Sports bodies can tackle safeguarding and governance failings by making openness their goal.
Common failings with governance and safeguarding challenges, and steps to overcome them, were at the heart of our submission to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee on October 18th which was focusing on recent high-profile issues at the Football Association.
The submission, which I summarise below, has relevance for all sports bodies. Our evidence was drawn from Verita’s unrivalled experience as the leading independent consultancy for regulated organisations. In addition, I have extensive experience in the world of sport, having advised numerous sports organisations and governing bodies, including the Premier League, England & Wales Cricket Board, Rugby Football Union, Scottish Rugby Union and the Commonwealth Games Federation. I am also chair of the British Association for Sport and Law.
It’s true that there are many problems with governance structures which if not unique, are certainly more prevalent and deep-rooted in sports governing bodies than organisations in other sectors. Some of these problems are related to legacy issues, for example structures with a weighty history behind them, which are difficult to update due to vested interests. Others come from a conflicting range of interests between the elite (or professional) and grassroots (participatory) levels within the same sport. Sports organisations are also heavily reliant on volunteers, which makes professionalising corporate structures and policies problematic, and can make it difficult for individuals to know how, or to whom, to report concern.
When concerns are raised, organisations with more closed structures are unlikely to know how to properly commission an investigation. Too often, organisations will turn to trusted colleagues or contacts, who may seem like a safe pair of hands but will lack the expertise and genuine independence of external experts.
We made three main recommendations to the Select Committee which would address many of these concerns. Part of the answer lies in increasing independent challenge and scrutiny at the most senior level through new governance structures involving more non-executive directors at board level.
Secondly, sports bodies can learn from sectors such as healthcare who have also faced challenges managing complex structures and individual issues to do with safeguarding and whistleblowing, and cases of people in positions of authority abusing their power, as was highlighted in a recent report (add link to report).
Lastly, Verita has found that drawing on internal resources is rarely effective, lacking the necessary independence and expertise. As well as providing expert support and challenge, using external and independent support also sends a powerful message to those affected, perpetrators and to the wider public, press and politicians that an organisation is truly committed to taking real action.
Adrian Barr-Smith, non-executive chairman of Verita.