A passion for excellence

A Passion for Excellence provides the culture and sport sector with its first agreed improvement strategy. The Leisure Review offers a summary of a document that charts a future for better cultural services

Culture secretary Andy Burnham launched the new improvement strategy for culture and sport, A Passion for Excellence, at the Local Government Association, held in March in Liverpool. Taking his lead from the title of the document, Mr Burnham gave it a rousing push down the slipway, leaving his audience in little doubt as to the extent of his commitment to the cause of culture and his enthusiasm for making culture work on behalf of the communities it serves. He also acknowledged his debt to his predecessor, James Purnell, who had done all the hard work on developing the strategy, leaving Mr Burnham, as he put it, to “put the ball in the net”.
The evening before the culture secretary’s speech Martyn Allison from the Improvement and Development Agency’s cultural services improvement unit had given a presentation to explain something of the background to the strategy’s development. He also gave clear indication of the challenges that the document sets for the culture and sport sector. While celebrating the achievement of the major partners (the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Sport England, Arts Council England, the Museums Libraries Archives Council, English Heritage, the Chief Cultural and Leisure Officers Association, the Local Government Association, and Destination Performance UK) for working together to agree a common agenda, there was little doubt that turning the aspirations of the strategy into reality will be a major task requiring sustained and concerted effort within the sector. The focus now, Allison explained, will be on positioning culture and sport as part of the improving places agenda and delivering tangible outcomes. While the strategy represents a huge opportunity, the sector has to get better at demonstrating its impact and the difference it has made.

A Passion for Excellence begins by putting culture and sport right at the centre of public services as “the glue that holds communities together” and sets out its purpose as “supporting local government as ‘leaders of place’” working to “improve the quality of life locally”. It also presents three key developments for local authorities to continue: the recognition of the value of the culture and sport sector to the wider economy, the emphasis on expertise and judgement in raising performance, and the devolution of funding and responsibility to the lowest levels. While the strategy is clear about the challenges the sector faces (scores in the comprehensive performance assessment (CPA) are low; culture requires investment but local authorities still need to find 3% annual efficiency savings; and participation targets are set within the context of intense competition for people’s time), it is also clear about what works (“three inter-dependent processes take place: monitoring, challenge, and support underpinned by leadership”) and how to do it (peer-led challenge, validation, peer review, peer support, improving facility and service standards, and identifying and addressing under-performance).

Many practitioners will find the explanation of the national performance indicators and how they impact on the delivery of culture and sport useful. “Of the 198 national performance indicators four relate directly to culture and sport”, the document notes, “and three will require a significant contribution from culture and sport to help deliver three specific outcomes… There are a range of further indicators where locally culture and sport can contribute to other outcomes.” The tables to accompany these statements will prove a handy aide mémoire for the novice and veteran alike.

The creation of a “national library of evidence and impact” to help local authorities demonstrate the case for culture and sport offers the tantalising prospect of a central solution to an age-old problem but the strategy pulls no punches when it comes to its assessment of the level of leadership within the sector (“although attempts have been made to improve leadership… progress is still slow”) and the capacity of the professional bodies to lead the drive for improvement (“new arrangements will need to be realistic about capacity available”). Equally clear is the need for a detailed action plan to turn strategy into delivery. This will require commitment from all the stakeholders, leadership at all levels, the allocation of responsibility for delivery and resources to make it all happen. The ten-point list of things “you and your council can do to deliver the strategy and improve culture and sport services” will be the starting point for many.

Speaking to The Leisure Review after the strategy’s launch, Martyn Allison offered his perspective of the task ahead for culture and sport. “It’s taken us a while to get to the point of a clear improvement strategy for the sector,” he said. “It has been a difficult road and in many ways we’re now only at first base. The real challenge is working together to deliver it.”


A Passion for Excellence: An Improvement Strategy for Culture and Sport is available to download at the Local Government Association website.

The Leisure Review, April 2008



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“It’s taken us a while to get to the point of a clear improvement strategy for the sector... The real challenge is working together to deliver it.”

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