11 April 2019 by Rod Findlay
The rising status of governance in sport has driven much needed change at the highest levels, but the future lies in empowering the grassroots
Speak to anyone working at the top of any sport about their priorities and the chances are that ‘governance’ will be among the words you hear. From the International Olympic Committee downwards, good governance has become the route by which sporting organisations recruit and retain the confidence of funders, commercial and public. It is also the best form of proactive reputation management – administrators now know that it is far better to get a call from their governance lead than their communications lead because, if they are dealing with a problem when a journalist is asking, it is already too late.
At international level, the findings of the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations’ Review of International Federation Governance have, for the first time, given the big beasts of international sport a benchmark against which to measure themselves and their peers. At domestic level, the engine of change has been the Code of Sports Governance – introduced by Tracey Crouch MP, then Minister of Sport, and driven forward by the two principle public funders of sport in Britain, UK Sport and Sport England.
Crouch’s motivation was a very simple one – increasing levels of public funding flowing into governing bodies, to support endeavors to grow grassroots participation as well as the pursuit of Olympic and Paralympic medals meant a mandatory governance standard was required. With a sporting landscape populated by governing bodies whose constitutions had grown from roots put down when they were wholly funded and run by mostly amateur memberships, establishing the rules by which those who responsible for spending public money could be held to account was increasingly essential.
The Code was applied to all sports bodies in receipt of public funds. Some of the changes required were within the gift of their boards or executives – such as looking at skill sets of board members, succession planning and the publication of more information relating to their governance on their websites. However, some requirements of the code meant the consent of their memberships to substantial constitutional changes - particularly around the role, size and composition of their boards. Boards were required to be the supreme decision-making bodies of their sports – shifting power away from national councils, general assemblies of elected members – as well as reducing numbers of board members to a maximum of 12 with 30% of each gender and 25% independents.
For British Cycling, this meant an Extraordinary General Meeting of our national council. The debate was at times a charged one – our members who are engaged with the governance of the sport are passionate, knowledgeable and also often the ones who can be found marshalling at the road side, coaching young people for free at their local clubs most weekends or just making the tea in the club house. They are as invested in the sport as anyone and wanted to examine the changes to ensure they really were in the best interests of cycling.
However, the results have been overwhelmingly positive. While the stick was a loss of funding, the carrot has been more than worth it – starting with those members at National Council, who are now guaranteed better reporting on the nuts and bolts of how the sport they love is run and who are guaranteed a better level of service from their governing body.
British Cycling has embraced the code as an opportunity to do better. We are committed to the basics - improved gender balance on our board, committees and commissions, who now have a governance manager to support them, a dedicated safeguarding officer and a full-time data protection manager.
However, our ambition is to be a world-leading governing body and we are working to the principle of going ‘above and beyond’. Key steps so far include the creation of my role as Integrity and Compliance Director as part of our Executive Leadership Team. This addresses a need, identified by chief executive Julie Harrington, to ensure that good governance was a constant at the highest level of the organisation. We have also partnered with UK Anti-Doping, the government-funded body tasked with ensuring clean sport, to develop new and innovate strategies to tackle doping. As well as being regulated, we are also the regulator, and we have initiated a substantial review of our disciplinary regulations and processes.
As well as the Code which was general to all of sport, there were circumstances unique to British Cycling as we faced a number of challenges on different fronts. First among these was the Cycling Independent Review (CIR), commissioned by British Cycling with UK Sport’s support, into the culture of the Great Britain Cycling Team. The review was initiated following a number of allegations about the way the team was run, sparked by allegations by the track cyclists Jess Varnish. While the review panel was still gathering evidence, a UK Anti-Doping investigation and Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee hearing followed allegations relating to the delivery of a medical package to Team Sky at a race in France. At the same time, the federation faced prosecution under health and safety legislation following the death of a spectator at a mountain-biking event supported by British Cycling.
Each of these on their own was a substantial challenge to the organisation but they also identified critical issues to shape more robust governance structures with the CIR helping to create a 39-point action plan. Under new leadership, we have seen a renewed focus on athlete welfare and representation, substantially strengthened medical oversight and management, and the implementation of new risk management processes to better support a sport still largely delivered by volunteers.
Progress has been significant and created a British Cycling better able to meet the needs of the people participating in our sport while also giving new confidence to our funders. But good governance is a process rather than a goal – it is a continuous effort to ensure we are ready for the challenges of the future. For example, we know that UK Sport and Sport England will shift to an assurance rather than an audit process as they have correctly identified embedding the right culture over tick-box compliance as essential to the Code’s success.
Leadership willing to grip difficult issues continues to be essential but what is needed now is a collective effort to embed the culture of good governance at every level. For cycling and most other sports, this means working with a volunteer workforce without whom sport in this country would cease to function – this might be less likely to generate headlines but it is perhaps the defining characteristic of the challenge before everyone working in sports governance in the UK. For British Cycling, that means empowering those volunteers. Our focus will be on education on the standards of good governance, and that means taking elements of the various codes and guidance – from UK Sport, Sport England, the Sport and Recreation Alliance, ICSA – and creating governance guides specific to cycling, in some cases specific to the disciplines of cycling. It is that, rather than edicts emanating from the top which will truly transform sport, enabling everyone to embrace good governance and it ensure its principles filter upwards.