Conclusion and Recommendations
Summary of Findings
This section reviews the key findings from the evaluation. This is followed by a section outlining some of the perceived benefits of networking and the role it could play in any future development. The third section provides details on how these conclusions can be adopted in the possible development of a future rural network.
As noted previously, the SRN has pursued four primary goals in the 2014-2020 SRDP:
(a) increase the involvement of stakeholders in the implementation of rural development;
(b) improve the quality of implementation of rural development programmes;
(c) inform the broader public and potential beneficiaries on rural development policy and funding opportunities;
(d) foster innovation in agriculture, food production, forestry and rural areas."
These are reviewed, in turn, followed by a discussion of the network's main challenges.
The SRN has contributed to stakeholder engagement through the development of events, communications and social media. While this responsibility has been discharged effectively, the broader context is one in which the impacts of such events are hard, in and of themselves, to evaluate as they are likely to have highly diffuse and non-systematic effects.
Support for the SRDP
The SRN were largely perceived to have contributed to the delivery of LEADER, although were seen as contributing less to other elements of the SRDP. At the same time, it was emphasised by interview participants that, concerning agriculture specifically, other parts of the Scottish Government have also had responsibility for this. Overall, the SRN's work with LEADER evidences both the productive role for a networking organisation, while also being indicative of the potential challenges of a network organisation in performing these roles. The challenges indicate that a network structure, to be effective, requires both good strategic governance and management, and close co-operation with internal stakeholders to minimise the risks around duplication and role confusion.
The SRN's limited effectiveness in engaging with other SRDP schemes may reflect both structural and organisational factors. However, the role of any future network in promoting these forms of rural support – particularly when concerned with agricultural development - needs to be carefully considered in the future to ensure effective use of limited resources. The design of any future iteration of the network which is concerned with supporting a rural development programme should identify areas where the network's resources are most valuable and prioritise network resource allocation to these areas.
Communication of Funding Opportunities
The SRN has also effectively grown their communications network. This has allowed them to disseminate information about funding opportunities, as well as rural development in general. Maintaining a weekly newsletter is also a notable achievement.
The SRN has contributed to maintaining European networks and connections valuable to rural policy development. If this role is perceived as valuable going forward, this may be an important function for a future network. In addition, RISS is a good example of an area where work involving the SRN has sought to strategically improve SRDP implementation, facilitated by having a national overview of scheme delivery.
The network has broadly carried out the functions with which it was tasked, albeit with varying degrees of effectiveness. However, the nature of the impacts are distributed and hard to characterise in terms of quantifiable differences that can be easily demonstrated. This is challenging largely because the nature of the network's goals are by their nature about encouraging endogenous development. Therefore, the impacts are not likely to be uniform and are partially contingent on the activities of others. However, this means that, going forward, any future network should ensure that consideration for monitoring and evaluation is central to how such a network is designed.
Perspectives on the Network Benefits
This section considers some broader benefits of the network identified by interview participants. While it does not necessarily provide evidence for the impacts of the network, it emphasises what people perceived to be valuable about it. One perspective noted was the importance of emphasising the broader rural economy and communities, as distinct from the more familiar approach to land-based industries. As one participant put it:
"There is a real tendency to take a short hand approach to the rural economy and think about it in the sense of farming, fishing, land…and what they've [the SRN] been able to do is highlight the broader perspective of the rural economy and communities."
(Anonymous evaluation participant)
As this contribution suggests, having a network to support these activities while ensuring that they have a resonance inside government can be a valuable contribution to ensuring policy is effective, contextually sensitive and inclusive. This is particularly the case given the role of the SRA in developing a rural movement, where a participant perceived that a future rural network could play a crucial role in supporting this function:
"We've got commitments to have a rural movement in Scotland. If that rural movement is about getting people engaged in rural policy, they [the SRN] should be right at the heart of that."
(Anonymous evaluation participant)
Another participant emphasised that:
"Now, more than ever, with the structural and organisational changes taking place nationally, with the impact of Brexit….what's clear is that rural communities need something to go to. They need a resource that's there at a national level, that they can buy into, that can help them."
It is also worth emphasising that the forthcoming period, in the context of both Covid-19 and Brexit, is likely to be challenging for rural communities. Therefore, there are several tasks where any future network could provide a valuable contribution:
- In the context of a changing SRDP, it will be essential to ensure that stakeholders and rural communities continue to be informed about new developments and included in the development of objectives in their communities.
- Continuing to facilitate the development of rural policy through stakeholder engagement in the specific context of the Covid-19 pandemic, with an emphasis on sharing good practice, examples and facilitating links with rural communities. This will help to spread innovative approaches to community development and support recovery in this context.
- Maintaining links with European networks for developing ideas and policy, as well as connecting with non-EU partners in the post-Brexit context.
- Continuing to work with other UK networks, in a context where the Welsh Government is planning to maintain a rural network.
In this context, it can also be emphasised that networking evolved naturally from EU experience in rural policy development, in response to rural development strategies largely focused on exogenous development. While this, alone, does not necessitate that networking is a necessary part of the policy approach, it does suggest that the needs to which networking responds may be a recurring feature of rural development policy.
This evaluation does not make a recommendation on whether networking should be pursued going forward. However, it does make recommendations with regard to how a future network might operate more effectively. As has been discussed, the challenge of evaluating and monitoring the network necessitates that, in a future network, mechanisms are put in place to improve Scottish Government's capacity to keep the network's activities in review, while also making its contributions visible to internal and external stakeholders. These recommendations are now listed, with additional discussion provided.
Clarifying the SRN's Intervention Logic
As discussed above, a key challenge related to demonstrating the impacts of the SRN relates to the lack of clear strategic goals focused on measurable outcomes. If some form of network is to be developed in a future phase of rural development, it is important that clear goals and targets for the network are generated, which take into account the network's primary strengths and capacities to influence rural communities. In the most recent phase, the production of case studies, cultivation of events and sharing of information have emerged as key elements of the network's approach. Developing mechanisms that tether this capacity for engagement with the aim of achieving clear policy outcomes is likely to improve the operation of any future network.
Improved Co-ordination Internally
This recommendation responds to the concerns expressed by some stakeholders about examples of overlap between the tasks of the SRN and other teams within Scottish Government, as well as the concern expressed that there have been some internal stakeholders who were not aware of what the SRN was able to provide in terms of support. Therefore, any future iteration of a rural network should be more effective and pro-active at engaging with internal SG stakeholders, to maximise opportunities for internal policy/analytical colleagues to utilise the reach and capacity of the network. This goal would be supported by the recommendation for more regular reporting on SRN activities, which would feed into this process, as well as a refreshed intervention logic.
More Inclusive Agenda Setting
This recommendation can be read alongside the first, as the process of establishing goals at the start of the year could be considerably enhanced by a more proactive method of soliciting the requirements of policy and research colleagues, as well as the requirements of those outside of government. Without wanting to be overly prescriptive on the precise form this would take, it could entail a wide ranging workshop with key internal and external stakeholders, which identifies and agrees key priorities at the beginning of the year, to ensure they have an appropriate focus. This participation could both shape the priorities of the network in the delivery of their goals, but also influence the delivery of the network by taking greater account of the needs of rural communities and their goals.
More regular reporting on activities
Recently, the SRN has started producing quarterly reports of their activities, which act as easily accessible accounts of the main network priorities and outputs. This has several benefits. It communicates the capacities of the network to others, allows monitoring from the perspective of easily identified areas where network time and energy is being expended, and can underpin more detailed analysis and evaluation at less regular intervals. A future network should continue this practice.
Making the rural network more visible
The next two recommendations relate to making Scotland's rural network more visible and accessible to those inside and outside of government. Any future network should develop a publicly available, interactive online map that documents the wide range of community activism and work occurring throughout rural Scotland. This would take the form of an interactive, digital map that displays the locations and nature of rural community projects that the network supports.
This would provide, at a glance, an overview of the key areas with which the network was interacting and offer an overview of the broader 'rural movement'. By being publicly accessible and providing information about ongoing community work, it would also provide a clear mechanism for rural stakeholders and individuals to engage with the network and other like-minded individuals. As noted by a stakeholder above, many active individuals are looking for 'something to join'. This could help to develop this goal.
Adopt a Membership Structure
Another, linked approach would be for a future network to adopt a formal membership structure for affiliated groups and individuals. This is currently the case in the Northern Irish rural network. By providing a short questionnaire to potential members, any future network could create a durable structure for identifying members' concerns and priorities and for delivering outcomes like consultations and events. This would also assist Scottish Government in assessing the extent to which there is a demand in rural Scotland for the network and the support needs of those using it.
Expanded delivery methods
Particularly in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, there is scope for innovation in the delivery of the network to enhance the network's reach, make better use of resources by making events accessible to a wider range of participants, and ensure events can be delivered in a way that is compliant with government guidelines. In particular, digital communications – webinars, digital skill sharing, podcasts, etc. – would be particularly valuable, and built upon the network's success with case studies. Moreover, if events and workshops could be recorded, this would provide a valuable source of information for future evaluators about the value delivered by the network.
Follow up Evaluation
Finally, it is important that any future network is in a position to continually enhance their capacity through feedback and evaluation. However, as stated, there are distinct challenges in quantifying the network's impacts, given the nature of their approach. To address this absence, the SRN should, on an annual basis, commission a detailed case study which seeks to identify the impact of one of their high profile activities. This would not be an onerous requirement, but would likely involve several interviews or survey questionnaires to draw out the key benefits and scope for improving the network's activities. Ideally, this would engage with the communities that the SRN has been working with. For example, in 2019 the SRN helped to support a rural entrepreneurship event. As a hypothetical example, it would be extremely useful for any future network to, around a year after an event like this, follow up with event participants to gain a better understanding of what has changed as a result and how the approach of the network may be improved going forward.