Scouting Ireland was officially launched ten years ago today, on January 1st 2004.
The new association was a combination of what was once the Catholic Boy Scouts of Ireland, founded in 1927 and what had been the Boy Scouts of Ireland, established in 1907.
At the inaugural meeting of Scouting Ireland in the summer of 2003 that ultimately resulted in the official launch, there was a sense of a significant and positive shift about to take place and a sense of history being made.
The vision for the new Scout association was one of inclusiveness, tolerance, openness and a determination to present Scouting as it really is in our communities; modern, relevant and making an incredible contribution to young people and society generally.
Ten years on, how are things looking?
Scouting is growing again. Membership is still a long way off the sort of peaks it saw in the late 1980’s (when both former associations boasted, between them, around 60,000 members), but at 40,000, it is showing steady growth, in contrast with many other EU countries, after nearly two decades of slow decline.
There are no longer two sets of infrastructure. Today there is one National Office, one National Management Committee and, after six years of deliberations and preparation, One Programme.
There are higher standards across the associations many campsites and centres around Ireland, thanks in part to some tangible support from the National Association. Scouting Ireland has a team of full time employees that includes some real professionals. This team offers practical support to volunteers and of course, the volunteers themselves – several thousand of them all passionate and committed, are the people who bring Scouting to life for many thousands of young people all over Ireland week in, week out.
The Scouting experience for a young person has arguably been greatly enhanced by a new programme that incorporates the latest thinking in child and adolescent behaviors, combined with traditional approaches that have stood the test of time. Boys and Girls still love to camp and hike. The atmosphere on a Scout Camp is hard to articulate (it is magical) but cherished memories, life experiences and lasting friendships are forged there by all present and they happen many thousands of times over, all through the year, every year.
Scouting Ireland continues to play a part in shaping young people through a wide range of positive experiences. Scouts and former scouts continue to be smart, confident, highly employable people, committed, able to take initiative, articulate and self aware, balanced and stable but also open to change and, in most cases, in possession of a sense of humour.
But is everything about Scouting Ireland a positive story, ten years on?
Away from the powerhouse of Scouting in local communities, Scouting Ireland is in danger of loosing its way. The ‘National Association’ an entity designed to serve the interests of local scouting, has become an end in itself for a growing army of bureaucrats and hangers on – it’s a distance away from those lofty ideals we set out with in 2004. Some people have argued that the ‘merger’ in effect quickly became a takeover – with the views, traditions and culture of one association, drowning out the other. To whatever extent this happened, it has not served us well.
The inclusiveness and transparency in the original vision have both been steadily eroded as time has passed and passion has been replaced by power struggles and the personal agenda’s of people seeking positions and authority as ends in themselves.
National Policy, largely in the clutches of a group of very conservative thinkers, mostly if not exclusively men in mid to late middle age, is increasingly detached from the realities of 21st Century Ireland and thus increasingly irrelevant to local Scouting.
In the ten years since 2004 and in particular the latter part of that time period, Scouting Ireland has gradually become more conservative, incrementally less tolerant and noticeably less transparent in how it deals with its local groups and its individual members. The great democratic values we began with have equally been eroded. The constitution and rules, the hallowed document that whilst far from perfect and which took several years to finalise is casually ignored when it suits some in authority to do so for their own ends.
The associations National Management Committee, once a place for genuine debate and tough but rational argument has become increasingly staid – sanitized out of the decision-making equation thanks to successful ‘divide and conquer’ strategies. The median age of committee members has crept upwards and gender balance has slipped alarmingly. New blood has come (and gone) from the committee, replaced with ‘yes’ men and turner-uppers, to the frustration of the dwindling band of actual leaders that remain. Most (at least 85%) committee members’ hail from one former association – this should not matter ten years in, but surprisingly, it still does.
The moribund nature of the committee has been gleefully exploited and indeed driven by some strong personalities, yet these same personalities, despite their apparent desire to eliminate all dissent to their views, lack the vision and competence to get everyone mobilized behind any common purpose themselves. Those who do have the skills and leadership ability lack the time to defeat the ‘Sir Humphrey Appleby’ mindset that delays and kills off fresh thinking at every possible opportunity – the dead hand of an ‘old boys club’ who have all the decision-making channels of relevance sewn up.
Expenditure on ‘administration’ meanwhile continues to represent the dominant aspect of association spending, with staff and national office costs alone consuming a whopping 72% of our total income in 2012/13 (source: Scouting Ireland Annual Report 2012). Despite this, services to local scout groups have, apart from some notable exceptions, generally dis-improved.
The membership numbers continue to increase nationally but fuelled largely by the efforts of paid administrators. Thus the sustainability of this membership growth is questionable.
Scouting’s reach to teenagers remains stubbornly low. This is partly due to a lingering negative image about scouting that is not helped by relentless middle-aged grandstanding, romanticizing a 1950’s version of Scouting that make the association look out of touch and faintly ridiculous to a society that has long since moved on.
Whilst membership is in growth, the latest annual report from Scouting Ireland shows a shocking 9.5% drop in scout membership (the critically important 11-15 year age range), a 4% drop in Venture Scouts (15-18) and a 65% drop in Rover Scouts (18-26) -the latter from a small base to be fair and driven in part by inflexibility around how membership fee’s are charged for this age range (scouter fee’s are cheaper). Most growth comes from Beaver Scouts (6-8), suggesting that Scouting continues to be seen as a baby-sitting service but an entity that offers little to people aged 11+.
Scouting Ireland’s paucity of policy on real issues that affect young people also reduces credibility when it comes to seeking teenage members. Smaller, less well-funded organisations continue to run rings around Scouting in this area. In contrast there is a multitude of policy documents in Scouting Ireland on the size of badges and colour of flags. Just one example of confused prioritization and the lack of understanding around the importance of insight and how to use it.
Does any of this matter?Most local Scout Groups continue to flourish. Vast numbers of volunteers still work in local groups. Scouts still love to camp and hike. Collectively, Scouting makes positive differences to the lives of thousands of Irish young people every day of the week.
At National level, there are some brave volunteers who fight the reams of red tape and the obsession with pomp and ceremony to deliver top class events, superb programme and many forward-thinking strategies.
No, it probably does not matter in some ways. However a change of course back to the values, ideals and vision we set out with in 2004 would benefit local volunteers who run and are part of a very different and much more relevant Scouting Ireland to the one that the current generation of leadership at National Level are so wedded to.
Scouting Ireland needs to refocus on supporting local groups. It needs less administration and less expenditure associated with it. It needs real transparency in decision-making and the elimination of ‘remarkable coincidences’ from the staff recruitment process.
There is a spiritual dimension to Scouting, but its one of several key pillars, not the only one. The authors and sponsors of the latest ‘Vision 2020’ document need to read the mood of society and the membership of their own association more carefully before attempting to impose their own personal interpretations of ‘faith’ on a highly diverse 40,000-member entity.
Above all, Scouting Ireland needs leadership that is demonstrably impartial and truly represents ALL members equally. Currently, the leadership are interested only in their own (traditional, conservative) constituency. The true test will be and the lasting legacy will come from an ability to represent EVERYONE equally (and be seen to be doing so)
Scouting Ireland still has enormous potential. The National Association is a vital cog in the association’s engine from a profile raising, policy generation and advocacy perspective. But when the local Scout groups are taken out of the equation, the ten-year anniversary is currently looking and feeling a little hollow….