Managing the Network
National Rural Networks (NRNs) are policy networks. They have clear policy-related objectives which are set in the regulatory framework of the EAFRD and they are required to pursue these objectives through the preparation and implementation of an NRN Action Plan. This Action Plan is made operational by the Network Support Unit (NSU) of the NRN – usually via an annual or multi-annual work plan.
Two important points to remember when preparing an NRN Action Plan are:
- It should be set-up in a way to ensure both a) continuity of activities throughout the whole programming period, and; b) the flexibility to respond to changing needs during the course of RDP implementation. The development of rolling action plans (e.g. covering 2-3 years with periodical review every 6-12 months) is one approach used by some NRNs and has the advantage of being flexible, whilst setting-up clear targets for the short- to medium-term.
- The active engagement of network members / stakeholders during the preparation, implementation and follow-up stages of the NRN Action Plan will greatly help to create ownership of the NRN and its activities.
- Some specific thoughts from the Wallonia (Belgium) NSU on building the strategic framework for managing an NRN can be viewed here [PDF ]
Basic Networking Tools
Support for networking is not a new feature of EU rural development policy. National networks of Local Action Groups (LAGs) were set-up under both the LEADER II and LEADER+ programmes. Based upon experience from the LEADER networks, DG AGRI recommended that the following basic networking tools were included / developed in the Action Plans of all NRNs established for the 2007-2013 programme period:
- Web sites and “common” web-based tools, including on-line project / best practice databases, trans-national project databases and LAG databases
- Events to bring people together (see Info Box below)
- Thematic working groups
- Support for cooperation between LAGs, including partner search tools etc.
- Training tools for new LAGs
- Support on the theme of evaluation
- Production of technical information
- Scientific committees aimed at the dissemination of knowledge and research on rural development
An overview of the Action Plans of many NRNs from 2007-2013 can be found via the interactive map here. There are many lessons that can be learned from the experiences of NRNs regarding the range of networking tools incorporated in their in 2007-2013 Action Plans and a comprehensive selection of good practice examples, success stories, relevant experience and case studies can be found here.
Different networks obviously used different tools in different ways, but all of the basic networking tools used by NSUs in 2007-2013 can be described in broad terms as:
- Knowledge development tools
- Knowledge sharing / communication tools
- Exchange and co-operation tools
NRN Action Plans for 2014-2020
These basic networking tools are further reinforced and expanded for 2014-2020 as “minimum tasks” listed in Article 54(3) of the Rural Development Basic Act (Regulation 1305/2013). NRNs must perform all the tasks listed in the Regulation, although the tasks can be performed separately by different components of the NSU according to the structural and operational set-up chosen by the Member State.
The following sub-sections give an overview of the minimum tasks that NRNs are expected to include their 2014-2020 Action Plans. These are a combination of the basic networking tasks initiated in 2007-2013, plus additional tasks to strengthen the role of the NRNs in 2014-2020. All of these tasks will inevitably continue to evolve and develop as the NRNs grow and mature. Key tasks of NRNs for the 2014-2020 programming period include:
- Collection and dissemination of project examples
- Facilitating thematic and analytical exchanges
- Training and networking activities for LAGs
- Support for transnational, inter-territorial and other forms of cooperation
- Networking activities for advisors and innovation support services
- Sharing and dissemination of monitoring and evaluation findings
- NRN communication plan
- Networking at EU level
Events and meetings are key tools to promote exchange, cooperation and networking. Events which are well structured around participant needs, with clear objectives and anticipated outcomes, organised in a format that promotes effective dialogue, exchange and learning, and which ensure effective follow-up and dissemination of outcomes beyond the core group of meeting participants, are very effective networking tools. Ensuring that the right people come together at the right time and then remain actively engaged after being connected should be the central principle underpinning all work to animate the NRNs.
In recent years the ENRD and many NRNs have increasingly embraced the use of more participatory meeting techniques for network events, workshops and meetings. Dependent upon the structure, format and group dynamics of different meetings, various methods such as “Appreciative Enquiry”, “World Café” and “Open Space Technology” have been very successfully used to facilitate and harvest the outcomes of increasingly meaningful network discussions and interactions. By encouraging participants to take a much more active role in meetings, to contribute their ideas and to engage more directly in dynamic group discussions the quality and “collective ownership” of the outcomes of network events has increased greatly.
For more information and ideas on the use of different participatory meeting techniques see the peer-to-peer training activities organised by the ENRD Contact Point for network support units in 2012-2014.