Stakeholder communications regarding the Scottish Rural Development Plan (SRDP) are undertaken through two principal means, which are requirements of the European Commission on Member States. First, Member States were obliged to produce a Communications Plan to coordinate their Rural Development Programme communication and publicity activities ; second, Member States were required to establish a National Rural Network the remit of which includes that it 'facilitate the sharing of common issues and examples of good practice by rural development practitioners and stakeholders.'
This report evaluates the implementation of the SRDP Communication Plan and the operational effectiveness of the Scottish National Rural Network (SNRN) in order to provide recommendations for the 2014 - 2020 SRDP. Its findings are based on documentary analysis, interviews with key rural organisations and interests, government officials and rural stakeholders, a facilitated workshop with a cross-section of these stakeholders and an on-line survey of rural people, businesses and organisations.
The SRDP Communications Plan
A Stakeholder Communications Plan was produced by Scottish Government officials to support the delivery of the 2007-2013 SRDP. However, this was not made widely available nor was it regarded as an important working tool. The SRDP was introduced at a time of major political change in Scotland with a new administration coming to power, major reorganisation within Scottish Government, in particular within the newly formed Rural Affairs and Environment Directorate. The overlap of this reorganisation with the launch of the new RDP placed heavy demands on management and administration resulting in rather limited focus on communication plan implementation.
The initial research established that due to the limited implementation of the communications plan any formal evaluation of its effectiveness would have very limited value. The emphasis of this part of the study was therefore redirected towards more forward looking consideration of the key needs of the plan for the 2014 - 2020 SRDP.
The 2007 - 2013 SRDP was launched through a programme of public meetings at centres across rural Scotland early in the period. These highlighted the overall SRDP vision, an explanatory booklet was also produced and distributed. Thereafter delivery scheme-specific communications rather than SRDP level became the norm. Scheme-specific communications clearly had an important role in the roll out of support to rural Scotland; such an emphasis in the approach is therefore understandable. In practice this has tended to result in the SRDP mainly being identified with the Rural Priorities scheme; non competitive schemes such as LFASS accessed through the Single Application Form are much less strongly identified with SRDP.
The Scottish Government's website on the SRDP was an important source of information to stakeholders, but this was not always kept fully up-to-date. Respondents were adamant about the need for a single portal as a totally up-to-date and reliable source of information about the available support, in particular about any changes in the funding priorities and the programmes regulation and administration.
A considerable proportion of applicants became highly dependent on consultants/agents to develop and submit applications. This resulted from the early difficulties in implementing the 2007 - 2013 SRDP, i.e. the administrative complexity and high broadband speed requirement. The subsequent frequent scheme changes made it even more difficult for applicants to be up to date. Agents became skilled at working out what was needed for a successful application and could spread the costs of keeping up to date between multiple clients. This and the way in which SRDP information was cascaded by Government resulted in agents becoming key gatekeepers to the system.
The overall vision of the SRDP was lost in the implementation challenges which resulted in communications revolving around an approach focused on scheme and support delivery, rather than in trying to deliver the SRDP and Scottish Government policy objectives for rural Scotland.
The obligatory acknowledgement of the important European contribution to the SRDP has been somewhat inconsistent in Scottish Government communications.
The Scottish National Rural Network was established with a limited budget, limited ambition and modest scope, compared to many other Member States. The SNRN has kept good records of web-hits, events and user satisfaction. User satisfaction with the SNRN was high.
However, for many rural stakeholders, SNRN was 'not on their radar'. SNRN was seen as more associated with rural community development and the LEADER constituency, rather than rural business development and was only modestly connected to land-based businesses. SNRN has not succeeded in engaging a wider constituency of RDP beneficiaries and rural actors and remains very community-focused.
Those involved in the land-based community stressed the importance of their own networks rather than the SNRN in delivering advice about the SRDP or rural policy and development issues. This is not a criticism of SNRN but recognition of a crowded field of information providers and subtle functional differentiation of purpose.
The on-line survey generated 346 responses and showed a 76% awareness of SNRN. LEADER was the most common entry point to SNRN. Third sector and community development actors were more likely to make use of the SNRN website than farmers and land managers.
Generally, respondents saw the SNRN website as meeting their needs. Perspectives on the various types of events were more mixed. Although project visits did not score highly by respondents, post-visit evaluation suggests that these were highly valued by participants; stakeholders also placed a high value on these as a future opportunity.
In terms of future services, there was very strong recognition by respondents of the potential of doing more in developing connections, bringing rural organisations together and creating potential through collaboration and co-operation. Across the board, much scope was seen in the identification and exchange of best practice and associated research and analysis with a focus on improving rural development outcomes.
Stakeholders' overwhelming view was that there was only weak engagement with the SNRN and mixed awareness, coupled with some disappointment that this was the case. The new RDP provided an opportunity to launch a revamped SNRN with stronger engagement with a wider range of constituencies. It was recognised that the SNRN was lightly resourced and so had limited opportunities to increase its range of activities at present. SNRN's optimal future role was seen as a centre supporting networking between networks. Stakeholders suggest that SNRN should be seen as a hub which disseminates learning opportunities from good practice models, using various types of meetings and fora, including workshops and using a variety of other means and media.
Four different governance models were considered with respect to the future SNRN, based on current experience in Scotland and other member states, some outsourced and independent, others in-house. Their relative merits were considered in some detail in the workshop. The preference was for governance through an outcome-orientated steering group with strong stakeholder representation and decision-making power. There was a majority of opinion in favour of an in-house ring-fenced network support unit. In all cases considered, it was clear that effective stakeholder participation should be improved, that this was valued, and was considered an important contributory element in strengthening the relevance, legitimacy and credibility of the network and as such to NRN success.
The proportionately higher budgets given to NRNs in other member states reflect the importance attributed to them. In other countries, NRNs ran themed events and in general were able with enhanced budgets to cover a wider range of issues, although only in one case was the network seen as the access portal for all RDP-related information.
In all countries examined there are uncertainties as to how the NRNs will operate in the future. The new NRN needs to be more of a network with real two-way engagement and flows of information. It needs to be able to coordinate more actively between networks and stakeholders. This will require adequate staff, tools and resources and specialists may need to be contracted in. There is a need to ensure that those managing the Programme are fully engaged in the network.
In summary, the internal and external communications associated with the 2007-2013 SRDP have been extensive but their effectiveness has been significantly compromised by flaws in both their design and delivery. There was a widespread perception that the early transformational vision for the 2007-13 SRDP had been jettisoned in favour of ensuring faster delivery of schemes, after early implementation 'hiccups'. From mid-programme onwards, a pragmatic approach to communications prevailed to enhance delivery rather than improve SRDP effectiveness and outcomes.
The SNRN has operated with a limited budget to reach effectively rural community interests but it has been limited by the available resource to engage in wider activities such as has occurred in other Member States. The new NRN should lead to a network of networks which adds value by improving their links, synergies and complementarity strengthening networking and reducing duplication of effort.
1. The communications plan for the 2014 - 2020 SRDP should be developed, implemented and monitored to ensure that all relevant staff understand the policy objectives and the mechanics of their delivery.
2. The Scottish Government should communicate SRDP policy objectives and the delivery arrangements to potential beneficiaries in a concise and carefully targeted manner using appropriate communication tools and based on an understanding of their needs.
3. In order to help staff deliver and communicate the new RDP, appropriate needs-focused training should be provided.
4. The acknowledgement of the European Union contribution should be strengthened and supported by monitoring action.
5. An adequately funded National Rural Network should be established, focused on communicating with the range of Scotland's rural stakeholders and their existing networks, strengthening the connections and fostering knowledge transfer to improve Rural Development outcomes.
6. Engaging more effectively across the full range of rural constituents is a priority for the new SNRN. The branding and identification of the SNRN should be strengthened and more distinct to improve recognition and clarify its wider relevance.
7. The design and establishment of the SNRN and the basis of its engagement with rural constituents should be founded in sound analysis of their needs.
8. The SNRN should be developed as a ring-fenced, in-house agency guided by an advisory board of stakeholders.
9. The new NRN should play an enhanced role in strengthening SRDP communications.
10. In order to meet the diverse range of needs and demands placed on a National Network Unit, it is recommended that a policy of flexible resourcing be adopted.
11. The SNRN should promote good practice in rural development in more interactive ways, particularly peer-to-peer learning, good practice events and collaborative projects.
12. More formal networking arrangements and training support are required specifically for LEADER to improve delivery, outcomes and the exchange of good practices.
13. The selection and communication of good practice examples to help improve RDP outcomes should be enhanced.
14. The new NRN should take a more explicit supporting function on innovation and innovation systems in rural areas.
Email: Angela Morgan