Blurred Vision?


The detailed proposals behind Scouting Ireland’s much vaunted ‘Vision 2020’ initiative have been circulated to the association’s membership. They make interesting reading.

In fact, ‘Vision 2020’ is in part a series of vision-orientated statements, but it is also a fundamental restructure of the Scouting organization in Ireland. Part of the context behind advocating such an extensive restructure is surely historical.

Arguably, when two entities merge (as Scouting Ireland SAI and Scouting Ireland CSI did in 2004) and the merger is a merger of equals (or billed as such for reasons of political correctness or indeed politeness), the watchwords tend to be ‘compromise’ and ‘consensus’.

It’s a new idea. People are unsure. Those who are trying to get the idea ‘over the line’ are willing to dilute the perfect idea in the interests of ensuring widespread acceptance at local level (where in the context of Scouting, much of the real business is undertaken). Compromise, especially at speed, of course brings with it its own challenges. Mediocrity frequently being one such challenge.

Scouting Ireland, it can be argued, in some ways is a monument to mediocrity. The way the association is currently organized around ‘Provinces’ for example, works neither for an urban nor a rural landscape. The capital city and its immediate hinterland is home to over a quarter of the associations members, yet the ‘Dublin’ province as a concept was stillborn, shoe-horned as it is into a structure that divides the city in two and robs it of an identity (and something to rally round) in the process.

Rural Scout Provinces (and indeed rural Scout counties) are frequently just too large to be realistically serviced adequately by the support team. Silliest of all, in a trait that is typical of the inward-looking nature of Scouting at national level, the association, in contrast to the GAA for example, has made up its own counties and provinces – perish the thought that the centuries-old boundaries that the rest of the population, government, the ordinance survey, major corporations, (etc.) use, might also do for us (and simultaneously make it easier for outsiders to understand how we work..)

The uniform is another one of those ‘try to please all and end up pleasing none’ examples. It is of course possible to please all, but we somehow managed to circumvent this process. The resulting uniform is too formal and impractical to be of any use for programme meetings or activities. This is borne out by the fact that few scouts actually wear the uniform when given the choice to do otherwise. Most people aged over 10 detest it. 80% of venture scout groups (and a similar percentage of Rover scouts) don’t even own an official uniform (they all develop their own).

Yet, the same uniform is cheap and shabby looking except when new. It’s too casual for formal events. Those members who enjoy ceremony or frequently partake in events where uniform is worn, usually look less like a traditional scout used to look and more like an extra out of a low-budget remake of ‘Dad’s army’.

All of this mediocrity, although warranted at the time, suggests that a re-examination of how the association function’s is timely. Perhaps the thinking is that, ten years in, we are ready to create structures that can genuinely seek to serve local scouting in a meaningful way AND align better with how the two jurisdictions on the island are run.

The detailed proposals behind ‘Vision 2020’ contain some good ideas. Some in fact are very good.

The idea of extending terms of office to a period of four years and limiting it (at national level) to a single term should open up the doors to some new blood over time. Serial seat-warmers will still be able to run for second terms at the highest level, but only after a break of four years and even then, not for the same role as previously occupied.

The Chief Executive Officer, an important apolitical role in the association will now quite rightly sit on the new board. Concerns that an employee bedding themselves in for a decade or more might undermine the ‘volunteer-led’ nature of the board, should be addressed by ensuring this role is also subject to a maximum (and one-off) four-year term.

Sir Humphrey Appleby is amusing to watch in episodes of the classic BBC comedy ‘Yes Minister’, but if confidence is to be maintained in the integrity of the National board, in what is after all a volunteer led association, the prospect of an employee having a longer tenure on said board than any volunteer is not a viable option.

The removal of the ‘Provincial’ layer of management also feels right. Some scout ‘Provinces’ worked extremely well but the idea of Scout ‘areas’ (to replace Scout ‘Counties’) is sound enough. A key element of the pitch here is that they will reduce the number of ‘management’ types needed (because there are less ‘areas’ than there were Scout ‘counties’ – about half as many in fact). This is enticing, particularly as it should result in a better distribution of the sort of talented people that these roles actually need – many scout counties are hopelessly understaffed and even when roles are filled, the quality of candidate can be extraordinarily poor in more than a few instances.

On the downside, as an example, the role of County Commissioner is a singularly joyless (and thankless) task. The proposals do not outline what steps are going to be taken to ensure that the right calibre of person is attracted to take on these jobs.

A smaller National Board is welcome and each member with a specific brief is also a positive step. Dispensing with under-26 positions is a retrograde step, even ten years in, but perhaps the assumption is that the enhanced youth presence at National Council will ensure that ‘gentlemen of a certain age’ do not completely dominate the board, as they have come to do gradually since the original good start in 2004.

The question of how the ‘National Board’ interacts with the ‘actual board’ (the board of directors of Scouting Ireland Limited), has been neatly sidestepped in the proposals.

This is however a vitally important question. The reason it is so important is because, under the present structure (and no details have been shared to suggest this aspect of the structure is going to change, or indeed how it legally could change), the ‘board’ of Scouting Ireland Limited has final say over everything that happens in Scouting Ireland.

One of the larger flaws in this proposal could well be that this ‘actual board’ ceases to have the level of accountability it currently has (the present NMC members double-job as ‘board directors’ of Scouting Ireland Limited).

Given accountability and transparency in Scouting Ireland at the higher levels already comes up wanting on a number of fronts, it seems very risky indeed to gloss over the role, responsibilities and accountability mechanisms that will need to surround this particular piece of the Scouting Ireland structure.

The rationale that the word ‘director’ is a better description (and more widely understood than commissioner) is a credible point. However, a director ‘directs’ things (the clue is in the title) and in this way, its arguably alluding to the centralization and corporatization that Scouting Ireland has been suffering from for some time.

Certainly, a ‘Director of Faith’ sounds less tolerant and more dictatorial, even than what CBSI once called ‘the National Chaplain’. Perhaps given the fondness for the phrase ‘faith-based organisation’ among some of the more militant enthusiasts of the ‘spiritual’ spice, this is intentional. The association should seek to balance faith with tolerance – both are tenets of Scouting. The language being used by the leadership’s mouthpieces of late suggest a deliberate focus on the former at the expense of the latter.

The discrepancy between the key responsibilities associated with the national ‘faith’ position and that at ‘scout area’ level (where the brief includes ‘mental health’) is also mystifying. Does the inclusion of ‘mental health’ into the ‘faith’ brief suggest that those members without a faith or questioning their faith are suffering from ‘mental health’ issues? It may sound ludicrous, but once it’s in print, its open to interpretation. Clarity is needed here.

The creation of an ‘Audit’ team is welcome and a move that has been advocated by several former NMC members over several years. The detail is ironically rather sparse (given its an audit team). For example, what will this team audit? To what standards will they operate? To whom will they report? Who will appoint the members of the team? Will this team focus only on financial matters or will they have a wider brief (for example, adherence by directors of the associations limited companies to the Combined Companies Acts?). At the moment, this idea seems little more than a team name.

The predictable ‘co-opted members’ have once again raised their heads in the context of the National Board. There can be validity in having such members on boards, but such positions in Scouting tend to be awarded to ‘yes’ men (and yes, its usually men). These people are perhaps owed a favour from years back, but can be relied upon to vote in a particular direction. On such a small board, two co-opted members will play a significant role in potentially swaying any vote. This aspect of the proposal should be calibrated to ensure it cannot be abused – the integrity of the National Board should be high on the agenda because EVERY decision it makes will be seen through the lens of its perceived integrity (or lack thereof).

Broadly speaking however, much associated with the Vision 2020 proposals make sense. There are questions, some of them very important, that need to be answered satisfactorily first. There are likely changes that need to be made, assurances that need to be given and interest groups, opinion formers, key office holders who need to be convinced that this substantial array of changes is going to be better than what went before. Selling this is the responsibility of the proponents and it requires fairness, openness, honesty and integrity – in short, it needs leadership.

It’s a real pity therefore and slightly mystifying that the proponents of this extensive (and expensive) piece of work have singularly failed to facilitate any debate whatsoever in the lead up to such an important vote. Secrecy has abounded, with those involved in fleshing out the ideas warned not to speak to fellow members (yes, we are still talking about a Scouting Ireland proposal – you have not jumped to an article on CIA activities during the Cold War).

These changes, if made, have the potential to alter the face of the scout association in Ireland for at least a decade. Surely, given the importance of the changes and the ramifications for the association, the proponents want to see the Vision voted in by a healthy margin, but more importantly embraced and implemented widely?

Information is power. Too many people at senior level in Scouting are overly wedded to having power over others and building a legacy for themselves. Harry S Truman, former President of the United States once commented: “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”

The proponents of Vision 2020 have one last opportunity to engage with members, address concerns, answer questions, accept critiques and in doing so greatly enhance the chances of success for this set of ideas.

The vote may or may not pass. Enthusiastic implementation on the ground however will require widespread support. It’s not currently there. Those members of the National Management Committee who possess leadership ability need to press hard for engagement. The undoubted vote-management process that is now underway might ensure technical victory, but moral victory will be lost (and with it, any chance of that much-craved legacy).

Members of National Council should REJECT these proposals in their current form. Vision 2020 however can still be turned into a huge success. All it needs is some leadership.

This article was first published on the ‘scouting innovations’ blog by the same author, on March 6th 2014

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