Policy ‘shapers’ or policy ‘takers’? The case of three small-to-mid-sized national governing bodies of Olympic sports in England

2019-06-17T13:49:47Z (GMT) by Tony Halkyard
This study evaluated the extent to which changes in UK sport policy have impacted on three selected small to mid-sized national governing bodies (SMNGBs) of Olympic sports in England, considered to be competitive-community-grassroots sports rather than elite (by virtue of their loss of elite funding), and the strategies utilised by them to adapt to changing policy and operational environments, to determine their position as primarily ‘policy shapers’ or ‘policy takers.’ The analysis was informed by the advocacy coalition framework (ACF).
The extent to which sport policy has impacted on SMNGBs, the strategies used to adapt to changes in policy, the changing nature of their relationship with government and governmental agencies, and their role in sport policy, have seldom been addressed directly in academic literature. While community sport policy has received some interest from scholars, there has been far less analysis on the significance of SMNGBs at the community level.
The research adopted a qualitative approach within a multiple case-study design. The cases selected were England Handball, Volleyball England, and Table Tennis England. Primary data collection methods were document analysis and semi-structured interviews with key actors.
A thematic analysis of the data revealed a sport policy subsystem constructed or substantially shaped by government and agency-led coalitions, engineered on the basis of shared-beliefs (which are partly common to SMNGBs and Sport England [SE] and partly imposed by SE), and a culture of contract-compliance, shared-interests, financial inducements/sanctions and organisational interdependencies, to deliver on the shifting priorities of government’s pro-social agenda. The research identified SMNGBs as primarily ‘policy takers’, based on: i) a largely unopposed acceptance of policy change by SMNGBs; ii) a willingness to adapt to change and comply with contractual obligations; and iii) the utilisation of various opportunistic and pragmatic strategies to align with the ‘core beliefs’ of government and SE, achieve policy outcomes, and maintain membership of the SE-led coalition. The impact of which has significantly shaped SMNGBs, both organisationally and operationally, heightened levels of resource-dependency and tensions within SMNGBs, predominantly attributable to a compliance versus autonomy dichotomy, and exposed their weakness and vulnerability to policy change, as well as a lack of understanding of the policy environment.
Application of the ACF illuminated a number of key points relevant to the fundamental assumptions of the framework, particularly in relation to the formation, composition, and boundaries of advocacy coalitions and policy subsystems, the ACF’s hierarchical belief system, and the ACF’s capacity to explain both policy change and stability, which contribute to debates on the utility of the ACF as an analytical framework. The evaluation of the ACF highlighted its usefulness as an analytical framework, but also potential weaknesses, particularly in regard to the limited insight given to government-constructed agency-led coalitions.