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Research in progress from Ghent University: "The role of local governments in childhood obesity prevention"

Within the EEN-project, Jo Van Assche and Stefaan De Henauw, leading researchers of the committee for the Involvment of Political Representative, present the first reflectons on the role of local governments in childhood obesity prevention.

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Within the EEN-project the Centre for Local Politics and the Department of Public Health of the Ghent University are collaborating to study the role of local governments. Jo Van Assche, Stefaan De Henauw and Herwig Reynaert, researchers of this project, present the first reflections on this central topic.


"To sum up, we argue that a local authority should engage in assuming a steering role in the networks on the promotion of diet, physical activity and healthy lifestyles to effectively reach for the target on sustainable changes in relevant behavioral patterns. This hypothesis is based on the exploration of literature and will be further developed by means of case-studies about the role Flemish city authorities really play in the promotion of diet, physical activity and healthy lifestyles.

From that screening of literature we have learned that public intervention is necessary in order to deal with childhood overweight and obesity and that the local administrative level constitutes the tailpiece of any public intervention in this field. The key task of the (local) government in obesity prevention consists of supporting the target groups (such as children, adolescents, etc.) and the first-level actors (such as parents, schools, sports organisations, associations for a healthy nutrition, etc.), so that the intended groups start to have a more balanced diet and to take more physical exercise.
In this respect we also have learned:
- 1) that the (local) government should play four different major parts to show real leadership, - 2) that furthermore various other institutional factors determine to what degree childhood obesity prevention is translated into reality.

The (local) government can take the lead by assuming four major parts, notably:
1) by assuming the leadership of prevention programmes, by being visible as "puller" and by showing sufficient readiness to take action,
2) by assuming the steering role of a multi-actor, multi-level and multi-sector prevention network, by ‘advocating' the preventive approach of the partners' actions,
3) the role of fund raiser,
4) and the role of policy pursuer, in terms of stimulator of the policy process.
We could deduce from the study of literature that the degree to which the (local) government can effectively assume the four different parts might determine the degree of success to which childhood obesity can be prevented en/or counteracted.

Furthermore, the screening of literature provides an insight into an extra number of institutional factors, which might determine the success of prevention programmes for dealing with childhood obesity. In this respect we can distinguish four major issues, namely internal governmental factors, the societal and managerial support, the direct context and external factors at the background of the local governments. Possible important internal governmental factors are:

  • the relation between political administrators and leading civil servants,
  • the internal capacities of the departments involved,
  • the expertise of the change managers,
  • the competences of the frontline workers.

The societal and managerial support might to a large degree be determined by the attitude and behaviour of the stakeholders in the public health network for promoting a healthy diet and physical activities:

  • the attitude can be characterised by values such as openness, willingness to cooperate, involvement, trust, etc.
  • their behaviour is an important element, certainly in consultation, mutual and external communication, willingness to build a consensus about the priority in public health matters, follow up of engagements, division of tasks, competence in conflict resolution, etc.
  • the relation of the most powerful (or strongest) actors in the prevention network with the rest of the actors within the network.

In the immediate context of the local governments, the most important institutional factors, which can determine the promotion of a healthy diet and physical activities, might be:

  • the input of the supra-local authority (e.g. via regional health consultation, organisations of sports promotion, etc.),
  • a mix of policy instruments, in which ‘hard' policy measures constitute the backbone for more ‘soft' measures,
  • the mobilisation of like-minded movements (e.g. on climate, mobility, healthy nutrition, fitness, alternative medicine, sports, etc.),
  • overall corporate culture in local governments,
  • existing form of collaboration,
  • research resources (evidence base).
Also external factors (in the background of the local governments) could possibly have an effect on the implementation of prevention programmes for handling childhood obesity:
  • the nature and quality of laws and regulations of the national or regional public policy,
  • the attitude (or mentality) of the population towards its own body weight and the problem of overweight and obesity.


At the moment case-studies are being undertaken in two Flemish cities to check this theory on all those factors influencing the role Flemish city authorities really play in the promotion of diet, physical activity and healthy lifestyles. Furthermore, in different workshops held in countries implementing EPODE in France, VIASANO in Belgium and THAO in SPAIN we collect experiences of local EPODE, VIASANO and/or THAO local project managers about the leadership of local politicians. And finally the results of those case-studies and workshops will be reviewed by European experts on local politics."

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