EVALUATION OF THE RURAL DEVELOPMENT PROGRAMME FOR ENGLAND (RDPE) NETWORK SUMMARY REPORT, AUGUST 2014

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1 EVALUATION OF THE RURAL DEVELOPMENT PROGRAMME FOR ENGLAND (RDPE) NETWORK SUMMARY REPORT, AUGUST 2014

2 1. INTRODUCTION This paper summarises the findings of an independent assessment of networking activities carried out by the England Rural Network during the Rural Development Programme for England (RDPE). The Rural Development Regulation covering the Programme Period set out a formal requirement for all Member States to establish a National Rural Network (NRN) to bring together organisations and administrations involved in rural development, to support co-operation and facilitate the exchange of good practice and experience 1.This was initiated for the RDPE and in the period must support rural development more widely. This study considers the performance, role and impact of the Network in supporting the delivery of the RDPE, the value added through this activity and assesses current and future needs. These findings should help inform the development and delivery of networking activity in the RDPE THE STUDY Methods used in this study principally took the form of a policy and process evaluation and the research tools were developed accordingly. Design was consistent with the principles set out under the Rural Development Regulation (RDR) Common Monitoring and Evaluation Framework developed by the European Commission and, as such, is broadly consistent with the UK Treasury Magenta Book. The evaluation involved documentary analysis, a stakeholder questionnaire, an online questionnaire, cascaded regional workshops/focus groups and case studies of other rural networks in the UK and the NRNs of two other Member States. The documentary analysis included examination of annual work plans and a range of written documentation, the examination of web use and the use of different parts of the website. The stakeholder questionnaire was undertaken with 31 stakeholders, who were, or whose professional background and roles suggested might be, engaged with some aspects of the RDPE. The online survey which was cascaded through a range of rural organisations generated 248 responses. Such a sample cannot be regarded as statistically representative because the sample cannot be seen as random, but it allows indicative findings to be identified. It necessarily picks up the response of the more engaged stakeholders. The three regional workshops were held in York, Cambridge and Bristol with a broadly similar constituency to those surveyed individually. They were attended by 42 people in all with a good spatial coverage from throughout England. As well as good coverage of different rural constituencies, there was strong and positive engagement by those attending. The range of methods used enables a degree of triangulation or cross checking to help validate findings and thereby provides more robust conclusions than might be obtained by the use of a single approach. This approach is widely used where it is challenging to identify a user population from which to sample and was particularly important in this case. 1 Evaluation of RDPE Network 2

3 3. KEY FINDINGS The key findings from the study are as follows: The first period in which a National Rural Network operated from 2007 to 2013 was necessarily a learning process for both managers and stakeholders. During the period, the National Rural Network primarily supported delivery of Axes 3 and 4 of the Rural Development Programme. The realignment of the institutions associated with delivery of the Rural Development Programme for England (RDPE) impacted on the capacity of the Network to operate effectively. Consulted stakeholders saw an important potential role for a National Rural Network across all aspects of delivery of the RDPE. The NRN is currently widely perceived as an information conduit, not a platform for knowledge transfer and exchange. A governance model which engages the many constituencies involved in the delivery of the RDPE to a greater extent would be welcomed by stakeholders. Many other NRNs operate a multi-level approach to create outreach to regional and sub-regional actors which is considered to strengthen RDP delivery to different beneficiary groups. Experience to date of Network operation in England suggests it has not been pivotal in delivery of the RDPE, and it is not on the radar of many stakeholders. The National Rural Network is valued by Government as part of the institutional architecture supporting delivery of the RDPE and rural development more widely. The new Network should have a clearer intervention logic regarding its role is and its functions which should emphasise knowledge sharing and good practice to improve rural development practices and outcomes. A primary task of the Network in the new funding period should be to extend its reach to a wider rural constituency to better support networking and innovation in agriculture, food production, forestry and rural areas. The new network should consider carefully models of governance that enhances identity, credibility and reach to different constituencies. Enhanced means of connecting potential beneficiaries to examples of good practice should be pursued with greater vigour. Efforts should be made to articulate the NRN to other local delivery mechanisms that support rural development. Evaluation of RDPE Network 3

4 4. THE RESULTS IN DETAIL 4.1 The first period in which a National Rural Network operated was necessarily a learning process for both managers and stakeholders. National authorities were tasked by the European Commission to create a National Rural Network for the programming period. Regulation 1698/2005 stated that each Member State shall establish a national rural network, which groups the organisations and administrations involved in rural development. The NRN was established to extend the principle of supporting delivery of rural development that had been established by the earlier UK-wide Leader Network. The period was thus one in which the roles, responsibilities and functions of the NRN were under development. The new Network was established within an already crowded institutional field which contained many groups supporting rural development in a variety of ways. 4.2 Defra s aspiration was to create a National Rural Network emphasising support for delivery of Axes 3 and 4 of the Rural Development Programme. Defra gave the responsibility of developing the NRN to the Commission for Rural Communities with a mandate to support Axes1, 3 and 4 of the RDP. There is some evidence that the Network sought to establish RDPE-wide reach, but Axis 2 was supported by primarily by Natural England and the Forestry Commission and Regional Offices took primary responsibility for Axis 1. However, there is little evidence of cross-axis working which endeavoured to link different elements of the RDPE (e.g. support for biodiversity which might enhance capacity for rural tourism). The desire to deliver networking events was seriously constrained by limited financial resources. There appears to have been a conscious choice for the NRN to focus on Axes 3 and 4 and support a regionalised platform for delivery of the RDPE. 4.3 The realignment of the institutions associated with delivery of the Rural Development Programme for England (RDPE) impacted on the capacity of the Network to operate effectively. Significant changes were made to the institutional architecture supporting rural development in England during the RDPE. After the 2010 election, the Commission for Rural Communities was abolished as were the Regional Development Agencies. The abolition of the Commission for Rural Communities led to the relocation of the Network Support Unit within Defra. The RDA functions transferred to Defra. In the future it will be important for the NRN to engage with more recently established bodies, such as Local Enterprise Partnerships and Rural and Farming Networks. Especially where RDAs had taken a strong interest in rural affairs, their abolition and the resultant fragmentation of delivery of support for the RDPE led to co-ordination challenges. This impacted especially heavily on the nonland based rural NGOs. However, the relocation of the Network Support Unit within Defra created potential for the reunification of the component axes of the RDPE within the Network. It is clear that there were positive results arising from these changes with respect to information flow and stakeholder perception of the reliability of information disseminated. Evaluation of RDPE Network 4

5 4.4 The NRN is currently widely perceived as an information conduit, not a platform for knowledge transfer and exchange. Whereas the stakeholder consultation revealed a strong demand for the exchange of good practice (as was one of the stated intentions of the Network), almost all respondents perceived the NRN to be primarily a conduit for information about the RDPE. A network implies a multidirectional flow of information and knowledge among different actors, but the RDPE Network to date has been to a large degree involved in unidirectional flow of RDPErelated information from Defra. The provision of accurate information was seen as an important but not the only function of the network. Knowledge transfer between stakeholders and networking were also seen as essential activities of a well-functioning network and additional activity in these areas by the Network was widely advocated. 4.5 Experience to date of Network operation in England suggests it has not been pivotal in delivery of the RDPE, and it is not on the radar of many stakeholders. Most rural stakeholders consulted felt that the NRN had a low profile and had not engaged with the needs of most local actors with respect to networking and knowledge exchange. In a small number of cases the network had added significant value to RDPE delivery, but for the majority of those who were aware of the network or had engaged with it in some way the degree of value added was small. The levels of web-based engagement and newsletter recipients were low compared to other parts of the UK, where modestly financially endowed networks appeared to have connected to a wider constituency of rural interests, but this provides a platform on which to build greater reach 4.6 Consulted stakeholders saw an important potential role for a National Rural Network across all aspects of delivery of the RDPE. There was wide-ranging support from stakeholders for a National Rural Network to support all aspects and all axes of the RDPE. The implementation plan developed by the CRC for 2009 indicated an intention to provide a programme-wide support system, but in practice the Network primarily supported delivery of Axes 3 and 4 of the RDPE. Market research undertaken in indicated a need for the NRN to have a clear remit, to avoid duplication and to ensure that the Network should focus specifically on exchanging good practice on: (a) Integration between the Axes; (b) Support for capacity building and networking between the LAGs; (c) Innovative programme design and delivery arrangements; (d) Provision of feedback from stakeholders to delivery agencies on programme management and delivery. The research also reported that the widest call was for the Network to have clarity of purpose with defined objectives and a high level of relevance. Discussions with stakeholders in re-validated these views. Evaluation of RDPE Network 5

6 4.7 A governance model which engages the many constituencies involved in the delivery of the RDPE to a greater extent would be welcomed by stakeholders. NRNs in other member states have different governance structures. Many of them give different rural stakeholders a role in the governance of the Network, mostly in the form of an advisory group, but also in terms of shaping strategic decisions about the focus of Network activities. The creation of an advisory group was seen as desirable by a majority of stakeholders consulted, although there was no consensus as to its exact membership, roles and responsibilities. 4.8 NRNs in several other Member States operate a multi-level approach to create outreach to regional and sub-regional actors which is considered to strengthen RDP delivery to different beneficiary groups. Many consultees regretted the loss of regional co-ordination of delivery of the RDPE which had prevailed when RDAs existed. Other member states deliver their RDPs through a multilevel approach including regional level. This often aligns RDP support with the work of other rural institutions with regional delivery structures. NRNs in two Nordic countries (Sweden and Finland) reveal higher levels of resourcing and network activity with far more events. Both countries engage in knowledge transfer and exchange on good practice much more than the RDPE Network and both operate successful award schemes to engage beneficiaries and highlight good practice. They are not directly comparable, but may nevertheless offer indicative findings of relevance to English networking practice. Different facets of the RDP connect to very different networks and their related constituencies which often have regional representation. Some consultees feared that LEPs might have an overly urban focus, be too local in their orientation and ignore the particular needs of rural development actors. This concern, if realised, reinforces the need for a strengthened NRN or some other means to represent rural interests in local development. Evaluation of RDPE Network 6

7 5 LESSONS FOR THE FUTURE 5.1 The National Rural Network is a valued part of the institutional architecture supporting delivery of the RDPE and rural development more widely Although respondents in all the three forms of engagement with stakeholders were sometimes critical and often not strongly engaged with the NRN, they almost unanimously considered that a single formal knowledge exchange and transfer hub was desirable for effective implementation of the Rural Development Programme and rural development more widely. 5.2 The new Network should have a clearer intervention logic regarding its role and its functions which should emphasise knowledge sharing and good practice to improve rural development practices and outcomes. Further attention should be given to the intervention logic of the NRN in the new RDPE. Recognising that it operates in a crowded institutional field, the NRN can best add value by emphasising knowledge sharing and good practice and by bringing diverse rural actors together to share good practice through networking events. The underlying principle is that sharing good practice will enhance the overall impact of the RDPE and offer greater value for money than would arise from many individualistic and independent actions. 5.3 A primary task of the Network in the new funding period should be to extend its reach to a wider rural constituency to better support networking and innovation in agriculture, food production, forestry and rural areas. Respondents felt that the Network should cover all aspects of the RDPE. However, the Network should focus on plugging gaps in networking activity rather than attempt comprehensive coverage across all areas of RDPE activity. Where there are good existing networks, as in Axis 2 and parts of Axis 1 replication of others networking activities should be avoided, although collaborative actions are recommended. Good networking at different scales is undertaken by bodies such as Natural England and the Forestry Commission. Such work should be integrated into the RDPE communications strategy and aligned with specific NRN activity. 5.4 The new network should consider carefully models of governance that enhances identity, credibility and reach to different constituencies. The research revealed no consensus as to the optimal mode of governance of the new Network. However, taking into account good practice in other member states, further discussions should be undertaken with key stakeholders to determine the membership and roles and responsibilities of an advisory group for the NRN. This would be likely to increase the sense of engagement of stakeholders and nurture greater involvement with the Network. Evaluation of RDPE Network 7

8 5.5 Enhanced means of connecting potential beneficiaries to examples of good practice should be pursued with greater vigour. A core function of the Network should be to facilitate the exchange of good practice among rural development practitioners. Recognising the needs of different stakeholders and regional specificities of their information needs, further networking events should be offered, which explicitly focus on sharing good practice and enhancing the quality of funding proposals from individuals or groups. 5.6 Efforts should be made to articulate the NRN to other local delivery mechanisms that support rural development. The changes in the architecture of support for local and regional economic development create a need for the NRN to consider how best to engage with LEPs and other bodies. It is particularly important that rural development actors are represented in LEPs and that the work of LEPs embraces rural actors. Connecting the opportunities afforded by the RDPE to local development institutions should be a priority for the NRN. 5.7 In summary, creating a vibrant Network with high capacity for accurate information flow, the exchange of good practice and good linkage between the different component parts of the RDPE is the key task confronting network managers. There is a strong demand for a vibrant NRN to support information flow, knowledge exchange and high-quality information on good practice. There is a need to adequately resource the Network if the demands of rural stakeholders are to be met effectively. A clear intervention logic should be established. Consideration should be given to creating governance structures which involve key rural constituencies and organisations. The NRN should assume a higher profile and badge its activities more clearly. The website should be further developed to become a must-visit site for those involved in rural development. Networking and Knowledge Transfer and Exchange should also assume a higher priority. For example, themed networking events at regional level could be offered as part of this. These could be used to share exemplar good practice to specific rural constituencies on both the effective organisation of local delivery of RDP component parts (such as catchment level collaboration between actors) and well-designed schemes which offer good value for money. The NRN should have the ambition to become a hub of a network of rural networks. Evaluation of RDPE Network 8

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