Scottish Rural Network: evaluation

Evaluation of the Scottish Rural Network which reports on the network’s work against its responsibilities and considers the scope for development and improvement.

Improving SRDP Implementation and Encouraging Innovation

Key Findings

What has gone well:

  • The SRN has contributed to the development of LEADER through logistical support, meeting facilitation and case study development.
  • The SRN has contributed to innovation through engagement with European networks and the creation of the Rural Innovation Support Service (RISS). RISS provides an example of the value the SRN has added by providing a national overview of the RDP and contributing to its development.

The challenges:

  • The SRN has had limited engagement with the other aspects of the rural development programme. However, evaluation participants also emphasised that this may reflect a lack of engagement from the schemes with the SRN, as well as the fact that there are a range of existing mechanisms which also serve the function of supporting these schemes.

Policy Priority

The policy priorities underpinning the two goals of this chapter are the second and fourth. The second goal of the SRN is to:

"Improve the quality of SRDP implementation"

This is further specified to include the following:

  • establish and coordinate thematic working groups and dissemination of outputs;
  • establish and manage a national LEADER network, including a training programme and regular networking activities.
  • Dissemination of monitoring and evaluation findings.

The fourth aim of the SRN is to:

"Foster innovation in agriculture, food production, forestry and rural areas (complementary with the support under measures 1 and 2)".

This is further specified to include the following:

  • organise project visits to encourage co-operation and the sharing of knowledge and experience;
  • facilitate cooperative working between LAGs in Scotland, the UK and Europe by bringing them together to share ideas, identify common objectives, develop proposals and agree roles;
  • facilitate the establishment of Operational Groups;
  • disseminate outputs from Operational Groups and the EIP Network to stakeholders in Scotland

How Have the SRN Pursued This Goal?

This goal has been pursued by the network in four main ways:

  • Engagement with LEADER
  • Engagement with the other SRDP schemes
  • Cross-European and UK networking to develop and exchange ideas
  • The Rural Innovation Support Service (RISS)

It should be noted that, as above, the SRN was specifically required to support the management of LEADER.

Engagement with LEADER

During both the 2007-2013 and 2014-2020 programme periods, the SRN facilitated national staff group meetings, administered working groups on specific themes, and developed one-off events like the national meeting on co-operation in 2019. The SRN has also produced a LEADER specific newsletter and a large number of case studies that focus on completed LEADER projects. A full list of events the SRN has undertaken with LEADER is as follows:

  • 2014: Organisational support with the LEADER Co-operation Working Group
  • 2015: Support for LEADER Communications Working Group, Conference on co-operation/community-led local development.
  • 2016: LEADER conference, LEADER transnational co-operation fair
  • 2017: contribution to communications, support for LEADER LARCS group, LEADER co-operation exchange, and LEADER staff group meetings
  • 2018: Support for LEADER monitoring and evaluation, LEADER co-operation workshop, LEADER lessons learned event, LEADER think tank meeting, two LEADER staff group meetings, LEADER communications working group, two events on demonstrating value of LEADER/CLLD[18] through evaluation, LEADER celebration event.
  • 2019: LEADER Monitoring and Evaluation working group, two LEADER staff group meetings, LEADER evaluation training, UK and Ireland LEADER Cooperation networking event.

The participants indicated that the primary forms of support provided via these meetings was administrative, concerned with developing monitoring and evaluation, and support for co-operation.

The support for LEADER by SRN – i.e. organising national meetings, delivering a funding session, delivering social media and filming training– was generally praised by interview participants. This was perceived to have provided valuable, national support in a context where many participants were taking part on a voluntary basis. This is a useful example of the potential for an external network to take on a useful role in supporting local action.

The SRN has also contributed to the goal of co-operation, in the following ways:

  • Several co-operation cafes were run earlier in the 2014-20 programme (2016 and 2017) to facilitate development of co-operation projects and to provided adequate time within the programme to bring projects to completion.
  • The 2019 Co-operation event, specifically planned to push LAGs with remaining underspend to maximise their budget before the programme ended.

Data collection, however, did indicate some limitations in the network's approach. While the 2019 networking was praised for what it provided, some also viewed this as too late in the timeline to be of much assistance (co-operation projects can be time-consuming to organise). Critical respondents emphasised that this was indicative of a lack of pro-active planning and emphasised the need for strategic management in the context of a loose, flexibly defined network structure. In the case of monitoring and evaluation, perspectives were also mixed.

Another challenge that emerged during data collection was that, while the network's contributions were generally perceived as useful, there was also the potential for the network's work to overlap with existing functions within Scottish Government for managing LEADER resources. Concerns raised by participants included communications issues related to information sharing, the SRN engaging with LEADER stakeholders and, in some cases, the SRN undertaking responsibilities that were more appropriately held by the LEADER delivery unit.

Given the nature of the evaluation, which relied on qualitative data collection and analysis, it is difficult to offer a clear judgment on whose perspective is the fairest representation of the facts. However, the fact that some stakeholders had a more negative impression of this indicates that, in the future, the clear management of expectations and capacity should be emphasised. As is recommended, more effective planning and integration of internal and external stakeholder goals may address these concerns.

Finally, a common finding in the participant interviews was that, while the SRN had worked extensively with LEADER, other SRDP projects had received less attention. This disparity is clear from the large number of LEADER focused meetings and the comparative number of case studies devoted to LEADER projects, compared to other schemes. Based on the accounts of the research participants, the emphasis on LEADER has, in practice, emerged from a combination of challenges in effectively working with other schemes and the amenability of LEADER projects to the structure and emphasis of the SRN.

Key Finding: The support for LEADER from the SRN has contributed to their goal of supporting the SRDP generally. However, the example also highlights some challenges of integrating the network effectively into the multiple policy and work-streams of the SRDP more generally. While there have been benefits to this, interviewees also noted challenges in overlapping work and a sense that efforts may be duplicated by multiple teams engaging with similar groups. This may be partially addressed by more effective internal communications, as noted in the recommendations.


In the first instance, several participants emphasised that, while efforts had been made by the SRN to offer support to other SRDP schemes[19], these had tended to get only limited feedback. In the second it was emphasised that, by contrast, LEADER groups had in some cases actively sought out the SRN's support in making case studies. In addition, the administrative structure of LEADER, with a large number of national meetings requiring co-ordination and facilitation, relies on considerable social activation, as distinct from SRDP schemes that are more concerned with specific sectors. It's also worth noting that LEADER has approximately 90 staff throughout Scotland, making it more likely that this group would actively seek support, compared to far more limited numbers of staff involved with other schemes.

In the event of a future, comparable SRDP, it will be worth considering how valuable this part of the SRN's role is, given the relative success of the remainder SRDP in the context of limited SRN support. However, it should also be noted that the development of RISS (see below) may have, at least since inception, contributed to the SRDP more generally, by facilitating the support of innovative projects in obtaining funding.

European and UK Networking

The SRN has played an important role in facilitating visits and events involving European and UK partners to share ideas and best practice. In some cases this has involved facilitating the visits of farmers or decision makers visiting from Europe, as well as contributing to conferences. Part of this relates to the EU-wide meetings of the National Rural Networks, which the SRN regularly participated in. In addition, they have effectively facilitated European engagement in the following contexts:

  • 2016: Participation in the European Conference 'Unlocking the potential of the SRDPs' and European Network for Rural Development workshops
  • 2018: Participation in the European Rural Network conference in Estonia, and acting as a local partner to the 11th OECD Rural Development Conference.
  • 2018: Facilitated separate visits of Danish and Estonian local action groups
  • 2019: Co-ordinated 10 Scottish submissions to the "Networx" Rural Inspiration Awards
  • 2019: Facilitated visits from Swedish Fishery and facilitated European workshops around Smart Villages, an EU commission project concerned with rural regeneration.

The shape of the future relationship with rural policy actors in the EU is presently unclear. There is an ongoing emphasis on networking with the next phase of the CAP and several shared challenges of rural development – including depopulation in remote areas and sustainability - as well as the increasing emphasis on reducing the environmental impact of agriculture. There may continue to be substantial benefits that come from engagement here. The importance of sharing experience was noted by one evaluation participant:

"For me, talking to people that work in the national rural networks, it is so heartening

to hear that rural areas across Europe face similar problems…so being able to engage with other European colleagues on what their experience has been of those issues [depopulation, climate change, rural housing] and what they're doing to tackle it is sometimes one of the only genuine ways to get new ideas into government…" (Anonymous Evaluation Participant)

At the same time, as policy emphasis shifts from Europe, there may be additional value in using the network to develop links with actors in non-EU contexts. For example, the Arctic Nations Initiative is a small network of Arctic nation countries, which includes Scotland. Here, there is considerable scope for the SRN to be part of a wider network of ideas, exchange and innovation. In the post-transition context, the opportunities for this sort of networking to establish links with other nations are only likely to increase, creating opportunities for networks of common interest. However, the need to maintain links with Europe – even if these are reduced and largely online – is also worth emphasising.

Rural Innovation Support Service

The Rural Innovation Support Service (RISS) was launched in February 2018, and is partially the culmination of SRN work to develop innovation in the Scottish agriculture system. RISS allows farmers with innovative ideas to develop these with facilitation and assistance provided via the Soil Association (the contracted delivery partners).

The process is straightforward: individuals approach RISS with ideas, after which they are provided with a professional facilitator to help them develop the idea and put it into practice. If necessary, this will involve putting together a bid for funding to develop the idea. Once the idea comes to fruition, this may then be promoted by RISS and used to develop an example of good practice. Current working groups supported by RISS include those focused on Agroforestry, Recycling Plastic Farm Waste, Local Authority Vegetable Supply Chains and Mobile Abattoirs. A full list of current working groups can be found here.

Evaluation participants emphasised that RISS offers a particularly valuable resource to farmers seeking to innovate, as it could engage effectively with those who were not yet at the stage of a having a developed funding proposal, but were keen to develop their ideas into practice. Given that it facilitates work with other like-minded, professional facilitators and provides access to expertise, there was scope for increasing the level, quality and scope of rural innovation.

As numerous participants emphasised, there was potentially an important role for a rural network in providing a national overview of rural issues which might be lost in the day-to-day running of the schemes. From this perspective, the above development of a resource precisely designed to address gaps in the rural development programme – i.e. support for those who are developing new ideas - is a useful example of how important this role can be.

Have These Actions Contributed to the Policy Goal?

The SRN has clearly contributed to the goals of the SRDP, both through the facilitation of LEADER and the development of RISS. The contribution to the LEADER project shows that the SRN can effectively add value to community led rural development, and provide a national perspective on local projects. However, as noted, this has not been without its challenges. In the case of the remaining SRDP, however, the SRN were perceived to have offered limited additional support, albeit in a context where there was limited engagement from the schemes themselves. However, at the same time, the network's contribution to the development of RISS, although it did not exist for the first four years of the Programme, has and is likely to continue to support the SRDP, particularly from the perspective of engaging potential applicants who might have otherwise been discouraged. Going forward, participants emphasised that it might be preferable to develop a broader focus for the rural network:

"…I think, if there was any criticism, it would that it's been focused on LEADER and SRDP and while that is understandable given the fact that SRN are a requirement of SRDP and funded through its technical assistance budget I think the network could be used more broadly to promote rural policy development'

(Anonymous evaluation participant)

It is also clear that the SRN has a potentially valuable role in the facilitation of European and UK networks for innovation. However, there are also examples where these activities were somewhat time consuming. This was made clear in relation to, for example, the SRN's activities with hosting European partners visiting to learn more about Scottish Agriculture. Here, it was observed that this led to the SRN planning learning visits for various groups, ranging from Estonian livestock farmers to Swedish fishermen. The context was one in which, upon receiving a request for a visit from a partner – which could potentially come at any time without warning – SRN members would be required to plan a range of activities, site visits and events to facilitate the visit in question. While this is undoubtedly a valuable activity from the perspective of building European links, it also puts a strain on the relatively small network support unit with responsibilities that are already substantive. In this sense, a clearer policy focus could ensure not only that visits and shared learning are on specific subjects – which would improve the capacity of the unit overall – but would also allow any future network to take a proactive approach to organising a useful programme of events and visits that served this purpose.

It was noted above that the SRN has effectively demonstrated their capacity to cultivate narratives about rural Scotland and the impacts of policy therein, as well as acting as a platform for collaboration between rural actors. In this part of the evaluation, this has further been demonstrated in relation to RISS and the work of the SRN with LEADER. While concerns have been raised, clarification of the intervention logic of a future network and more effective collaboration with internal stakeholders going forward may address some of these concerns.



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