Without the right culture, it’s easy to talk ourselves out of collaboration and simpler to avoid challenging the dynamics that come with partnership working. In this blog Paul Bradley, Policy & Campaigns Officer at SCVO, argues that when it comes to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) we can’t afford to get this culture wrong.  

The spirit of partnership must be present if our desired direction and ambition for Scotland, the UK and the world are to be achieved. It’s why we’ve spent the past two years not just setting up and facilitating SDG Network Scotland, but also trying to build a culture of openness that sets government and civil society on the right road.

That road will have plenty of bumps along the way

If those weren’t to arise, we’d be calling into question the independence of civil society from the Government. We must challenge and be challenged where needed, and we have. However, it’s through an open approach to dialogue that we can build awareness and understanding, while also building trust both within and outside the partnership by shining the light on what’s taking place.

This month marks the first time that the UK and Scotland will report on progress towards the UN Global Goals. The SDG Network Scotland’s open letter in 2018 – supported by almost 100 organisations – indicated the level of concern that existed with Scotland’s commitment to Agenda 2030 since adopting the Goals in 2015. Scotland’s National Review, due to be published later this month, highlights the change in mood that’s come from working to get the culture right.

Last October, SDG Network Scotland set up its open working group to guide Scottish civil society’s approach when engaging with the UK National Review. The Scottish Government and Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) joined the group, which has since been the principal guiding mechanism for developing Scotland’s own National Review and inputting into the UK’s Review.

This partnership has been boosted by the Scottish Government’s decision to embed the SDGs in Scotland’s National Performance Framework (NPF), considered to be Scotland’s way to localise and implement the Goals. While a recent discussion paper highlights the imperfections of this alignment between national and international frameworks, it is a bold statement of intent that’s received global recognition.

It would be too simple to say that the Network alone has been the progressive force

Key to this progress since our open letter has been the willingness of the Scottish Government to push the boundaries when it comes to openness. Any individual could join the working group, and notes, papers and agendas were shared in an open file online. A joint call for evidence between the Network and Scottish Government was published and the group secured a period for public comments on the draft Scottish National Review; a final comment period is still to come ahead of the full publication in late July.

Not only does this strengthen the review, but it also allows us to observe the gaps between civil society’s and government’s interpretations of progress and, in turn, should open more space for the two spheres to come together and experience greater dialogue in these areas. The review will not capture everything that civil society put forward, but I’m confident that it will point us in the right direction and will serve to strengthen collaboration moving forward.

The independence of civil society is important

This is not compromised but enhanced through an open approach, but it’s been important for civil society to have its own say on Scotland’s performance. That’s why we’ve supported the production of a civil society-led review, coordinated by the Oxfam Scotland and the University of the West of Scotland Partnership. Published in early July, On target for 2030? provides an independent snapshot of Scotland’s progress with contributions from 22 different organisations; it is a vital addition to the evidence that Scotland is building. The development of this independent review at the same time as the official Scottish Review has not caused issues. In fact, it’s my hope that On target for 2030? will inform the later stages of drafting the official Scottish Review.

It’s a far cry from the UK Government’s approach to developing its own UK National Review, published in late June and which the Scottish Government contributed to. Last July, UKSSD set a high bar with the publication of ‘Measuring up’, the first independent assessment of UK performance. However, the UK Government’s disjointed and closed approach to developing the UK’s official National Review has been a limiting force on the democratic and all-encompassing agenda that the SDGs are.

In a recent evidence session to the UK Parliament’s International Development Committee, the Government apportioned blame on both Scotland and Wales, saying that both countries 'did not make it very easy to coordinate and bring together a United Kingdom position’ in the UK’s National Review. If any truth can be found in that claim, it will be as a result of the priority that’s been placed on developing a culture of openness and collaboration around the SDGs at this early stage - something guided and supported by SDG Network Scotland.

Paul Bradley is Policy & Campaigns Officer at SCVO and manages the SDG Network Scotland. A version of this blog also appears on its website