Scotland's Sustainable Development Goals Network
SDG Network Scotland

Coordinator’s blog: a social approach to partnership on the SDGs (August 2020)

By Paul Bradley

Scotland and the SDGs: a national review to drive action, has been a big part of my working life for the past two years. The feelings of joy and relief were expected when it was finally published. There was a big gap in Scotland’s commitment to the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals, and this review developed in partnership with SDG Network Scotland can be a springboard to help channel ideas and solutions to get to where we need to be by 2030.

There are not many national reviews where government and civil society have attempted to follow the ‘all hands on deck’ approach to monitoring and reporting championed by the UN. For that reason, it is a report of compromise – vital to any partnership – and there will be parts that should be challenged. I see it as a reasonable baseline for how Scotland was performing before the pandemic, but only the beginning of a decade of action that will be the judge of its impact.

I’ve worked on the SDGs for four years, but I cannot profess to be an expert. These all-encompassing goals, from tackling poverty and inequalities to combatting climate change, make it impossible to be so. The call to action is for everyone – the real experts included – to reflect, critique and build on the review. We want it to fulfil its purpose: a look back to help Scotland move forward. There will come a time to report again; that must be of progress. This will be the challenge for Scotland’s champions of the SDGs.

At their full potential, the SDGs are a framework that can build new connections and innovations that are vibrant and resilient. This review has embraced that, and it’s why I care so much. It’s been the backbone of so many fantastic relationships, and of my own personal learning and development. I like to think that others involved would say the same. It was a social endeavour, with a community around it that ebbed and flowed; that – the people – was its strength.    

It might seem weird to talk about work as social, but I think this project embraced what it means. To communicate and interact in a way that grows human relationships, finds common ground, and makes us feel part of something bigger. This was a complex project and, at times, felt impossible. Still, everyone involved continued to contribute, lead from the centre, and support; it was the maturity in these relationships that bound us together as a community around this work. When the Scottish Government indicated an interest in working with us, those involved made it feel like a team rather than two ‘sides.’

Honest and open communications were vital to this, as was agreeing on a common goal and principles of collaboration to reach it. We discussed the dos and don’ts and where civil society and government were comfortable on a spectrum. We also covered the areas where there could be no compromise. The review would need to be signed off by the government; we understood this, but security for us was to have the right to publish our own version if things went wrong. We tried to understand the likely challenges beforehand, to prevent them from happening.

From the outset, we made it clear that there needed to be parity in the drafting process. While we could compromise on the final content, techniques to strengthen civil society involvement beyond the usual consultation approach was a must. As well as working in partnership to design the initial outreach, a period of open drafting on Google Docs where anyone could add content and comments to the draft chapters was key. There were apprehensions about this very open approach, but the trusting relationships made it work.

Despite all the positives, it would be naïve to think that a partnership like this would be simple. It was complicated, and that we are at a point where the review is published is a testament to the social connections built between civil society and government through this work. Delays to the review’s publication provided us with the stickiest moments. Still, where this happened, where issues were escalated, the relationships remained strong. And in the final stages, we continued to work together to publish the review as a pre-COVID-19 ambition on driving progress, which is now even more important. The partnership approach may well have slowed things down at times, but I think it’s a big reason for finally getting here.

You don’t end a project like this without learning more about yourself and thinking about what you and others might have done differently. Still, what is apparent more than ever is how important it is to be social in partnerships. Agreeing on a common goal, discussing opportunities and concerns, and focusing on developing community, are vital ingredients. In complex partnerships, things will go wrong, but a lot can go right. It requires everyone to contribute to a culture of trust, commitment, and social communication.  

Thanks to everyone involved!

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