Nested strategic messages and actions for the canal estate in Scotland

Scottish Canals communications strategy document
Scottish Canals comms strategy

The canal network in Scotland has been regenerated over the past 20 years to provide an enhanced environment for recreation, water-based transport and environmental protection. Since the old British Waterways organisation evolved in Scotland in 2012 to become Scottish Canals the focus within the organisation has been on reimagining the 250-year-old inland waterways from derelict and under-used industrial transport arteries into regeneration corridors for tourism and the natural environment.

Scotland's canals in numbers infographic
Scotland’s canals in numbers infographic [Scottish Canals]

The organisation has aligned its purpose to the wider Scottish Government aims for the country, and in the latest versions of the Scottish Canals Strategic Plan and Marketing & Communications Strategy documents covering the period from 2020 to 2023, the wider social, cultural and environmental purpose for the organisation and the waterway network has become much more clearly articulated.

Strategic plans can sometimes be somewhat turgid documents, and not necessarily accessible to wider audiences. This is not the case with the Scottish Canal document, moreso if read alongside the communications strategy. Whilst the focus of the organisation is on the cultural and environmental stewardship of a defined waterways and associated land estate, the opportunities for the organisation to play an important role of far wider relevance becomes evident as the management of that estate provides lessons and opportunities of what can be done with the repurposing of heritage and environmental assets and altering the perception for stakeholders and users.

The vision for the organisation has shifted to how people positively interact with the canal estate as green and blue infrastructure, and a set of thematic messages and engagements relevant to different audiences are clearly presented as nested within the requirements of the organisation which at its heart is a combined estate/asset management and stewardship function. The context for the nested messaging is completed by showing the relationship to the wider published Scottish Government ‘Purpose’ against which all publicly funded bodies align themselves.

Our vision is for Scotland’s canals to be a world-class waterway network with a thriving natural environment built upon 250 years of history that benefits communities and all users who live, work, visit and play along our canals.

Scottish Canals vision
Nested messages and engagement by Scottish Canals sit within organisational priorities and broader Government aims
Nested messages and engagement by Scottish Canals which sit within organisational priorities and broader Government aims

The follow-through of purpose to function to message is neatly presented diagrammatically, and the documents effectively provide insight and greater profile for the organisation, and as a good example of the logic and ongoing development of transparent and inclusive corporate planning for organisations in the heritage sector.

Behaviour change as strategy

The Built Environment Forum Scotland (BEFS) recently ran a workshop to explore aspects of prioritisation within the heritage sector. This was related to a Historic Environment Scotland work stream arising from a pledge within the last SNP Manifesto to explore funding priorities for public monies within the historic built environment, in order to ensure the dwindling pot of available public monies go to where they are most needed / effective. The workshop also allied to a decade-old collaborative thought experiment which I have been undertaking in a slightly ad hoc way with Dr Simon Gilmour, Director of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. This has, over an extended period, sought to investigate scenario planning approaches and long-term horizon scanning (sometimes called futurology) for the sector.  The use and applicability of such futures-oriented approaches are intimately linked through policy direction and strategic organisational intentions to funding streams and decision-making mechanisms.  They also try to understand the how and why organisations behave in the way they do, responding to external drivers affecting their operational and policy environments. This in turn affects the way they interact with each other; and collectively across organisations, the way the sector as as whole focuses its attention on specific issues at certain points in time.

Details of the recent workshop and the resultant discussion are reported elsewhere via the usual BEFS communication channels, but in reflecting on the day, and via wider discussion within the workshop co-ordinating team, it is worth trying to step back and consider macro-challenges which will influence the prioritisation debate as it moves forward. Bringing together the sector to try and create a matrix of funding priorities sounds entirely reasonable as an effective tactical response within a wider strategic movement to prioritise what we do with an asset base which we cannot realistically look after in its entirety. Sector wide applicability of a single tool, or even agreement of a single approach to using a flexible toolkit in organisations with different aims and priorities, divergent stakeholder views, and widely varied interests in sub-sets of the heritage asset base may be too big a challenge to contemplate in practice though. But, if theoretically it is a good idea, what really stops us from doing it?

The reasons we can’t are complex and relate to organisational and stakeholder autonomy, and a set of behaviours, both individual and organisational, which can hardwire nervousness of the unacceptability of monolithic behaviour; instil worry about a democratic deficit in decision-making; exacerbate tensions to do with perceptions of exclusivity and inclusivity; and worry about the prospect of change with foreseen or unforeseen consequences that we don’t like the sound of, even before we know what it might be.

Individually and collectively within the sector we already recognise a wide set of macro level issues both as consideration or sometimes as threat: these include issues like climate change, stakeholder inclusion and emergent ideas like intergenerational equity. We are already thinking and discussing the ways in which they may affect the historic environment generally and how we can incorporate them or mitigate against them, and thus protect assets we want to save and/or pass to the next generation. We also already conceptualise and manage the micro issues, on a daily basis within our personal and organisational forms – as professionals and agents / having agency within a specific sector forming part of a bigger ecosystem of planning and managing the environment around us. The mid-range, however, that gap between the big concepts and the micro objects/actions – the realm of behavioural systems – is one that we still struggle with, and I would argue that in order to move things forward collective both better understanding of behaviours, and subtle behaviour change is perhaps the next strategic challenge to engage with.

What do I mean by ‘behaviour change’ as a strategic approach? Well, listening to the various stakeholders expressing their views in the prioritisation discussion, I was struck by the thoughtful and deeply analytical ways in which all of the individuals present engaged with the process of sifting ideas on the heritage asset base and its need, and by consequence where/how we might prioritise that need. Alternative views on issues were chewed over; viewpoints were balanced; and ultimately, consensus was reached collectively within the room, perhaps surprisingly, with many items flagged for higher or lower prioritisation. What we didn’t do however was fully articulate why we individually, organisationally, and ultimately collectively, took particular stances, and how those stances might have changed or might change in any period of time. We didn’t put ourselves in others’ shoes (professionally), as we perhaps assumed we understood the stance of an architect versus a planner, or an archaeologist versus an advocator implicitly. I would argue that assumed implicit understanding or tacit knowledge holds us back, as our professional and organisational identities still mask and influence what we say or are prepared to say to foreground motivations for our behaviour in the present. For example, why as an academic in the workshop did I de-prioritise the funding for academic study in the matrix? Why did nobody challenge me on this? What was I thinking? Was I betraying my own profession, or was I making a stance as part of a projected persona, trying to be some kind of enfant terrible of the afternoon, disrespecting something I should be defending to the hilt?

I am not saying we need to laboriously psychoanalyse the way we talk about and respond in our professional consideration of heritage in workshop situations, but I do think that we might explore our behaviour in order to better recognise and articulate our individual and corporate behaviours.  In essence we need to be much clearer about the ‘mid range’ linkage between individual stakeholders and the big issues.   We need to be much more open about the tacit knowledge we use, that which isn’t codified. We need to re-identify and flag the drivers which influence us individually and corporately, and how these have changed and will change again.  Organisational and professional expectations (whether it is related to professional standards or institutional mission) affect subtly the way in which individuals collectively discuss, disagree and arrive at consensus.  These influences change over time, and what was foremost in our individual or organisational mindsets at the time of writing Our Place in Time (for example), may not be the most pressing issues to address now.  I don’t think we would have had a workshop outcome of consensus in the same way a couple of years ago, or longer – so what has caused us to behave in this way right now?

Discussion abounded in the room about what we did care about and what is of less interest. I think we need to be bolder and braver about admitting what and why things do and don’t concern us any more, and how the concerns change subtly but relatively quickly from one year to the next.  A broader consideration of the way in which we frame our responses to consultations, and foregrounding the current drivers which affect the way in which we engage with heritage issues would, I think, help to bridge the micro and the macro – to build and articulate better the ‘mid range’ thinking which links the consideration of the day to day operational challenges against the grand challenges which the wider world faces, and where we try to deploy effective management of the historic environment in order to add value to the world we live in, and explain fully the decisions we make now for those that come after.

Additional note 24/1/19 – This blog post also appears on the Built Environment Forum Scotland website: