Until the MacSharry reform in the 1990s, most of the policy tools in the CAP worked by supporting farmers indirectly, via the market. CAP measures generally didn’t operate directly on farmers (with some exceptions, like milk quotas), and therefore the rules and conditions farmers themselves had to understand and abide by were, compared with today, relatively modest.
That all changed with the introduction of Direct Payments. Today the CAP intervenes very little in the market, and the payments made directly to farmers – and the rules attached to them – are the centrepiece of the policy. That means government has to consider not only the development and implementation of policy, but also how to communicate it successfully to every farmer and crofter affected by it. For example, we recently announced a further set of details relating to Greening, and we had to work out how best to ensure the news got to all the farmers who need to know.
One of the biggest differences I notice now, compared with when I first worked on the CAP 25 years ago, is the amount of effort we put into communication. Every year we seem to add new ways of communicating. If I think about the last few years’ work on the new CAP, we’ve used official Scottish Government news releases, letters and booklets posted to individual farmers, articles in the national and local press, regional roadshows of evening meetings and formal written consultation exercises. We’ve put masses of information on the Scottish Government website and made it available from RPID area offices. We’ve run all sorts of stakeholder meetings, from standing groups that meet regularly, through short-life working groups to look at specific topics, to one-off workshops. We’ve worked with stakeholder organisations to use their communications channels – newsletters, magazines, regional meetings and so on – to reach their members. We’ve had stands at agricultural shows, and Ministers and officials have given talks at conferences, seminars and training events. We’ve increasingly used social media, like Twitter and Facebook. And of course this blog has been part of the communications effort.
That sounds like a long and diverse list of channels. But it needs to be that way, because the audience is hugely diverse too. Some people have been with us on the journey to the new CAP from the start, and already know a great deal. At the other extreme there are still some, we hear anecdotally, who are only just beginning to look for information on what’s going to happen. The majority are somewhere in between, with some knowledge of what’s coming but an appetite to know more. An individual farmer or crofter might be interested mainly in how the new policy will apply to their individual situation, whereas an agent or a consultant might want a broader understanding of the whole system. Big farmers will wonder whether they are affected by capping; crofters, small farmers and new entrants will be interested in the capital grants which in future will be targeted specifically at them.
Also, research shows very clearly that different people take in information best in different ways. Some will assiduously read the guidance we send out. Others don’t like to read long documents but will happily travel to one of our meetings or to their local area office to hear the same information in spoken format. By using social media and putting material on our website, we can share information faster than ever before; but, even though we’re working to improve broadband coverage, what about the areas where it’s not yet complete? Or the folk for whom using Twitter is as unnatural as riding a unicycle or speaking Mandarin?
So the only way to reach everyone effectively is to use a wide range of channels. We hope it’s working, and are always looking to improve. For instance, I mentioned earlier that the needs of agents and consultants are different from those of individual farmers – for that reason this autumn’s CAP roadshows include, for the first time, separate events for those different audiences. As always, your feedback on how we’re doing would be very welcome.