Image source: Essex Local Delivery Pilot

Essex is one of twelve Local Delivery Pilots supported by Sport England to test new ways of tackling physical inactivity. There’s no simple solution to increasing levels of activity among the most inactive, and Active Essex and partners are committed to going beyond traditional investment in equipment, classes and facilities, to understand and respond to the complex factors that influence behaviour. Whole system change is at the heart of Essex’s vision, and since May 2018 we’ve been working alongside Active Essex, communities, politicians, public services, the voluntary sector and beyond to help build understanding of readiness for systems change, and determine priorities for next steps.

Here, the Director of Active Essex and Local Delivery Pilot (pilot) lead, Jason Fergus, tells us about the system change journey in Essex so far, what they’ve learnt, and what’s coming up in 2019.

A long-term journey: building on existing foundations

The pilot is a once in a generation opportunity for transformational change in Essex. Our ambition is high — we aim to deliver sustainable whole system change to tackle the issues of inactivity in Essex head-on, and for our County to become a beacon for best practice in reducing inactivity.

We know this won’t happen overnight and can’t be rushed. Not only will it take longer than the remaining two years of the pilot to deliver the change we want to see in Essex, it builds on years of work and relationship building to develop a whole system approach to increasing physical activity. This has involved fundamental change in the role of the organisation I lead — Active Essex.

Up until 2013, we focused on sport in a narrower sense. Then following consultation with partners, we rebranded to Active Essex with the aim to make sport and physical activity accessible to all Essex residents. It was clear that the potential of our role to help improve the lives of people across Essex went far beyond sport, and that to achieve this we needed to work with a much broader range of partners. Collaboration was at the heart of our new direction, and required us to get a seat at the table and influence discussions far beyond our traditional remit, for example, planning.

In 2017, we stepped up this ambition — setting out the goal to get one million people active across the County, and reinforcing our commitment to working in a collaborative way as part of a wider system.

“We’re increasingly recognising the importance of culture change, and are looking forward to the next phase of our partnership with Collaborate to build capability across the system to work in new ways.”

Insights from the pilot so far: developing relationships and behaviours

Our journey since 2013 had showed us that breaking down siloes to connect with people across the system is what makes a difference. It didn’t matter where we ‘sat’ as Active Essex (we’re hosted by Essex County Council). What mattered was developing the relationships outside of a traditional sports bubble that allowed us to take action.

Our experience in the initial phase of the pilot has reinforced this. Talking is so important — we don’t do enough of this! While it takes time, the benefits of building relationships and the opportunities it creates are huge. The pilot has helped prompt conversations and uncover shared interests between partners from community groups and health partners, to residents in sheltered housing schemes and local pubs.

We’re now beginning to identify opportunities to make the most of these new connections by considering how we work together. The behaviours needed when working as part of a system rather than siloed organisations are fundamentally different. We’re increasingly recognising the importance of culture change, and are looking forward to the next phase of our partnership with Collaborate to build capability across the system to work in new ways. We believe that the combination of the right relationships and behaviours along with our efforts to build the system infrastructure that supports collaboration and systemic approaches to complex issues will allow us to make a difference.

Read the report

What’s next: making change happen

This is the exciting part! Our plan for the next phase of work is ambitious, with a focus on increasing activity among communities with the most inequalities. We’re working to join agendas together to create sustainable change, involve communities, develop the (paid and unpaid) workforce, and to evaluate our work and share what we’re learning.

The biggest challenge we face is time — maintaining momentum while also managing expectations about the time it will take to embed a whole system approach. But we’re optimistic! What excites me the most is the opportunity to understand communities better and work with local people to design the future that they want. This has potential not only to help transform levels of physical activity and people’s lives, but also create a blueprint for new ways of working across the County and beyond.

Collaborate is delighted to be working with Active Essex and partners to support the next phase of the pilot, including supporting a leadership and culture change programme at all levels across the system. We’ll share our learning as we go — look out for further blogs later this year.

You can read more about the pilot so far and priorities for next steps here.