The Scottish Rural Network (SRN) is the National Rural Network (NRN) for Scotland, supported by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD). The network is managed through the Network Support Unit (NSU), which is based in the Scottish Government's Agriculture and Rural Economy Directorate and managed by the Rural Economy and Communities policy team. The purpose of the network, as it is specified in European legislation, is to support the delivery of the 2014-2020 Scottish Rural Development Programme (SRDP). The SRDP delivers Pillar 2 of the European Union (EU) Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), and comprises of a number of rural schemes aimed at improving outcomes in both the rural economy and agricultural sector.
This evaluation was produced by the Scottish Government's Rural and Environment Science and Analytical Services Division in late 2019/early 2020. The EU promotes such evaluation and this was undertaken with the purpose of understanding what the SRN had delivered and how. The research involved an analysis of previous reports, analysis of SRN documentation and 17 interviews with internal and external stakeholders. The findings can help inform decisions about future iterations of any Scottish rural network following the UK's exit from the EU. Publication of the evaluation was delayed by over six months by the Covid-19 pandemic. While minor amendments have been made to reflect on this period, it is important to be aware that the context at the time of publication is different to when the evaluation was undertaken, due to both Covid-19 and the greater proximity to EU exit.
The aims of the SRN are as follows:
- Get more people from rural communities, businesses and the wider public involved in policy developments that affect them
- Help improve the delivery of the Scottish Rural Development Programme
- Inform farmers, rural businesses and communities about policy and funding opportunities
- Encourage innovation in agriculture, food production, forestry and rural areas
Overall, the SRN has contributed towards the goals specified for it in legislation, although it can be observed that some areas have been better addressed than others. This evaluation provides an outline of the activities the SRN has organised and considers their potential impact.
What has the SRN provided?
During the 2014-2020 SRDP, the SRN has undertaken the following activities:
- Developing, managing and delivering a large number of events and workshops concerned with rural development policy. For example, the SRN has helped to organise the Rural Youth Project in 2018, supported the development and delivery of the Rural Transport Convention in 2018, and organised the 2019 Rural Enterprise Futures event.
- The SRN has maintained a website with information about rural Scotland and links to support and funding information. Between the beginning of 2020 and October 2020, 73, 326 sessions were logged on the website, indicating ongoing demand.
- The SRN has contributed to the development of LEADER through logistical support, meeting facilitation and case study development.
- Communicating information about the SRDP via the SRN's dedicated website and other communication channels and producing information about the SRDP, including case studies of projects, event reports and summaries of the programme.
- Supporting the delivery of the SRDP via the development of the Rural Innovation Support Service (RISS) This has involved providing support for SRDP activities, particularly support for the LEADER programme.
- Sharing additional funding opportunities and good practice with rural stakeholders through a range of communication channels developed and maintained by the SRN, including videos, e-mail, use of social media, case studies etc.
- Supported Scottish Government policy areas seeking input from rural Scotland, including the promotion of consultation exercises on topics such as Air Departure Tax, After Hours Child Care and Rural Housing initiatives. They have also undertaken events to support Scottish Government cross-cutting policy areas. For example, the Rural Entrepreneurship event in September 2019 which encouraged networking between stakeholders and SG policy across different areas, including climate change, business, connectivity and transport to support rural development.
- The SRN has effectively maintained links with partners in the European Union. This has involved, in practice, contributing to pan-European projects on, for example, Smart Villages and short-supply chains. This has, in turn, contributed to the development of policy in these areas.
In addition, although it took place outside of the main scope of the data collection, the SRN has been involved in supporting the Scottish Government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic across rural Scotland. This has included developing a dedicated page within its COVID-19 Hub detailing locations and dates for mobile testing units (MTU) in Scotland, signposting to this resource through its social media channels and ensuring delivery partners were able to share messaging with their networks of contacts. As of September 2020, he Covid-19 Information Hub has been viewed 14, 613 times since launch. The mobile testing information schedule and testing information pages have been viewed 21, 707 times since May 6th.
Additionally, the SRN utilised the annual Mental Health Awareness week to promote COVID-19 related mental health and wellbeing initiatives and resources (w/c 18 May). The SRN also provided support to Ministerial stakeholder meetings and development of a rural recovery plan, worked within the Rural Intelligence Centre (RIC) and produced video content for use at stakeholder meetings.
What are the challenges?
- The data from interviews found the perception that the SRN had largely worked with LEADER, and that work on the promotion and engagement with other schemes had been limited. This may reflect a range of factors. However, the SRN has produced case studies for several SRDP projects, which outline individual examples of funded projects. While the majority of case studies related to LEADER projects – and were in some cases specifically requested by those groups – the case studies generally provide examples of how the funds can and have been used, indicate their benefits and share good examples. The extent to which these drove additional scheme engagement is, however, hard to assess.
- Given the network's broad remit and multiple work-streams, there have been examples where network activities have slightly overlapped with other Scottish Government functions. In some cases, this has created confusion and frustration.
- From the perspective of evaluating the SRN, while it is relatively simple to identify outputs from their work, it can be more challenging to identify the impacts that have resulted from this. As noted in the literature review, evaluating rural networks is broadly recognised as difficult. This challenge has two components:
- o On the one hand, the SRN's interventions are largely concerned with supporting rural development through the engagement of communities. As a result, impacts are likely to take varying amounts of time, and manifest themselves in inconsistent ways. For example, data collection indicated that event feedback received by the SRN was supportive and participants reported making important contacts and obtaining relevant information. However, the eventual outcome of these contacts and new information will vary considerably. There are also likely to be 'soft' benefits, such as changes to participant mind-sets, that are challenging to measure.
- o On the other hand, it may also be the case that more effectively identified strategic goals, with an emphasis on collecting supporting data for monitoring purposes would make it more straightforward to demonstrate impacts. Several recommendations are made with the aim ofupporting this process in any future network.
Given the pressing rural challenges related to climate change, rural economic development and demographic trends including rural depopulation, the 2019-20 Programme for Government made a commitment 'to support the development of a rural movement that will engage with communities between rural parliaments to include a more diverse range of voices, including those in disadvantaged communities'. It may be that a future network could contribute to this goal. If a future rural network is to be part of this approach to pursuing rural development, this evaluation recommends:
1. Clarifying the network's intervention logic: A key finding from this evaluation is that while the SRN has undertaken a range of activities in pursuit of their broader goals, these have not always been connected to a broader strategic plan or a clear set of desired outcomes around which to organise the network's activity. This, in turn, has made it more difficult to demonstrate a cumulative impact from the network's extensive organising of events, managing communications and working with parts of the SRDP. Any future iteration of the rural network will require a set of clearly defined goals in relation to which other activities can be strategically deployed. This could be clearly linked to a policy model with a clear intervention logic that understands and makes use of the network's capacities to engage with rural communities.
2. Improved co-ordination internally: In reflection of the concerns noted above, about the under-representation of schemes other than LEADER in the SRN's work, any future network should be more effective and pro-active at engaging with internal SG stakeholders. This would maximise opportunities for internal policy/analytical colleagues to utilise the reach and capacity of the network while minimising overlap.
3. More regular reporting on activities: Any network could continue the recently adopted practice of issuing quarterly reports to the wider Directorate to provide a clear description of outputs.
4. More inclusive goal setting: Any future network could enhance their current processes for identifying and agreeing key priorities at the beginning of the year, to ensure they have an appropriate focus. This might be improved by a more formal process of meeting with external and internal stakeholders, to ensure all perspectives are considered.
5. Making the broader rural network more visible: Any future network could develop a publicly accessible online mapping tool that collects and displays the range of community based rural activism taking place nationally, including that which the network have actively participated in. By doing this, the goal of developing a 'rural movement' may be enhanced, while providing a clear mechanism for rural stakeholders and individuals to engage both with the network and other like-minded individuals.
6. Adopting a membership structure: Any future network may wish to adopt a formal membership structure for affiliated groups and individuals. This would create a durable structure for the network, provide a mechanism for identifying members' concerns and priorities and for delivering consultations and events. It would also clarify the extent to which there is demand for the network's services.
7. Expand delivery methods: There is further scope for innovation in the delivery of the network. For example, digital communications – webinars, digital skill sharing, podcasts, and so on which may offer advantages over face to face engagement. In the current context of Covid-19, this recommendation takes on an additional pertinence.
8. Follow-up impact evaluation: Finally, in order to learn more about the ways in which the network can influence change and deliver benefits, any future network could commission a detailed, stakeholder-led case study about a group/area that they have supported to demonstrate the benefits of their approach and what lessons can be learned. The selection of case studies could be undertaken by internal stakeholders using previous examples of the network's planned work and be produced on an annual basis via engagement with participants two to three years after the initial work of any future network has taken place. The cost of commissioning the case study would need to be incorporated into a future network's budget.