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Open Access Research article

'People pull the rug from under your feet': barriers to successful public health programmes

Deborah Ritchie1*, Wendy Gnich2, Odette Parry3 and Steve Platt2

Author Affiliations

1 Nursing Studies, School of Health in Social Science, University of Edinburgh, UK

2 Research Unit in Health, Behaviour and Change (RUHBC), School of Clinical Sciences and Community Health, University of Edinburgh, UK

3 Social Inclusion Research Unit, Social Welfare and Community Justice, University of Wales, UK

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BMC Public Health 2008, 8:173  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-8-173

Published: 22 May 2008



A community public health programme, 'Breathing Space', aimed to tackle smoking in a low income area in Scotland. This paper draws on the qualitative process evaluation of a community-based initiative 'Breathing Space', which set out to tackle smoking in a low income area of Scotland, in order to explore user perceptions of key factors affecting implementation, and in particular to explore the implications of participant knowledge and expertise for programme stability and continuity.


The overall evaluation of Breathing Space used a quasi-experimental design and incorporated a detailed process evaluation. The process evaluation aimed to document development and implementation of the programme using a range of qualitative methods, including observation, in-depth interviews, focus groups and documentary analysis. The paper draws upon 59 semi-structured in-depth interviews which were carried out as part of the process evaluation.


Staff numbers from the multi-agency partnership dwindled across the lifecouof the programme and respondents identified lack of continuity as a key issue. While staff changes are an anticipated problem in programme implementation, here we draw on concepts of technicality and indeterminacy to explore the different aspects of public health programmes which are forfeited when individuals leave. The paper argues that, while technical components of public health programmes (such as the importance of staff complement and continuity) are widely recognised, it is the more indeterminate aspects, including the loss of key theoretical understanding underpinning the programme, which most affect programme delivery. Indeed, the paper suggests that, where inadequate planning and resources threaten the continuity of indeterminate knowledge, the success of public health programmes may be especially jeopardised.


Community-based programmes which rely strongly on partnership processes would benefit from early consideration of the potential risks associated with both expected and unexpected stakeholder change. Building in appropriate contingency plans is necessary for sustaining the theory and culture of the programme. Evaluations of innovative community development initiatives may benefit from a formative approach.