Thursday, 6 October 2016

A nation stood still for 25 years: Can we find solutions for action in policy and practice?

Guest post by Ben Rigby (pictured), a postgraduate student in Durham University’s School of Applied Social Sciences and Associate Member of the Wolfson Institute of Health and Wellbeing Research

Fourteen – the number of pieces of legislation published since 1991 which specifically state ‘physical activity’ (PA) in the context in which Public Health England presents as a problem needing a long-term solution. That is, an unsustainable burden on the UK economy, resulting from diminished health and well-being, which may be alleviated by increasing population-level PA.
I want to help do something about this problem. For the next few years, I will be undertaking a North East Doctoral Training Centre ESRC-funded PhD to research how PA-related practice, evidence, and policy interact to benefit or disadvantage different population subgroups. This project will be supervised by both Dr Emily Oliver and Dr Caroline Dodd-Reynolds, co-directors of Durham University’s Wolfson Institute Physical Activity Special Interest Group. 

Although advances in public health policy and evidence have emerged, not least through the work of the Fuse’s Physical Activity Group on improving evaluation and translation, for example, there remains a clear disconnect between use of evidence, proper evaluation and the influence (and interference) of policy and politics in decision making and the provision of activity opportunities. Having worked for Hampshire’s County Sport Partnership for the past year, these are issues I have experienced first-hand.
As a practitioner, it was often difficult to translate available evidence into viable practice. Reasons for this were numerous, though included funding issues, difficulty in physically accessing research, as well as in understanding complex ideas of theory and evaluation, within the particularly vague policy context by which one was guided. Emerging literature also highlights issues in policy, such as failing to consider local implementation barriers, persistent participation inequalities or the intricacies of behaviour change.
The aim of my research will be to identify systems and opportunities that facilitate a more integrated relationship between PA evidence, policy and practice. In order to garner a holistic appreciation of these factors, it is vital to understand how policy makers receive, adapt and adopt evidence; how organisational factors constrain or facilitate its adoption and importantly, recognise values and interests of those influencing responses to the evidence or policy problem. A particularly neglected policy research topic has been individual or organisational capacity to act upon evidence.
Previous research has perhaps been somewhat one dimensional in these areas. Alternatively by employing a mixed-methods approach and my applied social sciences background, I will be able to generate a much-needed complex understanding of the extent that local, regional and national stakeholders use evidence in PA policy design and implementation, and review factors associated with successful policy implementation. Whilst building upon existing literature, it is intended that this will offer a unique interpretive perspective on people, practices and policy processes (both locally and nationally), enabling and supporting policy development and implementation.
Does sitting and talking, and a lack of progressive
 policy action, promote our sedentary society?
Specifically by investigating the following two core propositions initially, I propose that it may be possible to find equitable solutions for progress in increasing physical activity and provide an important contribution to the field of public health research:
  1. Weak evidence results in inherently conflicting and ambiguous PA policy, thus constraining implementation efforts
  2. Political entrepreneurs may offer more effective solutions for policy development and implementation 
Being a fledgling researcher
One of my relatives (a PhD recipient herself), once told me that doing a PhD will be the hardest thing I ever do. I am under no illusions about the task before me, the complexity of which may be compounded by investigating one of society’s most entrenched problems. However I welcome the challenge and cannot wait to get stuck in, even if a little part of me wonders if I have what it takes to make a difference in the world, as I am sure many new Social Policy researchers before me have. I hope that my research will land well and have impact in the academic sense, but also in tangible real life outcomes for local communities in time.
I am not alone in this quest, and hope over the coming years to work closely with Fuse and its focus on Translational Research; specifically, the Fuse Physical Activity group offers an important platform for me to engage with physical activity policy makers, practitioners and academics who I hope will engage with me in developing this programme of work. I believe research evidence should be free and accessible wherever possible, an issue I have already raised. I wish to experiment with how better to present evidence to make it attractive to both policy makers and practitioners. At the same time, I am conscious of having to develop my academic reputation and profile and balancing this with experimentation is something I am wary of at this stage. 
I wish to build networks within local institutions with like-minded students and academics to share ideas and findings. My aim is to disseminate throughout my project and beyond. I hope to be able to present to Fuse research fora, access advice and support from the group’s members, as well as contribute to this blog. I welcome any feedback on this post. In particular I would be delighted to hear from individuals, practitioners or groups who:
  • have shared research interests
  • are responsible for PA-policy production locally
  • research health inequalities
  • had difficulties implementing policy guidance and evidence
  • believe research in this area may benefit their line of work
Ben can be emailed at He is also on Twitter, LinkedIn and has a blog.

Notes and References:

  1. Figure taken 27 June 2016 – using the search term ‘physical activity’ at Between 1991 and this date 72,088 pieces of legislation were published. Results were manually screened and filtered for ‘physical activity’ as recognised by the World Health Organisation as benefitting health, well-being and personal and social development.
  2. Bowen and Zwi.2005. Pathways to evidence-informed policy and practice: a framework for action.

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