Evaluation of Scottish National Rural Network (SNRN) and Scotland Rural Development Programme (SRDP) Communication Plan

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.


3.1 Introduction

The overall purpose of this element of the evaluation is to assess the effectiveness of the network facilitation activities and coordination services seeking to stimulate the exchange of ideas and experience among Rural Development Programme practitioners. As the National Rural Network is established as part of the SRDP and supports its delivery, the evaluation also considers Scottish Government and European Commission requirements.

The main objectives in this part of the evaluation are forward-looking and improvement-oriented. In considering the effectiveness and efficiency of network services and delivery, the study therefore examines the relevance and value of services provided together with an examination of future needs and opportunities in the context of the 2014 - 2020 period. Extensive rural networking experience has been developed under RDPs in the other Member States. Accordingly, in arriving at conclusions and recommendations, additionally to the consultations and other research tools, consideration is given to relevant and transferable lessons from other countries.

3.2 Background

3.2.1 National Rural network

The requirement for Member States to establish a National Rural Network is set out under Article 68 of the Rural Development Regulation EC No 1698/2005 . In addition to specifying the delivery structure for such a network, the Article sets out the following basic elements it should address:

  • Grouping the organisations and administrations involved in rural development;
  • Identifying, analysing and providing information regarding transferable good practice;
  • Organising exchanges of experience and know how;
  • Training for (new) LEADER Local Action Groups; and
  • Technical assistance for cooperation activities.

The vast majority of National Rural Networks operate at Member State level. These vary considerably in scale and remit: four are established as RDPs in their own right in turn covering multiple RDPs within those Member States. National Rural Networks are serviced by network support units which also vary in scale and remit and between in house (Managing Authority) and externally facilitated delivery models.

At UK level, Rural Networks were established under each of the four Rural Development Programmes, with a UK National Rural Network established in effect as an umbrella organisation. This was originally managed by the Commission for Rural Communities who also provided the England Network facilitation service for Defra, but latterly both functions have been taken in house.

3.2.2 Scotland: National Rural Network (SNRN)

In Scotland the SNRN is managed directly by the Scottish Government Rural Communities team. This team lets contracts for the provision of a variety of network facilitation services of which the two core contracts are the main focus of this part of the evaluation. These are:

  • The management and editorial control of the content elements of the SNRN website; and
  • The management and delivery of a programme of networking events.

Both these contracts are managed by the SCVO rural team. The website launched in 2008 and predated the 2009 events contract. Further individual contracts are let e.g. for specific events such as the national Rural Gathering or the transnational cooperation event.

Website hosting, design and management are subject to a separate contract with a separate provider. The SNRN website was developed from the former SCVO Rural Gateway website and still uses that URL. The evidence gathered in this evaluation suggests that this has resulted in confusion over the NRN identity and its wider relevance to rural stakeholders.

Although the two main contracts at the heart of this evaluation are the principal substantive elements of the National Rural Network in Scotland, it is important that the evaluation recognises their relatively modest ambition and limited scope. The contracts relate to core network services around which there was an aspiration that wider rural networking would develop enabling diverse stakeholder interests from across rural Scotland to share knowledge and experience and strengthening the rural voice in policy design. Notwithstanding this ambition and whilst comparable to the approach elsewhere in the UK, the remit and contracted services do not comprise a full service National Rural Network support unit as this might be understood elsewhere in the EU.

3.2.3 Performance Management

Monitoring of the SNRN is considerably more extensive than of SRDP communications possibly due to the requirement that the external contractor produce quarterly reports and hold quarterly review meetings with Scottish Government on both contracted services. The nature of monitoring is however limited, quarterly reports consist of activity counts for the period concerned and event reports. A status report on recent and future developments is also given. Targets appear to be restricted to the specified number of events agreed with the Scottish Government at the start of each year.

SNRN Website

In addition to these meetings and reports two Ipsos MORI surveys have been carried out. A qualitative usability review of the SNRN website was carried out in February 2011 with five registered members of the SNRN. The survey findings confirmed that the website was well received by these users with no major issues identified in terms of finding information, layout design and content. The Newsletter emerged as a very valuable source of information.

The survey provided SCVO and Scottish Government with a helpful insight into improving the intuitive navigation of the website and the barriers that need to be addressed to encourage more interaction with the 'Join In' section of the website.

It has been possible through Google Analytics to capture data on the activity that has taken place on the SNRN website during the period of April 2009 to December 2012. The data provided in Table 2 below, have also been referred to as Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). As no targets or benchmarks appear to be set against these KPIs it is not possible to comment on the extent to which the Website has met Scottish Government's expectations or not.

Table 2: Web Statistics for SNRN April 2009 to December 2012












% new visits (average)






User submissions






User registration






Newsletter opt-in






Support incidents raised






Projects added






No. of new consultations






Social networking


started this year


















no. n/a

no. n/a




The data show that the website has had over 309,000 hits and has 2,592 registered users, of which 1,807 have signed up to receive the newsletter. The website holds a total of 1,419 projects and case studies. Social media has become more popular in recent years and SNRN have engaged with Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Flickr. Twitter use is increasing; You Tube and Flickr appear very popular with 4,430 and 75,594 hits respectively.

Newsletter opt-ins and user registrations were, as would be expected, higher at the launch of the website and have tailed off over the remaining period, although there are still new users registering each month. The average number of new visits to the site has remained constant over the period at circa 61% which, when coupled with the numbers of total hits and user registrations suggests a relatively small core user group. Anecdotal evidence suggested that the website focuses on community and third sector issues and does not relate to the agricultural or business sector in the same way. We therefore attempted to gather information on the content posted on the SNRN website. Information was provided however it was not in a format that was easily assimilated. In order to verify the desired balance of content on the website it might be useful to consider ways of monitoring or categorising content as it's posted.

It is understood that great store was set at the launch of the website on high volumes of flow through being generated, as this was thought to offer proof of success. This view changed latterly, seeing that lower flow through only indicated less traffic going through the site, rather than it becoming less popular. Improved connections between rural actors are now considered of greater interest; however this is much more difficult to measure.

SNRN Events

In addition to the quarterly reports and meetings annual Co-ordination Summary reports have been produced by SCVO for each of the three contract years. These reports draw together data from the events and make useful analysis of the current and previous years' activities.

There do not appear to be formal KPIs for the co-ordination service however monitoring has taken place. Over the duration of the contract SNRN have held 39 events with 1,722 delegates in attendance. The first year saw the highest number of delegates with 1,005 attending the programme of 20 regional events. The structure of events changed in year two with 5 thematic events and 5 project visits hosting 498 delegates. Year 3 saw 219 delegates attending 6 project visits and 3 thematic events.

Events have been monitored in terms of sectoral representation showing participation from a broad range of backgrounds. The balance between sectors tended to reflect the theme of the events, for example farming representation increased from 7.8% in year 2 to 16.9% in year 3 due to the Care Farming event and project visit. User demographics monitoring also took place.

SNRN events organisation and content monitoring uses delegate feedback forms with response rates increasing year on year, 25% in year one, 41% in year 2 and 54% in year 3. The results indicate that the overall success of the events as perceived by attendees has been high.

3.2.4 SRDP Mid-Term Evaluation

As part of the SRDP, the SNRN fell within the scope of the mid-term evaluation (MTE) of the SRDP. This reported in 2011 at a relatively early stage in the programme's implementation. This element of the overall MTE was relatively light touch and principally involved stakeholder or service user feedback.

The evaluation found that in its start-up phase the Scottish National Rural Network had some success in broadening the base of rural networking in Scotland. The delivery of regional events had mixed results and was limited in good practice exchange and broadening shared experience.

The SNRN's principal challenge lay in engaging the wider rural community through the website and events. To improve this, those responsible for the SNRN should therefore review the approach to communicating and engaging with rural stakeholders. This should include a review of service provision to identify potential improvements to strengthen relevance and uptake by rural stakeholders. Stakeholder involvement in service design was recommended. The provision and exchange of more good practice examples was identified as a priority.

3.3 SNRN Role

The research has identified some variation in the understanding of the role of the current network service provision amongst rural stakeholders and SRDP delivery managers. There was some indication of poor initial specification followed by poor translation from a variety of those consulted. There was a view from some that there is a gap between the concept (ideal, wider and broadly endorsed) and the narrower and more limited reality in practice.

For many stakeholders in the land-based sectors, there was a lack of awareness: SNRN was 'not on their radar'. They knew that the network was to be established but did not connect the exchange orientation expected and what has subsequently happened. Perceptions varied between seeing the website as a replacement for the Rural Gateway website; a site for communications, particularly about funding information; to an effective meeting place for organisations and people active in rural development, with full active collaboration, sharing of best practice and information provision (particularly re LEADER). Use tended to be informed by wider experience. Perceptions of the degrees of linkage to LEADER varied as did perceptions of the importance of the links. Some see evidence of overlap and possible displacement e.g. re events.

There was a clear split evident between those who see SNRN as being primarily community-oriented vs those who see its wider (potential) relevance. The SNRN has not succeeded in engaging a wider constituency of RDP beneficiaries and rural actors and remains very much community-focused.

The dominance of the SNRN Website makes it difficult for many stakeholders to see it as having a function beyond web-based information dissemination. There is a tendency to equate the NRN with the website and therefore perceive its role as limited and linked primarily to community issues.

There is some confusion as to whether the SNRN should be SRDP-specific or operate with a wider rural development remit. The majority view is that the network should indeed cover the totality of issues and policies impacting on rural development. The SNRN has had a limited role in SRDP communications but this is not a strong one. If seen as primarily linked to SRDP Axes 3 and 4 delivery schemes then it appears to not be sufficiently well connected. It should be stressed that SNRN is not there to provide technical information to SRDP applicants.

The approach to networking developed by the European Commission has always had a pan-European dimension, expressed in funding, for example of Inter-Reg schemes such as the Northern Periphery programme, or through the EU Rural and Rural Evaluation Networks. There have been press releases on these on the SNRN site, where there have been Scottish partners but there would appear to have been limited ability to engage with wider/pan EU themes, issues or networks.

Land-based respondents and some others stressed the importance of their existing networks, in respect of relevance to them. The SNRN is operating in a crowded place and cannot expect to meet all users' needs. This is not a criticism but an observation, but it does reinforce the need to consider who the key constituencies are with which it should engage.

Given that information provided on rural development comes from a variety of sources and in a variety of forms, it is a matter of debate as to how much information on SRDP should come direct from government, via the SG Communications Team, 'interpreted' through trade websites or newsletter, or provided by SNRN.

3.4 SNRN users' awareness and relevance

3.4.1 On-line survey

A total of 346 responses to the on-line survey were received. The profile of survey respondents (and multiple responses were possible) revealed that 28% comprised community group representatives, 27% third sector organisations, 17% each for private and LEADER, 15% farmers, 10% other non-land based rural businesses, with 24% across other land based i.e. crofting and forestry. There was an almost equal gender balance of respondents, and three quarters were aged over 40 years and over.

Amongst those responding to the online survey, 76% were aware of the SNRN. Awareness was lowest amongst foresters and crofters at approximately 50%. Awareness among farmers and estate owners or managers and private individuals was around 70%. Awareness was highest (over 80%) amongst other rural businesses and representatives of community groups or organisations etc.

With regard to how respondents became aware of the SNRN, LEADER was the most frequent source (38%) and was twice as likely as any other route, followed by word of mouth (20%) and SRDP website link (18%). Other important sources included SCVO and Rural Direct, making up around 15% of respondents. Just over 1 in 10 (12%) became aware of the SNRN through social media. Overall, business organisations had very low awareness of the SNRN and crofters had the most fragmented range of sources. LEADER and word of mouth was most important for land managers/farmers, rural businesses and agents, while SCVO and Rural Direct were important for the third sector. The SRDP link was the most frequent route for the various types of businesses.

Respondents accessed SNRN communications most frequently through broadband at work (67%) and broadband at home (50%), with double responses possible. Around a quarter accessed communications using printed media, with those involved in land management doing so most frequently. Respondents from the third sector were most likely to access SNRN at home, whereas farmers, rural businesses, private individuals, community groups, LEADER and crofters were most likely to access the website while at work.

Although the majority of website users in the survey were businesses, it is notable that estate owners, managers, and farmers were markedly less likely to be active website users. Respondents from the third sector, other rural businesses, community groups or organisations, LEADER and crofters were the most likely website users.

The survey findings indicate that SNRN was of lowest relevance to land-based businesses and organisations together with other rural businesses and intermediaries, and was also surprisingly low for respondents from the public sector. It was highest for Rural Communities, Community groups, LAGs and other rural organisations. A number of stakeholders had such low awareness they did not feel that they could comment. The general perception was that SNRN was not as relevant as it should be particularly for land-based businesses.

The survey revealed that 43% of respondents regarded grant scheme and funding information as the most popular in terms of topics sought. While this was true for all user types, it was somewhat higher for business interests. Rural policy (21%) and general information about rural areas (16%) were the next highest rated areas of interest amongst respondents. Regional meetings and events were the strongest area of secondary interest.

There were high levels of interest in rural policy issues amongst estate managers, foresters, other rural businesses, agents and consultants. The general level of interest in regional meetings and events was high, especially for LEADER, other rural businesses, crofters, agents, third sector and private users.

3.5 Current SRDP services

In the sections below, we summarise both stakeholders' and on-line questionnaire responses. Firstly, we consider their perspectives on current SNRN services, their usage, adequacy, relevance and importance, including their role in supporting the delivery of SRDP. Secondly, we then report their views on the range of possible future services including those proposed under the 2014 - 2020 RDP and the priorities for improvement.

3.5.1 Awareness and importance

Stakeholder views

The general level of awareness of services amongst stakeholders was low. Some respondents had little or no experience or awareness of the NRN or its services, and some questioned the relevance to rural Scotland as a whole.

While there was high recognition of the website by some respondents, a number had issues over relevance (e.g. to businesses) and over duplication (e.g. with SRDP or other network means). All-in-all, it was seen to have the greatest relevance for community organisations. The newsletter scored relatively well amongst respondents. It was seen as simple and accessible, and although still valued of low significance overall, was seen to have potential. Overall, SRDP communications were rated very low other than their ability to engage with some of those who are otherwise hard to reach.

With a small number of exceptions national events awareness barely registered, although there was some perception that they may be useful as a forum for exchange. Awareness of regional events was somewhat stronger but still very limited. A number of respondents were critical of these with some questioning the quality of these events. Overall, their relevance was seen to be limited largely to community groups/LEADER. The SNRN's ability to convey information on best practice was regarded as limited, but there was acknowledgement of high potential. For example, among the activities sought, project visits were seen to have strong potential particularly by land-based and other businesses. A stronger consideration of event content was suggested by some respondents as a means to strengthen their relevance.

The networking ability of the SNRN to provide connections was not seen as currently important but some argued it had potential. This might be enhanced through an improved approach to events.

Survey views

There was no great variation between users in overall service awareness. The website and e-newsletter scored highest overall. Networking opportunities, SRDP information and funding information all scored slightly lower. Project visits, themed events and sharing best practice were those with the lowest levels of recognition overall.

Over 80% of respondents ranked their awareness of the website as high/medium. Awareness levels were highest amongst agents, LEADER, third sector and community respondents. Businesses awareness levels were highest in the other rural businesses category. Levels of website awareness amongst all land-based respondents reached about 50% across the various non-business interests while land based business awareness levels were lower. The SNRN e-newsletter recorded the second highest level of awareness overall (76% High/Medium awareness); only foresters had low awareness of this.

Information on funding opportunities was third highest overall and markedly higher among community, LEADER and third sector respondents and other rural businesses. Awareness of SRDP information provision ranked fourth overall with 71% of respondents ranking this as high/medium. Awareness of SRDP information provision was relatively high for all respondents, other than foresters and other land-based business categories.

There was a reasonably high awareness of national events with over 80% of respondents ranking their awareness as high or medium. Awareness was dramatically higher amongst LEADER, third sector and community interests but over 70% of agents and other rural businesses also ranked awareness of national events as high/medium. Awareness of local events was marginally lower overall; more even and slightly stronger within land based sectors, but markedly lower in third sector organisations.

Awareness of themed events, second lowest overall, scored highest with other rural businesses, but was also strong with communities, crofters and third sector respondents. Project visit awareness was lowest overall, community and LEADER respondents showed greatest interest in SRDP projects, and there was relatively strong awareness from land managers. Awareness of networking opportunities was relatively high across a range of respondents.

Although awareness of opportunities for sharing best practice was relatively low overall, it is notable that this was highest amongst other rural businesses and that half of farmers ranked this highly.

3.5.2 Use of services


The survey probed respondents' use of the website and its services. This revealed that one third use the website weekly; one third monthly; with the remainder using the website less frequently. Most frequent website use was by private individuals, third sector and community respondents, other rural businesses and agents. Over half (56%) used the website for business purposes, 7% for personal purposes while 37% used the website for both business and personal purposes.

Almost all website users (over 80%) valued the news section of the website most highly. Over half of respondents found information on funding and support (52%) and events (50%) as the next most useful areas; followed by projects (38%) and SRDP information (31%). All other types of information scored very low.

Crofters, other rural businesses and agents, third sector, community and LEADER respondents were those users most interested in funding. SRDP information was ranked as having moderate usefulness amongst respondents. Those who ranked the projects area as being of greatest usefulness were farmers, communities, LEADER respondents and private individuals. Respondents from these groups also ranked events most highly.


Overall, one in three respondents had attended an event, with land-based businesses having the lowest participation rates. Participation was highest among community and third sector respondents (over 40%), followed by other rural businesses and LEADER.

Attendance at local events was lower overall than at national and regional events. Project visits were attended least overall and not at all by land based or business respondents. Networking and information exchange were the principal reasons identified for attending events, particularly amongst businesses. Information on funding ranked lowest overall although somewhat higher amongst communities and third sector respondents.

Information source

The perceived importance of the SNRN as a source of information on the SRDP and LEADER was split between those who see it as having some importance (56%) and those who see little or none. There was little differentiation by user group.

The SNRN's importance as a source of information on good practice in rural development was similarly rated, especially among other rural businesses, communities/third sector and private individuals. Land-based businesses ranked this markedly lower but only 16% saw good practice dissemination as of no importance.

3.5.3 Meeting needs

Based on their experience, survey respondents were asked to indicate the extent to which a range of SNRN services met their needs.

The website recorded a high overall satisfaction level (71% of respondents rating it as high/medium). Other rural businesses ranked this particularly highly; at 84%. Land based interests, farmers, estates, foresters and other land-based businesses ranked this lower in terms of meeting their needs (<55% high/medium). All other respondent groups recorded at least 70% satisfaction levels. Newsletter satisfaction ranked second highest overall but was ranked relatively lower by LEADER, and ranked moderate by farmers and other land based businesses. Funding opportunities ranked third overall (at 55% high/medium) but results here were polarised. The higher satisfaction levels were indicated by crofters, other rural businesses, agents, communities, LEADER and the third sector, with the other land-based sectors scoring low.

Satisfaction with local events was relatively lower overall with 53% of respondents rating this as high/medium. They scored highest among third sector respondents, agents, other rural businesses and community respondents; low for land-based respondents; and mainly medium for others. National events scored lower overall, but were strongest amongst other rural businesses and the third sector.

Below these, best practice, networking and SRDP information all scored at broadly similar but lower levels of satisfaction (around 55%). SRDP information was most valued by other rural businesses, agents, community, LEADER and the third sector and less so by land-based businesses. Networking satisfaction was highest with other rural businesses and the third sector, although satisfaction levels were broadly similar across all categories. Best practice scored lowest with land-based businesses and highest with third sector respondents, community and other rural businesses.

SRDP project visits (38%) and themed events (38%) scored lowest overall. This finding is rather at odds with markedly more positive stakeholder perspectives and post event evaluation responses and may reflect the low level of awareness and participation within the group of respondents. It is notable that SRDP project visits were most valued by other rural businesses, private, community and third sector respondents. Themed events scored highest for other rural businesses and third sector respondents. Given these differing perspectives and the high importance placed on knowledge transfer in RDP rural networking this clearly merits further investigation in future planning.

3.6 Future services

The relative importance of a range of future SNRN services was explored with both stakeholders and those responding to the survey. Stakeholders were asked to consider this more generally than the very specific range of services offered in the online survey.


There was very strong recognition of the potential of doing more in developing connections, bringing rural organisations together and creating potential through collaboration and co-operation. Links to other networks nationally and across the EU were seen as increasingly important. Stakeholders commented that building connectivity was also something that occurs informally e.g. Twitter, Facebook etc.

An effective website was viewed as essential but respondents thought that there was much scope for improvement in the future. The core demand was for basic, simple SRDP information, made easy to follow. While the newsletter was seen as having high potential, there was a perceived need for improvement in its relevance to the wider rural constituency.

Across the board, much scope was seen in the identification and exchange of best practice and associated research and analysis. While this has worked successfully locally, some identified more widespread potential both within Scotland and the UK more generally.

There were somewhat mixed perspectives on local events and project visits. Many viewed these as having high potential, particularly in land based/business sectors, although there is not a strong history of prior engagement. National events were seen as a moderate priority, with a need for strengthened focus and relevance.

Scope for training was evident but responses were very varied, ranging from application-oriented training, (including farmer agent avoidance) to training in LAG cooperation. Questions were raised about the need to avoid duplication of existing training and to make it very needs-focused.

SRDP communications were of moderate importance to stakeholders. Here, targeting is likely to be important with fine-tuning of messages to segments, in recognition that it is not the main route through which people obtain information.


In terms of future services, the networks role in bringing rural stakeholders together was thought highly important overall, over 87% of respondents ranked this as high or medium. Networking was ranked as high/medium by 69% of all respondents. Businesses tended to rank this higher with almost 70% of farmers and over 80% of other rural businesses ranking it as high/medium. Within this an effective website is overwhelmingly seen as being an essential component of a new NRN. Two thirds of all respondents saw future ENRD links as being of particularly high importance.

Good practice and research and analysis were considered very important amongst all respondents. Good practice exchange ranked slightly higher amongst the non-land based respondents, while research and analysis was rated highly by agents, farmers, LEADER and third sector respondents.

Innovation scored highly amongst respondents, and was highest in the non-land-based sectors. Almost 90% of other rural businesses and 66% of farmers rated innovation as of high/medium importance, as did 74% of LEADER respondents.

LEADER-specific elements tended to score lower overall (65% high/medium), this perhaps reflects the narrower extent of LEADER interests amongst those responding from the LAGS. Whilst clearly of higher importance to LAGs the overall level of importance accorded is still substantial.

There is wide support for broader public communications across the board at 78%. LEADER and other land based businesses were most sceptical of the value of this here, the community and third sector remarkably so, i.e. more so than farmers.

Perspectives on future events were mixed. Themed events, although ranked low across the piece were relatively highly rated by farmers and other land-based respondents. Local events also ranked low but were rated highest by farmers, crofters, agents and other rural businesses.

3.7 Engagement

The aspiration for the SNRN is strongly focused on improved engagement of rural stakeholders as indicated in the ITT through which the support services were procured. This notes:

'The success of the network will depend on the engagement of stakeholders and pro-active regional co-ordination will be pivotal in all of this. The successful contractor will be required to provide the regional coordination service to support the on-going development of regional stakeholder groups throughout the SRDP period both in terms of their capacity to undertake rural development projects and their knowledge of what might be possible. Primarily, the regional coordination service will be a technical service facilitating local events within a coherent framework designed to maximise local knowledge of rural development issues, opportunities and inspirational practice throughout Scotland, the UK and Europe.

In this section we report on the survey findings in relation to respondents preferred means of engaging with the NRN before going on to consider the stakeholder perspectives on the effectiveness of this.

3.7.1 Current engagement


The website is the overwhelmingly favoured form of engagement across the board. Publications and the newsletter rank a strong second, and were most important for farmers, foresters, other land-based and other rural business respondents. There was some strong support evident for increased use of social media but there was high variation among respondents; the priority was rather low other than for crofters, agents, communities, third sector and private respondents. Personal contact was the next most favoured means of engagement and was strongest in land-based and business sectors.

LEADER followed by local events, national events and themed events all ranked as moderate amongst respondents as a means for future engagement.


The overwhelming view was that there was only weak engagement with and mixed awareness of the SNRN, with some stakeholders expressing disappointment that this was the case. Many felt that they should have known more about SNRN and questioned why they did not. It was seen as too strongly focused on one sector and one part of society (white middle class) which has shaped what it has done and created particular patterns of engagement. It was felt that a stronger presence was needed, with clearer promotion, a more defined identity, more active engagement (particularly of a grassroots nature), with greater practicality, and active facilitation. Some stakeholders viewed the new RDP as an opportunity for the relaunch of a revamped SNRN. It was envisaged that this would have greater distinctiveness of purpose, with less overlap, clearer pathways and a route to better information (including website enhancement with improved architecture). The distinction between this and SCVO's other services such as Rural Direct was seen by some as unclear and confusing.

Stakeholder involvement is viewed as a priority to achieve ownership, relevance and commitment with grass roots engagement locally and regionally. Further the network should be more proactive in being inclusive. It is suggested by some that by involving the wider constituency (and reducing the community focus), this could actually dilute the vested interest influence of e.g. land-based interests and result in more engaged and balanced approach. If this is to be achieved then there is a need to clarify the offer.

By enhancing accessibility, using multiple tools, developing a wider range of communications methods, getting up to speed with new technology, but not using it indiscriminately, the network could occupy a pivotal position. There is also a need to plan communications place within the network, build in feedback loops, and provide better links to demonstration projects.

A principal need is to engage with people who are busy, and for whom time is tight, and to ensure that the network delivers to their needs. If this is to be achieved involvement in the NRN needs to offer real benefits through participation. People will value a network when it gives them important information more easily than other sources.

The network can and should engage directly with existing events and services etc. to add value and reach a wider audience. It is, however, essential to avoid duplication since many membership organisations already have well used and effective networking services. There is perhaps more of a gap in relation to brokering and facilitation of the available services and resources rather than assuming a need for direct provision.

The network will flourish if it delivers services that other networks cannot deliver but this can be seen to require a clear knowledge and understanding of others' failings as well as a very finely tuned appreciation of demand. On such a broad front, this is a very challenging task. It would result in a stronger theming and focus on stakeholder groups and their needs. It should also support signposting to advice and expertise. It needs to be reliable, credible and consistent.

In disseminating information, there therefore needs to be close consideration of the target/user and the case for going beyond the main SCVO 'community' audience was compellingly made by many consultees. The desirability of targeting under-represented groups in Rural Development, including, in particular the young, would help to energise the SNRN.

The use of networking and communication tools by the current SNRN has been rather limited. More could be done as with other NRNs e.g. webinars, use of video, working / focus/ thematic groups, virtual think tanks etc.

This aspiration for wider engagement maximising rural development knowledge proved to be unrealistic given the nature and cost of the contracts commissioned. SCVO advises that there was an expectation that wider networking would arise from the events and website almost through a process of 'instant combustion', but this was unrealistic. The evolution of pro-active regional and local coordination was, however, unlikely to be achieved without substantially more facilitation and this would have required a much larger contract to enable the resource commitments.

3.7.2 Links to other networks

The consensus from the consultations and workshop was that the SNRN cannot function independently of other networks. Its success will depend on engagement with those networks, without imposing power over them. Where networks already exist with particular constituencies (e.g. community ownership, woodland management, renewable energy) the SNRN must work with them rather than try to provide a substitute service. This was particularly so with regard to the wider EU rural and rural evaluation networks and in particular the new Rural Innovation Partnerships.

Elsewhere, we have referred to the SNRN's role as providing a centre for a network of networks. This requires it to have a distinctive and useful set of functions and a clear mission. That mission should be recognisable from the Scottish Government's purpose and the connection between that purpose and rural development policy. Some elements of activity will focus on enhancing SRDP delivery but over time the nature of that task is evolving as enhanced outcomes are sought with less resources and emergent issues such as innovation system support acquire greater prominence.

3.7.3 Future engagement

The scope for enhanced engagement with a wide range of rural stakeholders is contingent offering useful messages using appropriate media. Its strength will increasingly lie in it becoming a centre for a network of networks. The challenge is to use the right technologies to meet the information needs and communications challenges of particular constituencies, as well as or better than competitors. With such a central role, it can better connect to the myriad of networks and better connect the different rural constituencies to those networks.

The network of networks model should allow engagement across scales, between EU, national, regional and local and across subject areas (e.g. from agriculture to woodfuel), in the latter case by making connections that would not otherwise have been evident.

Summary of issues

In general the replies received reinforce the need to consider core purpose (narrow vs broad) and key constituencies (rural as a whole or community subsector) and in particular reinforce the need to consider SNRN's actual and potential role in the dissemination of information about rural issues, particularly where it sits alongside the SG website on the SRDP. We 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. The SRDP site should provide both administrative detail and high-level vision.

There is and can be no one-size-fits-all communications channel for those interested in the SRDP or rural development more widely. Stakeholders consist of different people, with different preferences for using different types of media and although we can offer interim generalisations, the more important fact is that such a wide range of media are valued and will continue to be valued, but at different levels by different rural constituencies and by different members of those constituencies. Multiple methods of communication are possible, and a stronger development strategy is needed to reach out to both the principal constituent groups and especially to those recognised as hard to reach.

SNRN is currently perceived to give more attention to rural community development (potentially through its association with SCVO), but other groups, such as consultants, also make significant use of its services. Any further development of the networking function needs to build on recognition that there are already networks in place that function and that what is needed is not replication but additionality. The additionality can come from two principal sources: breadth of coverage; or provision of a platform for experiential learning through engagement with good practice. Because there are already established channels of communications among particular sets/subsets of stakeholders there is a need to operate a tailored approach that is sensitive to network actors already functioning. Even in an area of SCVO strength - communities - the Scottish Community Alliance operates a website with regular information feeds to those signed up.

The information obtained from the two sources (key informants and on-line questionnaire respondents) suggested a clear desire for peer-to-peer learning on visits and a need to connect to good practice and create an organisation that fosters learning in a variety of ways. This potentially creates a clear separation of function between pure information which comprises the administrative rules of the game (and rule changes) which would come from the Scottish Government website, leaflets and other communication channels and a learning/inspiration/engagement function that could be promulgated and supported by SNRN in a variety of ways, some of which would be based on peer-to-peer learning with a much stronger focus on networking.

Most importantly any development requires underpinning with: a much more sophisticated understanding of network structures and communication practices in the rural sector, particularly in the land-based business sector but also in other rural businesses; recognition of the hard to reach and identification of strategic responses to the challenge and a clearer sense of purpose.

3.8 Delivery structures, governance and membership

3.8.1 Introduction

From the work undertaken on the various approaches to the operational structure and governance of National Network Units, the following typology of options was developed. Although these were defined for and considered during the stakeholder workshop, these are presented here to illustrate some of the considerations which followed with regard to the NSU structure, governance and membership models. Broadly speaking these options reflect the various examples considered in the following chapter and that are employed currently in Scotland.

Scotland: Governance Model 1 and Delivery Model 1
The Netherlands: Governance Model 1 and Delivery Model 2
England: Governance Model 1 and Delivery Model 3
Sweden: Governance Model 3 and Delivery Model 4; and
Finland: Governance Model 2 and Delivery Model 3.

Of these only Scotland and the Netherlands have no formal Network membership.

Figure 1: Typology of options for governance and structure of National Network Units

Figure 1: Typology of options for governance and structure of National Network Units

3.8.2 Governance

Stakeholder consultations revealed opinions very strongly in favour of involvement in governance but such engagement has to enable the right sort of contribution at the right time for the right reasons. Busy stakeholders wanted to make best use of their potential contribution. To get the right people, it is necessary to make it worthwhile for the organisations concerned and their members etc. It may displace other demands on their finite time and resources.

One facet that stakeholders argued was essential was to feed in information from the coalface of practice. The governance structure could and should provide a means of effective feedback from practice to policy communities.

A key lesson which emerged from understanding the demise of Rural Forum nearly 20 years ago is that rural constituencies do not always agree on policies and will, to an increasing degree, be chasing and competing for a declining budget. The new SNRN needs to avoid politicking except where it represents rural 'in the round'; it needs to beware of political entanglements that can arise from taking fixed policy positions. It should be a facilitator and networking body, not one that tries to shape policy, but nonetheless it must be a body that can provide a sounding board and comment on implementation issues such as those that bedevilled the early operation of the 2007-13 SRDP.

Stakeholder feedback was widely sought and freely given in trying to correct some of the implementation challenges of the 2007-13 SRDP. In this case, the enfranchisement came from external consultants conducting reviews. Had there been strong across the board stakeholder representation on the SNRN and its role been to tap into feedback, some of the delivery challenges of the last programme might have been overcome more rapidly and with enhanced outcomes and impacts.

3.8.3 Structure

Stakeholders see plusses and minuses in both the internal (within government) and external (by a third party on behalf of government) approaches to the delivery of network services. The current approach is a bit of a mix. It is important to recognise that the current Scottish approach is something of a hybrid, being neither wholly outsourced nor wholly in-house.

The independence of the outsourced approach is viewed positively by many. It was seen as more accessible, closer to the user, less bureaucratic, more independent and with greater freedom of operation, dissociated from regulatory functions. Being 'not government' was important for some. Some respondents saw lobbying potential (although not in current set up or realistic in any RDP-funded model) but most partnership models work best where the memberships works for the common good rather than a particular (sub-) group. Some see the Network as more clearly defined and easier to understand if it is independent, whereas others took the opposite view. Whatever form it took, it needed to be flexible, readily adaptable and 'fleet of foot'.

Although there was generally no presumption against outsourcing, there were nevertheless caveats and downsides identified. Visibility, identity and identification are all challenged. The delivery capacity and nature of the contractor is critical; it needs to be in the right place to cover the breadth of demands and engender the confidence of users. The Network must be able to engage credibly with the wider rural community/sector. Some strong opinions favouring a consortium approach were expressed as a means to improve credibility across a range of constituencies.

Some suggestions were made that SCVO had been under-resourced because of the size of the contract rather than any disengagement by the contractee, (leading to the contract being underserviced with respect to needs). The resource available under the contract is of course critical. So too is involving the right people with the right knowledge and skills regardless of delivery model. Considerable discomfort was expressed over the single contractor model, especially one with a dominant sectional interest. A consortium approach would help address this, bridge the gaps and might help to mitigate resourcing challenges.

Under a consortium model, the links and connectivity to policy at Scottish and EU levels may be weaker, less informed and less adequately resourced. Outsourcing needs management of the interface and excellent communications to avoid misunderstandings arising in the communication chain. Communications through an intermediary are more challenging, in effect second hand, and consequently sometimes inaccurate, poorly informed or communicated. If the NRN is to be effective it has to be fully informed and up to date.

The internal model has strengths in its closeness to policy and the administrative aspects of the RDP. It gives more direct communications and lines of communication, and top down direction towards priorities. It is likely to have higher visibility. It minimises duplication of effort, and provides in-house an additional step in delivery chain, without regurgitation or dilution of message. It may be more credible. It is more likely to be 'on message', and consistent with policy and delivery, and should help avoiding unrealistic expectations. It has more direct and singular accountability. And, if it creates the opportunity, feedback can be more direct.

It is potentially important in contributing to internal communications and developing working relationships and understanding within the range of RDP delivery systems. Such challenges may grow if the Pack recommendations were to be implemented as trans-pillar communications would be essential.

However, embedding the SNRN wholly within government creates a risk of diversion from tasks to other priorities if they emerge, especially if public resources come under pressure. It could lose its arm's length relationship and be a mouthpiece for justifying policy rather than a means of expediting effective implementation of policy. Local connections may be more difficult under this more centralised model.

A number of Member States have addressed this through employing robust management arrangements and organisational architectures which in effect ring-fence such an in-house unit. This allows strong links with rural policy and its delivery to be implemented with strong feedback loops and connectivity. This affords them a relatively high degree of autonomy, particularly when they are reinforced through stakeholder involvement in their governance.

3.9 Lessons from wider experience

The National Rural Networks in Finland, Sweden and the Netherlands were selected and agreed as suitable examples from which relevant lessons for Scotland may be drawn; the experience in England was also reviewed as this operates along with Scotland within the framework of the UK National Rural Network. Relevant findings from the evaluation of the Welsh National Rural Network were also considered. The following table, Table 3 highlights the main features of the four models considered, these can broadly be categorised as in Figure 1. Interviews were conducted with managers of all four networks and the perceived pluses and minuses of each are identified in the following text. Scotland is included in the table for the purposes of comparison.

Table 3: Country Specific Examples of National Rural Networks







Managing Authority (MA) relationship & mandate

In-house RDP team, former CRC link perceived to be a barrier. Operates across the RDP supporting programme delivery through the exchange of ideas and experience.

Unit in MA, parallel to RDP unit but arm's length located out of centre. Mandate across rural development to inform RDP, good practice, cooperation and skills development.

Consortium led by not for profit company contracted to the MA. LDS delivery improvement, empowerment, focus, central, province, private intermediary

In house team with main services contracted out to SCVO

Under Board of Ag, parallel to RDP MA. RDP performance focussed by communicating information and experience. Participation oriented.


No external

Steering group, 21 members. Approves annual plan before submitting to Ministry. Full budgetary responsibility. Link to unofficial cross departmental LEADER team, other thematic links.

Act on behalf of the MA and Provinces

No external

Steering committee, 11 members, drawn from membership


Head of rural team.

Director reports to MA.

Answer to Ministry, annual plan, quarterly reporting

Head of rural communities team

Answer to Rural Development Dept. Steering committee approves annual plan.

Total Budget



€6.3m, national co-finance from Provinces


€8m, 50% for staff, balance on events

Rural Population







3+FTEs, Dedicated manager + 2 Defra core funded

7 FTE, Director, thematic leads, communications and support, multi task approach. Additional services contracted

Overall 10 members in team, all part time, from 5 partner orgs, specialists, bring skills etc from other work, includes other Ministry contracts

2 FTE in contractor plus 1 FTE in house.

7FTE, manager, 2 thematic, finance, admin and communications

Membership or stakeholder involvement

Open membership, 250 to 300 organisations, link to and support 17 Rural and Farming networks

Open membership, mainly rural development intermediaries. Between 3000 and 4000 participants in events each year.

No membership, under consideration

No membership

110+ organisations with national involvement in RD. No businesses.

Link to previous network


No direct link

No link

Yes, continuity in some staff



Yes, external, communications,


Yes, external

Yes, external



Yes, core team

Not explicit

Not explicit

Not explicit

Core team available

Thematic working groups or think tanks


Each year is themed with events and activities to match e.g. entrepreneurship, rural youth etc. Dedicated working group per theme.

Yes, wide range but focused on integration / cooperation at local level, municipality communities of practice etc


Extensive use of virtual think tanks, means of consulting

Task working groups

Building on LEADER, future priority

Working groups on innovation, cooperation and LEADER.

Utilises task force working groups e.g. multifunctional farming, young farmers, works very directly with LAGs


Main focus, identified by membership

Other events


Between 60 and 100 events per annum in total, activity varies by theme. One overseas study trip per year.

Conferences etc e.g. re entrepreneurship

Programme of local events, limited number of national events, project and themed events

Yes, limited e.g. best practice, LEADER events

Consultation or feedback

Via 17 Rural and Farming networks

Through working groups, digital media and website

Strong role in policy analysis and working locally

Little formal

Via working groups and think tanks, steering group and membership



Contribute to Countryside + magazine, produce brochures and handouts

Magazine, digital newsletter


Yes e.g. good practice, working group reports etc

Dissemination or exchange


Different focus each year. Case studies. Best practice competition, gala event, highlight successes. Main focus website for dissemination

Very active, database of selected projects establish links between interest groups in NL e.g. rural/urban


Extensive through direct engagement e.g. Rural Best award

No study visits as yet

LEADER support

Exchange groups Aim to extend exchange group

Focus on improvement. LEADER coordination group. LEADER working group. Work plan based on needs analysis. 2 working days P/A. LAG training. LAG quality management. TNC facilitation.

Strong engagement informing and supporting LAGs, cooperation fair and support. Training for LAG members e.g. self evaluation, area promotion

Very limited

Support national annual meeting. meetings of LAG coordination group. Smaller events, relatively intensive support, dedicated member of staff.

RDP communications

Limited, very LAG focused

Formal role re RDP, use regional approach. Have main role. Rural van for information provision.

Not formally in current RDP. Actively involved in consultations on new RDP, communication role foreseen in new RDP

Limited, communities focused

Very two way, through active participation as well as electronic.

New technology

Future, mainly in consultations, Twitter for announcements

Mainly website but also produce materials on Facebook and Twitter, aim to do more e.g. Facebook for good practice

Website and some blogging experience, limited value, Twitter, RSS and teleconferencing

Website, twitter and Facebook usage developing

Yes, expanding, website, Facebook and Twitter

Network links

Limited UK, improving, increasing ENRD

Baltic sea network and Activities, strong ENRD links. National link to Rural Policy Network

Well connected, sometimes stronger than MA etc. project links to other NRNs, link to regional Living Countryside Knowledge Network

Limited UK, improving, increasing ENRD

Strong, try to encourage membership involvement e.g. in ENRD groups.

Future priorities

Improve RDP delivery, support RDP staff. Stakeholder involvement e.g. in themed groups. Much larger budget. Aim to add value to RDP

Under review, moving to Agency of Rural Affairs, possibly narrower remit and more direct steer. May however be more strategic and influential, better information flow and stronger trust.

Unclear, probably internal autonomous model to strengthen credibility and relevance but with significant degree of outsourcing.

Purpose of this evaluation.

Unclear but expect innovation, agri/environmental and general rural development strands under a single structure

3.9.1 Plusses and minuses

Managing Authority relationship and mandate

The location of the Network Support Unit (NSU), whether in house or outsourced is often largely a political decision as is seen in all the examples considered. Where the NSU is located within the host organisation, this may also be politically influenced but is more governed by operational considerations. The availability of relevant and appropriate external contractors is a key consideration in outsourcing. All NRNs consulted expressed concerns over delivery by a single contractor, whether private sector, NGO or not for profit organisation. Association with a single body or interest group was perceived to compromise the NRN's credibility and wider relevance e.g. even the former English contractor, the Commission for Rural Communities was perceived to have a specific agenda with which perceptions of the NRN became associated. The use of a consortium as in the Netherlands was seen to be more balanced. However, even here, there were issues over a lack of clarity as to the mandate and on whose behalf the NRN was operating.

Location within the Managing Authority (MA) or Rural Department was seen to bring the NRN much closer to the core RDP functions and this closer relationship strengthened the functionality and credibility, particularly with the public sector. Outsourced models appear to experience some credibility issues with the public sector: on the one hand their independence is valued; but their power is compromised on the other by their not being 'part of the system'. This is particularly evident when interfacing with local or regional authorities where their status is unclear. On the other hand, outsourcing the NRN function was seen to confer a high degree of credibility with the wider group of users where that outsourcing was to an appropriate body or bodies. This was due to the perception of greater independence from central influence and of greater freedom of operation and, by implication, relevance and responsiveness to user needs. In the Netherlands, this has afforded a higher degree of connectivity with other rural actors, particularly LAGs, coupled with greater operational mobility, allowing them to work more freely with other partners in the Netherlands and EU.

Some tensions therefore exist regarding NRN functions and relationships when these are outwith the direct line of RDP management, particularly as the NRN is RDP funded but these tensions exist even when the NRN is a ring fenced unit. The most important consideration is the degree of functional and operational independence afforded together with the ability to function in service of the network. This is recognised to be crucial. In all cases, the ability of the NRN unit to undertake consultation and analysis and offer an informed and objective external perspective was recognised as being very valuable. In the internal, ring-fenced model, the NRN is better able to function as a two way conduit e.g. in influencing policy. In Finland, the NSU is able to interact directly with other Government Departments e.g. in working groups on new programme development, horizontal themes such as CLLD etc. The perspective amongst those consulted was that, on balance, in house but clearly ring fenced (or autonomous) delivery probably offers the best compromise in terms of mandate. In Finland this is structured as a parallel unit to the RDP MA but under same rural directorate. This enables the NRN to have a wider-than-RDP remit. Although this is highly valued by the NRN team and those involved in wider rural policy as a result of restructuring, the approach is currently subject to review.


The models considered illustrate three different approaches to NRN governance:

  • direction either of the contract or in house delivery by the MA or relevant Ministry;
  • the involvement of an advisory steering group of stakeholders; or
  • an empowered and decision making steering group.

In England there is no external involvement in NRN governance. With the closure of the Commission for Rural Communities (CRC), the relatively limited delivery functions were brought in house. The aspiration is that in future with a fuller NRN model, stakeholder involvement will be strengthened. In the Netherlands, the delivery consortium is contracted directly to the Ministry, the EAFRD component of the budget is co-financed by the Provinces but there is no direct reporting line. Here, a range of future delivery models and governance possibilities are under consideration, ranging from a fully fledged 'Rural Alliance' of the main rural organisations with the NSU as the service function or secretariat, to the more probable in house, ring-fenced delivery unit with some form of stakeholder steering group.

The other two examples employ stakeholder steering groups. The Finnish model is advisory, principally influencing the annual work programme. It comprises 21 members selected to cover a range of interests e.g. environment, research and with strong rural sector and geographical coverage. The Swedish group is representative with 10 members drawn from the membership organisations of the network and has decision making powers with regard to the work programme and budget. The Finns consider that their model could have been more directly influential in helping to shape their operations and plans. In Sweden, the approach reflects their strong priority to actively engage rural people and organisations in improving rural development policy and activity. This approach is dependent on those concerned having the motivation and capacity to become involved, which the very objectives of the approach seems to reinforce.

In all cases considered, it was clear that effective stakeholder participation should be improved, that this was valued, considered an important contributory element in strengthening the relevance, legitimacy and credibility of the network and as such to its success.

Management, resources and staffing

The budgets for the NRNs considered and their staffing vary widely but it is important to understand that this may not show the whole picture as staff resources may be employed and deployed in different ways.

In budgetary terms, England (£200k per annum) is closest to Scotland at the bottom of the range considered here (and both are also clearly at the low end in EU terms). Their staff team, approximately 3 FTE, are all Defra employees with salary costs funded through RDPE technical assistance. There is a clear recognition of the limitations of such a budget and an aspiration to substantially extend both the scope of NRN remit and activity and the budget under the next RDP.

The budget for the Dutch NRN is markedly larger, estimated at €600,000 per annum. This affords a larger staff capacity comprising 10 individuals from across the five partners, none of whom are full time on NRN work.

At the opposite end of the scale in Finland, the total NRN budget is €11m whilst in Sweden the NRN has a total budget of €8m. In Sweden, circa 50% of the budget supports the employment of the staff team of 8 (7.5 FTE); no comparable figure was available for Finland. In each of the three overseas cases, the level of budget enables a multidisciplinary team to be employed with thematic specialists in rural development, technical and management disciplines. The nature and scale of this enables them to pursue their extensive programme of participative engagement with rural people and organisations and supports a broader range of service delivery than either of the UK models.

Using staff who are engaged in other rural development work and who bring that experience and skill set to the NSU is a distinct benefit in the Dutch consortium model. This also contributes to the wider engagement of the Network. It enables a degree of flexible resourcing to meet new needs or issues e.g. being commissioned to undertake other complementary work. It does, on occasion, expose some potential conflict of interest challenges for the lead contractor to manage which an internal model avoids.

The ideal scale of the NRN budget cannot be estimated in isolation from consideration of the extent and scope of the other elements of rural support infrastructure and resourcing. To do so in relation to the overseas models is beyond the scope of this study. The budgets concerned would represent relatively small increments in those of the various Ministries involved and therefore, in the experience of the authors there is no reason to assume that the NRNs are filling gaps in core service provision by comparison with the UK.

Participation/membership and basis of stakeholder involvement

Membership models vary from the Finnish open membership to those based on closed memberships (organisations need to apply and be accepted) such as Sweden to those with no formal membership at all. Formal network membership appears to be of little importance of itself. Its main importance lies in the role it can play in contributing to participation and wider stakeholder involvement. This is achieved in a number of different ways. In Sweden, the membership is composed of a broad cross-section of organisations which must demonstrably be active in rural development across the country. This provides a strong base in effect networking of multiple networks and through which the NRN have built their participative approach. Relevant issues are identified through the membership of the Network and steering committee and are then addressed using the variety of tools they employ through which they engage with the membership. The thematic and target group-focused approach provides the basis of engagement. In Finland, although they have open membership, the main clients are the intermediaries who work with the rural communities businesses etc., and who cascade engagement and services. In the Netherlands, there is no formal membership. This is under consideration but there is considerable uncertainty over the benefits of this.

The direct engagement of the NSU with intermediaries appears to have advantages. It is effective in facilitating and managing the process of wide stakeholder involvement and participation whilst keeping the demands on finite central resources at a manageable level. It takes advantage of existing networking arrangements and can add value to these through coordination support, which is particularly important when resources are limited as in the UK. It leads to wider involvement through active participation through tasked, thematic or working groups which are relevant and which offer benefits. It provides a clear structure within which participation can be encouraged and managed.

Thematic focus/ Services/Activities/ operational tools

NRNs deliver a fairly common range of core services determined largely by the specification in the EU Regulation. These include identifying and exchanging best practice, events, data bases, websites, publications, support for LEADER, cooperation and other communications. Such variation as there is, largely in terms of the extent and means of their application, is largely governed by scale and budget. The other major area of variation is in the extent of any theming or targeting. This was strong in all three overseas elements considered where the various tools and services were deployed strategically in pursuit of the wider NRN and RDP objectives. Where budgets are limited, this presents questions as to the feasibility of the full range of service delivery as envisaged in the new Regulation, given the resource requirement implications. Here the targeted or thematic function may help in focusing finite resource but there will be a need to define this carefully to avoid over-extending.

The use of thematic working groups is extensive and the three overseas examples all illustrate this, examples of such thematic work are cited below. All three involve a focus on improving RDP implementation. In Sweden, the programme of thematic work and the associated groups are the main means of service provision and engagement, and the majority of the NSU budget is dedicated to servicing these. They consider that the process of the network maturing has highlighted the benefits of this approach.

The Netherlands also has a strongly thematic approach to their work programme, involving events linked to the other elements of the work programme with a different theme each year. Here, there is a specific focus on broadening cooperation and involvement in rural development and strengthening links e.g. by linking traditional farming practice with wider rural development, promoting multi-functional agriculture and building 'communities of good practice' e.g. for local municipalities.

In Finland, the NRN also addresses a theme per year e.g. entrepreneurship, rural youth, the environment, with a special programme designed to support the theme with an associated information campaign e.g. roadshows re Axis 2 potential and project examples. They also deliver one themed overseas study tour per Axis per annum.

Sweden has had considerable success in undertaking a series of virtual think tanks via telephone meetings. These can involve a succession of meetings which involve up to 50 or 60 people over two days as in the case of their review of RDP performance.

Dissemination/exchange of experience

All the NRNs are tasked with the dissemination and exchange of experience. The degree of strategic and operational focus here varies considerably from England, where there is very little outwith LEADER, to highly developed and strategic approaches and tools in the other countries. In the Netherlands, links and exchange lie at the heart of the overall approach to broadening cooperation in rural development. Similarly, in the Swedish model with its approach to active participation, the collection, dissemination and exchange of experience and practice and supporting cooperation take place in order to improve the implementation of the RDP. They have examples of roll out of good practice e.g. a rural transport project now operating across Sweden, which constitutes a solid symbol of achievement.

In Finland, they have a different focus for good practices each year chosen by the Steering Group. This year's focus is on results and drawing lessons e.g. though case studies. They stress the need to ensure that this focuses on adding value.

All three examples run some form of best practice competitions. In Finland, they link this to self-evaluation, which works well and incentivises improvement. The competition process feeds in to their database of good practice, and a gala event provides the opportunity for political involvement. Sweden employs a themed approach with several categories in their competition. In each case, the NRN highlights these examples, compliments those who succeed, and illuminates the best, in all cases the NRNs find this very motivating for other project promoters.

The overseas networks all actively disseminate good practice e.g. producing videos and materials on Facebook and feeds on Twitter etc, Facebook is thought to be particularly good for highlighting good practice examples.

LEADER-specific support

All the networks considered provide some degree of supporting and networking service for LEADER. In all cases, this involves some form of working group although the nature of these differs. At its simplest, England has the LEADER Exchange Group whose main function is as a forum for exchange between LAGs and between LAGs and Defra etc. There is a future priority to extend this activity to include a training and development function for LAGs. This is to be coordinated as a priority. There is also an intention to do more in relation to cooperation.

In Sweden, the Netherlands and Finland, a member of the core team has specific responsibility for LEADER and, in each case, the network engages with LAG members and staff through a working group; these working groups have differing bases. Finland has a formal thematic group, whereas Sweden operates by supporting the LAGs own coordination group. The NSU funds the meetings and provides the secretariat. There are proposals in Finland for a formal association of LAGs. The Finnish approach sees the thematic group directly inform the work plan for support through a formal needs analysis. They also have an informal cross-Ministry coordination group for LEADER.

The independent NSU in the Netherlands is also very focused and strong. Their whole strategy is to engage across the country at the LDS level. Apparently this is to the frustration of the authorities, national and provincial, who perceive them to be too supportive of local actors rather than all elements of the multilevel system.

Each of the three networks in effect acts as a focal or contact point for LAGs connecting with each other and delivers fairly intensive provision of support. The degree of formality in the support programme varies but all dedicate specific time and resource. Support provided focuses on improving the quality of LEADER's work, and technical support is provided to LAGs in all three countries through training, smaller events or one-to-one meetings. Finland has implemented a formal quality management approach. All have a strong focus on facilitating cooperation linked to the ENRD.

Training provision is relatively consistent covering topics such as evaluation, TNC, area promotion, LAG board training, LEADER methods and systems. In Finland, the work on improving the quality of LEADER is all written up to help ease transition between programmes.

Communications plan, what and how

Of the four main networks considered, only Finland undertook a formal RDP communications function, although the others all communicate RDP information to their members to support implementation. Sweden addresses this from the perspective of their mission of being the 'arena for mutual cooperation and learning'. Strengthening communications, dissemination, exchange and feedback are all integral to this. In England, Defra are seeking to extend the NRN role in the delivery of the main RDP messages. The former NSU providers, the Commission for Rural Communities were seen very much as a pressure group, as rural advocates. It is suggested that this confused and compromised the communications role, and, given their abolition, a culture change is needed to provide appropriate support.

The main tool employed in each case is the NRN website, although all countries report increasing, but carefully targeted use of Facebook, and Twitter for wider communications. The Netherlands, Sweden and England all have their own NRN websites which are viewed positively, although the English NRN is likely to migrate to Defra's own site to help address the challenges faced. Both the Netherlands and Finland stress the need for and benefits of regional outreach in their communications e.g. in CAP consultations.

Performance measurement and evaluation

Approaches to performance measurement and the use of indicators is rather mixed. The Dutch are the most systematic, continuously monitoring outputs and outcomes. In the Netherlands, the monitoring and evaluation of the activities of the NSU are based on agreed indicators but, in common with the other networks, these are largely activity counts e.g. the number of website visitors, the number of subscriptions, event satisfaction surveys, etc. The original Finnish plan in 2008 proposed indicators but again these were activity and participation-oriented. The Finns consider that performance is poorly measured and having trialled positioning the NRN within a Spider Web Network Analysis, are now planning a more advanced approach reflecting their objectives. In England, Defra uses in-house progress checks against their annual action plan rather than performance indicators.

Sweden is most focused on outcomes and identifies the main measure as the raised knowledge of how to use the RDP. Unfortunately, they too can only really measure this through participation, the number of hits etc., and evidence of any real improvement in knowledge remains incomplete. The other measure of success cited is the trust placed in them by the Ministry who increasingly ask them to contribute to policy debates, a similar trend was becoming evident in the Netherlands.

Other network/ENRD links

The ability to network is highly valued by all of the example NRNs and by their client or membership base. In the three overseas Member State examples considered, external network links are generally strong, principally through LEADER, but there are also strong links to the ENRD (recently strengthening in the UK). There is a strong desire in all cases to see members or network stakeholders participate more in ENRD activities. Sweden has been particularly successful here e.g. involving practical farmers in the environmental services working group or a youth coach in the youth Focus Group.

There is less evidence apparent of strong bilateral networking between Member States. However, Finland has been involved in regional networking with other Baltic Sea Member States since 2008, working to a shared Baltic Sea strategy involving sharing events, exchanging experience, thematic initiatives and study trips. The Finnish NRN is linked to their national Rural Policy Network providing a distinct policy/delivery link.

The other area where networking is strong is in linking thematic or sectoral networks within the Member States. The Dutch suggest that a link to the Rural Innovation Network would strengthen NRN's link to agriculture. Sweden and Finland anticipate such future links at national and EU levels. There are concerns in the Netherlands that if the NRN function is absorbed into the Ministry that their independent and intimate links e.g. with LAGs will be weakened as they will be perceived to be part of that constituency and therefore partial. As an independent provider, they have been successful in joining the formal and informal elements up. It is suggested that this will be challenged. This does not seem to have presented a problem in Sweden and Finland with their ring fenced units.

The UK is the only one of the examples with a regionalised network but until recently this has in effect been mothballed. The connections have been re-established with some activity in common areas of work and in sharing resource and knowledge, and the four area teams now meet quarterly.

Future plans

All the NRNs considered face considerable uncertainty over their future from a variety of different perspectives.

In Finland, an RDP working group is considering the future role and direction of the NRN. The NRN is thought not to be an RDP priority and this needs more discussion involving the Network Steering Group. The NSU view is that the NRN should have a strategic role in steering the RDP, a view supported by the Mid-Term Evaluation which suggested a single Rural Development unit and director with the NSU providing the secretariat, but this was rejected. A proposed shift of departments to the Agency of Rural Affairs, in effect closer to the MA may actually threaten their freedom of operation and wider scope and diminish their influence. There is a stronger likelihood of greater top down direction from a more technocratic culture. It is unclear whether the NRN will be pitched at delivering against the minimum or maximum against the RDP specification.

Despite these fears, there is a feeling that the Ministry is the 'right' home and that the NSU should be in the MA. It will be more strategic and influential. Improved data collection and analysis by the NSU could strengthen their advisory role and add value for the MA. There will be a better flow of information to all, and the natural links will be there. This will enable stronger feed in and dissemination with greater trust on all sides. Regardless of what emerges, it is clear that outsourcing of some activity will remain essential but should not reach a level where the transaction costs of managing this input become disproportionate to the benefits.

Future plans in Sweden are highly uncertain at the time of writing. There will be a new NRN, but they expect to have to do more with fewer resources. An umbrella function for three networks looks likely to be the main structure with individual networks for innovation, environmental services and agriculture and for general Rural Development. The participative approach and use of working groups is likely to continue; in fact in all the NRN's, formal and informal working groups are considered essential, as is their improvement-oriented culture.

In the Netherlands the status quo is possible but unlikely and certainly not with the same consortium. The Netherlands do not envisage a separate European Innovation Partnership and NSU. The MA are considering an internal largely autonomous unit for the future programme. This is seen to potentially strengthen the NRN's credibility and relevance both to the rural sector and to national and provincial governments. An in-house unit outsourcing specialist inputs and services appears to be a strong model and possibility. This would need two or three people in the Ministry at the core. The alternative is the 'Rural Alliance' of the 10 or 12 main rural organisations with the NSU acting as the secretariat. This appears to be very much a longer-term aspiration.

The example facing the greatest potential change is in England where Defra want the NRN to be very much more about improving programme delivery with the adoption of thematic groups and workstreams. It appears to have significant unfulfilled potential but is now on an upward trajectory, but addressing this is entirely budget-dependent. Now is an opportunity to do more. It therefore has to be equipped to do so with some independence and stakeholder involvement. In order to achieve sufficient critical mass, a much bigger budget in millions rather than hundreds of thousands would be required. The aim is to achieve greater critical mass. This is clearly challenging. However, work is starting on the potential to convince Ministers of the merits of this. The ability to improve poorly performing elements of the RDP is the main opportunity to deliver real benefits, with scope for targeted improvement. There is a strong perception of a potential role in supporting RDP delivery staff to improve delivery and to enhance the quality of what is achieved. An improved NRN also offers the potential to contribute to policy priorities e.g. via thematic workstreams and stakeholder involvement. This is thought achievable given the political and delivery imperatives.

This is unlikely to be a radical change, however, rather an evolution focused on where the NRN can add most value in meeting evolving priorities over the course of the new programme. The former CRC association remains a barrier, which constrains the NRN.

3.10 Priorities for improvement

Stakeholders consulted were asked to identify their priorities for improvement to the SNRN as a whole. Survey respondents were asked directly about improvements needed in relation to delivery, content, accessibility, communication and relevance. The workshop considered improvements to the delivery structure and governance of the NRN. These findings are integrated throughout the preceding text and the conclusions and recommendations and a brief summary of the principal elements is provided here.

Analysis of the survey confirms that there is a need for improvement in all five fields considered. Strengthening the relevance of provision was of highest priority overall (64% of respondents), closely followed by communications, with content ranked third overall. Land-based businesses see delivery as the biggest issue. This is closely followed by relevance and accessibility. Improved communications was most important for the community sector, other rural businesses, agents, LEADER and the third sector. In all these cases, improvements to relevance and delivery ranked as high second priorities other than the third sector where improved content was the next biggest need.

The main need for improvement identified by stakeholders was for a much more strongly user-focused approach. Associated with this was the need for substantially greater clarity of purpose and mission. This is particularly important in strengthening the perceived relevance of the NRN, which was another priority for improvement identified. In addition to this, stakeholders were commonly of the view that substantially greater visibility of the NRN was required with clarity over pathways to access the services. This was more important for businesses (there were frequent comments re poor awareness, e.g. 'I don't know why I didn't know, it is important', 'I work for RPID and didn't know' etc.'). The portal or gateway was seen as important in this regard.

The current relevance of the SNRN to the SRDP was perceived to be weak. It could be stronger in more general, big message SRDP communications, but there was little demand for stronger technical focus. The NRN needs to cover the whole field of the RDP and plays an important role in engaging the community element in this. The NRN should concentrate on providing general RDP information and signposting specific sources whilst making sure that the information provided is up to date. In this context, the NRN could play an important role in contributing to continuity in communications across the transition between programmes.

The SNRN appears not to be favoured as a means of delivering the whole communications plan. If there is to be single source, as favoured by most, then this probably is not it. A central approach with strengthened existing stakeholder links was the favoured approach to improvement here. The NRN approach does provide the opportunity for SRDP user feedback, and this was viewed as being of high importance by some respondents.

Major questions were raised over the NRN's communication capability and connectedness across rural Scotland and the way in which this links to its objectives and functions. There was a clear view that NRN communications should concentrate on the wider messages and be designed to help facilitate the exchange of experience, dissemination of good practices, reinforce knowledge transfer and foster integration and links across the RDP.

The use of social media is increasingly important but needs to be handled with care according to stakeholders. It has huge potential to contribute to better and more inclusive communications, but this needs careful targeting, structuring, use and management to be meaningful and valuable. It is an essential part of a rounded approach but it is important not to assume that this reaches all or has more capability than it actually does. It is an additional route and should not distract from the core or contribute to confusion or complication. The purpose must be really clear and clearly understood to avoid the danger of erroneous use. These media are thought appropriate for headlines and signposts as their speed and directness are the biggest assets. This can be important for busy people but it needs to communicate the right material.

The workshop stressed the importance of an improved, better structured and clearer and more outcomes-focused approach to the NRN based on an understanding of the existing regional and sectoral networks coupled with an analysis of user group needs. In effect this should lead to a network of networks which adds value by improving links, synergies and complementarity strengthening networking and reducing duplication of effort. Clarity of purpose and the communication of this is a priority particularly if engagement with and networking of rural development actors such as LAGs and regional animateurs is to be strengthened.

A more proactive approach e.g. to the use of the website in the exchange of best practice, creating greater awareness of development activity and the use of tools to access this was a priority. By linking this to strengthened communication of national strategic priorities at a local level this could all contribute to the NRN playing a stronger role in achieving the change outcomes sought. Establishing links to other EU funds that impact on rural areas / communities ESF, ERDF and EFF could deliver further benefits here. The workshop went on to consider how this should be structured and delivered; the following broad principles were agreed.

The Network Unit needs to be adequately resourced and be capable of ensuring that it can engage and support other local and national networks e.g. EFF, LEADER (a specific LEADER network should be re-established). It needs to be more of a network with real two-way engagement and flows of information.

In order to do so, it needs to be able to coordinate more actively between networks and stakeholders. This will require adequate staff, tools and resources and specialist needs may be contracted in. There is a need to ensure that those managing the programme are fully engaged in the network.

The website needs further development in relation to best practice exchange.

A more thematic approach was favoured e.g. through the potential to sub-divide the NRN into sections e.g. farming, environment, business and community. Networking sector groups and associated thematic activities were viewed positively as offering a more meaningful approach.

The preferred structure which initially emerged appeared to be Scottish Government co-ordination of a federal organisation, a network of equals with a Stakeholder Group, an Operating Group, flowing down to delivery through sub-contractors.

A broad overall objective was discussed and met with general agreement. An overall objective of: 'Developing empathy and understanding between the key rural stakeholders in order to encourage new ways of thinking and new solutions to old problems.'

Consideration was given to the four models outlined in Figure 1. Model 1, delivery through a single contractor was discarded as being least suitable, as no single interest group should be in this position. Model 2 - the External Consortium was favoured by a significant proportion of participants largely because of its independence and distinct identity, together with the potential for a wider skill set and knowledge. The preference was for governance through an outcome-orientated steering group with decision-making power. There were concerns over how much autonomy government could afford such an NRN, who would lead the consortium and their influence and the potentially higher transaction costs.

The two managing authority hosted options also received significant degrees of support with an overall preference for the Ring Fenced model 4 with an advisory steering group. This was thought to offer benefits in terms of its credibility with all stakeholders and could in time evolve into a more autonomous model with more independent governance, elected as in Sweden. An independent chair would help ensure distance from Government. The core in-house resource could again be complemented by external specialists.

The internal direct delivery model would have advantages in the strength of its in-house linkages and the ability to rapidly develop momentum. Strong Managing Authority buy-in would be essential as would a representative steering group through which the MA must listen to different constituencies. Again, the potential for evolution would need to be designed in. In all these models, the key issue is the commitment of Government, valuing the NRN and committing a commensurate budget.

Summary of Chapter 3: SNRN

  • The Scottish National Rural Network was established with a limited budget, limited ambition and modest scope, compared to many other member states. Its reach was mostly directed towards rural community development and those who made use of its services were, in general, highly satisfied with its performance.
  • Reach of the SNRN to the land-based community was more limited. Stakeholders felt that a more broadly based SNRN could provide a valued network for the land based community. The use of the SNRN to enhance good practice and enable it to be shared could be developed more fully with the land-based community.
  • Although many organisations already provide members with web-based and desk officer support on the SRDP, it was thought that the SNRN could usefully become a central hub for a network of networks.
  • 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.
  • Alternative forms of operation and governance of NRNs were explored in other member states. Although there were varied views among stakeholders, the preferred model was an arm's length, in-house NRN, with a strong stakeholder steering group, backed, where necessary, by bought-in expertise.


Email: Angela Morgan

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