Create a learning culture and evidence-led practice, where gathering, understanding and using data, insight, evaluation and learning are seen as a valued, integral part of everyone’s role.
Learning for systems change is critical when working with complexity. The dynamic nature of complex adaptive systems requires an ability to continually sense and learn from the system and adapt accordingly. This is because the nature of the challenge and ‘what works’ to meet the challenge is continually shifting (Lowe and Plimmer, 2019).
What have we done?
We focussed on how to build evaluation and learning capacity into roles and change culture to value this as part of our work. For long-term sustainability of the GM Moving evaluation approach, we recognise it is not always feasible to commission evaluation experts or have embedded researchers in all of the work. As such, we are using the opportunity of external capacity to support our team and partners to develop skills and capabilities for a long-term sustainable approach to our measurement, evaluation and learning. This active involvement in the whole process also ensures evaluation and learning is valued, used, and changes practice in real time thanks to a deeper level of understanding and engagement, rather than because an additional step is needed to translate this back to practitioners.
This work included developing a public narrative to explain why a different approach is needed, testing different frameworks, tools and processes to capture real-time process learning within GreaterSport, and learning how to include wider partner perspectives.
There has been a shift in culture and mindsets, causing us to ask different questions to understand how and why change is - or isn't - happening as often as we ask whether there is change or not. Yet there is still much learning needed to develop and embed practical processes further.
What did we learn?
We are learning a great deal about what does and doesn’t work from the processes tested so far, which we are applying to the next phase of the work. We have learnt:
- To start simply and align learning to existing processes. Then, there is an opportunity to build on them once they are embedded, rather than moving on to the next stage too quickly.
- It is important processes are co-developed, with flexibility to adapt to different types of activities, priorities, and personalities. However, we need to avoid too many options or adaptations, because this can create confusion and inaction.
- There needs to be some consistency in approach to ensure we can make sense of the data and consolidate learning.
- To make our work visible, include collective sensemaking to work through how to use this learning in practice, to adapt and gain feedback from others, which in turn reinforces the value in doing this.
Sport England’s Tackling Inequalities Fund was launched to help reduce the negative impact of the pandemic and the widening inequalities in sport, physical activity, and active lives in priority audiences. Yet providing the funding was only the first stage. We learnt from the process in each phase to make sure we are reaching priority audiences and developing relationships with them in the best possible way.
In phases one and two, the approach was an emergency response to need based on existing infrastructure relationships, with smaller funding amounts offered. For phase three, our aim was to establish a more long-term approach by developing a GM Moving Equalities panel - capitalising on the developing infrastructure across Greater Manchester in this field. The funding panel consisted of ten people from a variety of organisations who work closely with the priority audiences across GM. The panel’s purpose was to specify the need and the process within GM for the phase three, then to make decisions about grants. Half of the panel also played community connector roles to build direct relationships with, and provide ongoing support to, groups who would not otherwise apply for the funding.
Learning from phase one and two, as well as insight gathered from the panel, highlighted a number of small user-led voluntary organisations who were not connected to the larger Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise (VCSE) infrastructure. Without this connection, they would never know about the available funding. As well as potentially lacking the skills, confidence or capacity they might need to write a formal application, they might not even have considered the benefits, or where to begin with how to incorporate physical activity into what they already offer existing service users.
Developing ongoing transformational, rather than transactional, relationships built on trust and understanding, as well as humanising the process, was critical to reach these smaller user-led organisations. This meant we were:
- Reaching organisations not connected to larger infrastructure organisations.
- Working on much larger, long-term awards of funding instead of short-term projects.
- Gaining a much greater understanding. Sometimes, our knowledge can be difficult to express in writing, so we may miss opportunities when submitting applications.
- Opening opportunities beyond just TIF, this is the sustainability. By allowing for the time it takes to build this trust and understanding, crucially investing in this role and recognising their value “allowed connectors to connect”.
- Making connections to share resources and partners in place, as well as following up on long-term support beyond the application stage. This included building on VCSE-identified connections. For example, diversity and inclusion training would strengthen a group’s application, or VCSE support with application writing would free-up community connectors’ time so they could focus on building relationships.
- Reducing governance barriers to be more inclusive. This included supporting groups who have no bank account by identifying a fiscal partner.
- Turning around projects with minimal delay to meet present demand. To do this, we held regular panel meetings, and communicated over the phone between meeting, allowing quick responses to questions and feedback using a rolling fund.
- Encouraging others to apply for funding and developing our understanding to adapt the approach for future. We did this by capturing how and why the process worked, which is equally important as understanding its outcomes.
- Sharing learning through the community connectors’ dual role on the collective panel. This hugely valued position meant they collected ideas to take back to the community.
- Creating space to connect with other funds (such as Walking Ambition, Local Pilot and Transport for Greater Manchester) across GM to share learning and, ultimately, work together to embed this learning into policy and practice across GM funding distribution and have national influence.