-improvement, not the concept of externally driven improvement through intervention and inspection,” Martyn said. “What Peter and Brian were saying was that if we were going to catch up there would be no point doing what everybody was doing then because by the time we had done it, they would have moved on. They suggested that we try to miss a generation. So the idea of developing a tool for performance management that was based on self-assessment and self-improvement came out of the discussion.

“I suppose the final bit of the jigsaw was that, while the tool was important, the big challenge was getting the sector to wake up to its own weakness. So the concept of a tool also became the concept of a standard, a flag behind which we could try to get the sector to rally and start a process of changing attitudes.”

Although to this day he is still not really sure how it happened, Martyn acquired the task of developing a tool to do the job. Over the next nine months and with the help of numerous colleagues across the leisure sector Towards An Excellent Service – colloquially known, with a variety of pronunciations, as TAES – emerged. Not wishing to reinvent the wheel, the starting point had been the improvement models already established, such as EFQM, and the whole range of inspection and performance programmes available across other sectors, including education and social services. Eight common factors of good performance management emerged, factors that became the eight themes of TAES: leadership, strategy, community engagement, partnership working, resource management, people management, service standards and performance measurement. Workshops with managers across the leisure sector produced the same themes, although sometimes with different terminology, as the main drivers of performance management.

“What that showed us was that everybody knew what good management was,” Martyn said. “They all knew the theory. The issue was why weren’t they doing it; why weren’t they applying it in their own organisation? Out of that came the concept of self-assessment against the eight themes but using the concept of four levels: if you didn’t do it or couldn’t evidence that you were doing it you were poor; if you were planning or committed to doing it, in other words you were on the journey, you were fair; if you’d done it you’re good but we lifted the threshold and said that to be excellent you have got to have done it and  be good enough to show that it is actually embedded, that you are learning from it and that you can show the impact. So having a training strategy was only good. Having a training strategy for a number of years where you can say ‘the results of having this strategy are…’, then you’re excellent.”

The reaction to the launch of TAES was somewhat mixed. While many recognised its value, others were protective of existing systems, some dismissed the assessment of the problem and some could not see how their workloads could be increased. However, six authorities agreed to be TAES pilots and the findings were evaluated independently by Inlogov. With this evaluation of TAES completed and, in April 2004, a further secondment from his ‘proper job’ at Leicester, Martyn was able to get out on the road to explain what this new tool could do and why it was important to the sector for which it had been developed.

With Martyn’s evangelism, delivered from as many conference and seminar platforms as he could find, and the support of some key organisations and individuals, people across leisure began to buy into the concept and the TAES ball began to roll.

“People began to rally around the standard,” Martyn said. “You started to move from a small group of people who had sat round a table in Tim Garfield’s office to a bigger group of people who were beginning to recognise that the issues were real issues. That’s when TAES really moved from being a product to being a process of change.”

This was also the point when TAES and the move for performance management in the leisure sector hit a major snag. As Martyn explained, it was a case of good news and bad news.

“Part way through my secondment we got an indication that the CPA was going to change again: they were starting to prepare for what was known as CPA 05-08. The announcement that we were going to have less inspection and it was going to be moving towards being data driven was the first indication that the world was shifting to self-improvement. This had two effects. The fact that we were already into self-assessment and self-improvement was a real bonus. It said we’d backed the right horse but then the sting came because we were told that the CPA methodology was going to downgrade inspection and replace it with data; the CPA was going to be totally data-driven. Then there was the realisation that the sector had no data.”

This left  Libraries and Leisure as it was termed then extremely vulnerable. There would be no “Culture Block” in the new CPA without better data. A major concern for those working in the sector and already feeling marginalised.

For Martyn and the TAES project team it was a critical point. TAES was all about self-assessment and the sector owning responsibility for its own self-improvement. TAES ensured that leisure managers would have a good story to tell if they got inspected but the argument was that they should not wait before they took responsibility for their own improvement. What it did not provide was data. Libraries had their data that had been collected over many years but Sport England, although committed to the development of participation measurement through the Active People survey, and the Arts Council had little to offer the Audit Commission beyond promises.

With two weeks to go until the Audit Commission finalised the next CPA, there was still a distinct possibility of no culture block. With the clock ticking, the culture and sport advocates argued that any effective CPA for local government had to include elements of culture and sport and that data sets were imminent, offering TAES as evidence of intent and further assurances of continuing commitment to the development of appropriate data. The Audit Commission were thus convinced that a culture block should remain within the CPA but it was a close-run thing.

“We argued that it was wrong to leave culture and sport out of the new assessment, that culture and sport was important to so many authorities and communities,” Martyn said. “We used a lot of the MORI opinion poll material that showed just how important culture and sport was to communities but we also had to run the technical argument: that we could deliver the data sets. You couldn’t rely on a moral argument that wasn’t measurable. To be fair the Audit Commission, they said, ‘OK, we’ll live with the fact that the culture block can be developed over a period of years with libraries being the foundation in year one, sport coming on with arts and museums year two, so by the end of the three years in 2008 we’ve got a broad spectrum of data that measures culture.’ That’s how the culture block became solidified in the 05 CPA.”

From this situation emerged the next phase of TAES and an indication that a cross-sectoral understanding of the importance of performance management and performance measurement for the sport, leisure and culture sector had developed. In April 2005 the IDeA (the government’s Improvement and Development Agency) established a cultural services improvement unit, funded for three years by the DCMS, Sport England, Arts Council England, the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA), and English Heritage. With posts advertised, Martyn and Brian King, formerly of the Audit Commission, were taken on to continue the development of the improvement journey.

Much of the early focus for the IDeA cultural services improvement unit has been working with Sport England the Arts Council and MLA about improving data sets and bringing their improvement tools – TAES, Arts at the Strategic Centre and Inspiring Learning for All – closer together as part of a sector-wide improvement agenda. With the end of the unit’s current funding window in now in sight (March 2008), the goal posts have moved yet again following the announcement that the government is to reduce 1,400 local government performance indicators to some 200 and focus on outcome measurements and self-improvement. While the move to self-improvement confirmed that the original instinct of the TAES development group had been correct, the question of how many of the 200 indicators would be culture-related became a new challenge raising again the issue of reliable data sets for leisure and culture.

The current proposals including four new indicators to measure culture and sport participation that can be used as improvement targets within LAAs is a great opportunity for the sector to demonstrate and measure its contribution to the “place shaping agenda”

However, Martyn notes that among the latest batch of local area agreements, which specify the contract between central and local government for the provision of local services, around three quarters have sport and physical activity embedded on the strength of their health contribution and measurability through Active People. Parks are also well represented in around 70% of agreements on environmental grounds, along with volunteering at a similar level. However, arts, libraries, museums do not feature so prominently.

“This typifies the whole argument in terms of where we are now,” Martyn said. “We’re starting to have some success where the argument about the value of the sector has been won and where we’ve got data that can measure effectively our contribution. Where we haven’t, we’re not recognised locally. There is a common perspective between the national scene and the local scene. Where hearts and minds have been won, we’re there. Where politically and managerially culture isn’t valued and where there is no data to defend and evidence the contribution, we’re just not getting there at all.

“Now the world is changing. Although the national picture is being rebalanced with a greater focus on local priorities it is still important for culture and sport to be seen to be contributing to national PSAs. The future however is going to be much more about whether  culture and sport managers make the case locally for the value of sport and culture in the local area agreements and the whole concept of place-shaping. Local authorities are now free to take much more responsibility with their partners for shaping place and achieving improved outcomes and the onus is going to be on the local culture and sport leaders to work together and make the case, and argue and evidence the contribution they can make.”

Whether the leisure and culture sector will have –  or be able to develop –  the capacity to win these arguments or develop this evidence will be an issue for individuals, the professional bodies and local government.  Will the leisure sector have the competency and the capability to respond to a self-improvement agenda, to lead the sector to a position of credibility and respect among its peers and colleagues in local and national government? Martyn is not sure.

“The sector has already lost significant capacity at senior management levels.  Externalisation and the development of trusts although valuable in many ways can reduce further the capacity we have actually sitting within local government. If you’re working for a trust or a contractor are you going to be allowed to go off for a day and develop performance indicators or support the development of improvement networks or share knowledge about your trust with the next trust? There are some huge issues for the sector around the issue of capacity and how it creates the capacity to help itself, never mind the impact of spending reviews.”

There is also a feeling that the leisure and culture sector still has not quite come to terms with collaboration. Within the IDeA cultural services improvement unit there is an increasing tendency to talk of ‘the cultural family’ as a way of getting beyond the silos of the individual service delineations and the terminology of the arts, sport, libraries, etc.

“We’ve got to recognise the competencies, specialisms and passion for the services that we offer but they all sit within this concept of a family,” Martyn said. “So when we talk about the offer in terms of communities and local area agreements, what is the offer that the family can make? We can bring to the table a family that can help you get fit, tackle health improvement, keep older people active and in their home help children and young people learn and keep them away from anti-social behaviour, people to help you learn and get a job, learn about local history. We can actually bring as family everything you need but we need to be prepared to go to that table as a family, not as a group of services competing with each other. I think that’s the biggest challenge we face as a sector. We will not be welcome around an LAA table with five of us arguing the relative importance of libraries, arts, sports, museums and parks. We will be welcome as someone representing a family that can help them solve a whole range of difficult problems for that community.

“We have to acknowledge that we’ve got to improve how we manage and how we deliver, and we’ve got to demonstrate to our other colleagues that we can deliver on what we say we can contribute. If we do that we might be sat here in a decade’s time with a group of people who can say, ‘We’ve improved people’s health in this community from here to here [statistically]; the level of anti-social behaviour has reduced from here to here as a result of the interventions that we have made. We can actually demonstrate the difference we have made to people’s lives.’ Maybe then people will start to take us seriously as a sector that is serious about what it has always believed it can do. I’m very optimistic about the future provided the sector continues to respond to these challenges over the next couple of years. The alternative is frightening to think about and not one I would like to contemplate.”

The IMprovement and Development Agency (IDeA) can be found online at



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“Here was a group of people that were saying, ‘Look, the world’s moved on. It’s all about measuring what you do, whether you’re progressing, whether you’re making a difference.’”’



“I’m very optimistic about the future provided the sector continues to respond to these challenges over the next couple of years. The alternative is frightening to think about and not one I would like to contemplate.”

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