External Review of Alcohol Focus Scotland

The review was part of a rolling programme of reviews of voluntary sector agencies that receive more than £100k / year in grant funding from the Scottish Government. The main aim was to assess whether the Scottish Government is receiving value for money in relation to the grant it provides to AFS.

8 Strengths and areas for development

8.1 AFS has positioned itself as the leading independent voice on alcohol in Scotland. It has had an influence on the current direction of alcohol policy in Scotland, and is beginning to have an influence across the UK and internationally.

8.2 AFS has recently implemented improvements in procedures in strategic planning, human resources, finance and quality assurance. However, as noted elsewhere in this report, there are still some areas for development. These include: putting in place mechanisms for capturing information on outcomes; involving a wider range of stakeholders in future planning; developing workforce and training and development plans; continuing the process of aligning financial planning with strategic planning; and making greater use of benchmarking.

8.3 In addition, interviewees also identified areas for future development in relation to obtaining new / additional resources for specific areas of work and clarifying AFS's role in relation to supporting front-line services.


8.4 All interviewees were asked what they felt were AFS's strengths. The responses to this question were broadly consistent across all stakeholder groups.

8.5 AFS was reported to have had a key role in bringing forward evidence to support a whole population approach to reducing the harm caused by alcohol. It has been a leading voice in the debate on the regulation of alcohol licensing. Its work on public health and licensing was cited by many as one of the organisation's successes.

8.6 AFS has had a strong advocacy / policy role in Scotland for many years, but in the period considered by this review, this role has expanded. Its messages are recognised as accurate, evidence-based, up-to-date and consistent. Taken together with its strongly evidence-based approach to policy issues, AFS is seen to be the national organisation in Scotland on alcohol and its public profile has continued to grow. According to some interviewees, the organisation is receiving increasing attention from the alcohol industry and attempts to undermine AFS's messages.

8.7 Effective partnerships have been formed with SHAAP and the British Medical Association and a wide range of other agencies to gather evidence and support for national policy on minimum unit pricing. AFS was seen to be particularly successful in fostering networks of influence in the field and with government, and the organisation's contribution to international alliances and networks was seen to be important and strategically valuable.

8.8 Interviewees also highlighted other areas of AFS's work for praise. These included the work on children and young people affected by parental / adult alcohol problems (e.g. SNAPY, Rory, Oh Lila); its role in organising events (the recent national licensing conference and the co-ordination of expert groups were both frequently cited). External stakeholders particularly valued AFS's independence, accessibility and responsiveness, and the fact that AFS was seen to have "a finger on the pulse".

8.9 At a strategic level, AFS has been successful in refocusing its priorities and restructuring staffing in a challenging economic climate. The organisation was perceived by Executive Committee members and partner agencies to have a clear vision about where it's going - although external stakeholders (ADPs, Local Licensing Forums and local Councils on Alcohol) seemed less aware of this.

8.10 At an operational level, despite the difficult decisions that have had to be made to balance the budget, AFS staff are committed, and independent reports from senior managers and Executive Committee members suggested that staff morale has remained high.

Areas for development

8.11 When asked about possible areas for development, all of AFS's internal stakeholders (Executive Committee, Advisory Board and staff) pointed to the need for continued fund-raising in the near future. The funding pressures which AFS has experienced in recent times are unlikely to recede in the current economic climate. While AFS took a responsible decision to develop an income generation strategy, the organisation should closely monitor the cost-effectiveness of the current arrangements. At present, a substantial proportion of senior management time is taken up with the dual challenges of fund-raising and bidding for relatively modest pieces of work in terms of generating income.

8.12 Related to this issue is the dilemma alluded to by a small number of interviewees about AFS's strategic positioning as an organisation. These individuals felt that AFS should continue to develop a more overarching coordinating and developmental role - i.e. it should become a commissioning organisation entirely, rather than one which is commissioned to carry out training and consultancy projects. However, this was by no means a common view from interviewees. It was more common for participants in this review to express the view that AFS should develop its research, policy and advocacy role - while putting its activities to self-generate income on a more strategic footing.

8.13 As the organisation is currently conducting a thorough review of its training function, there is the possibility that some aspects of this work will be dropped in the future. However, in the current economic climate, AFS's sustainability will depend on being able to expand and fully exploit income generation opportunities which fit well with the organisation's and the Scottish Government's priorities.

8.14 Other suggested areas for development were in relation to: (i) providing greater detail for ADPs on what whole population effective interventions might look like and (ii) developing indicators to enable AFS to begin to measure its outcomes. Once AFS has begun to capture data on its outcomes, it will then need to consider how to use that outcomes evidence in its future strategic planning.

8.15 AFS was seen by internal and external stakeholders alike as the leading national organisation in the alcohol field, but a small number of interviewees expressed some confusion about how distinctive AFS and SHAAP are from each other. This is possibly because the current Chief Executive came from SHAAP, and for the period July - December 2011 has been managing the work of SHAAP on a temporary part-time basis while SHAAP is without a director.

8.16 AFS has recently adopted a new logo, but there may also be a need to give further attention to developing a more consistent, recognizable "brand" - particularly in relation to joint publications and projects with other agencies. While this is a relatively minor point in the context of this review, AFS would benefit from increasing awareness of their work among stakeholders and potential stakeholders.

8.17 AFS may also wish to clarify its role in supporting front-line services - and in particular, the extent to which it works directly with service provider organisations. Some local Councils on Alcohol would clearly like AFS to have more of an umbrella role for service providers, similar to the role it used to have. At present, AFS's Strategic Direction document refers specifically to local Councils on Alcohol as one of their stakeholder groups. Therefore, AFS may wish to explore with local Councils whether there would be mutual benefits in working more closely.

8.18 Finally, if the potential of AFS's Advisory Board is to be realised, senior managers and the Executive Committee must take responsibility for injecting more structure and functional substance into their vision for the Board.

8.19 One of the future challenges for AFS that some interviewees mentioned was in relation to communication / advocacy. AFS is perceived to be spearheading the campaign for minimum unit pricing at the same time as it presents evidence from various well-founded sources on the harms caused by alcohol. All of this is taking place within a complex cultural and political context, and some commentators expressed concern that AFS's prominent role could leave them particularly exposed to criticism and challenge.


Email: Iain MacAllister

Back to top