The decision, by the National Council of the Youth Organisation Scouting Ireland to reject in full, the ‘Vision 2020’ proposal, as put forward by the associations National Management Committee at this weekends annual National Council meeting in Cork, suggests a number of things about the current culture of leadership within the Scouting movement in Ireland.
The initiative, driven and championed by two highly astute political operators within the association and subsequently endorsed by the National Management Committee (NMC), set out an ambitious and far-reaching set of ideas that, had they secured support, would have resulted in a significant structural change to how Scouting in Ireland works, in addition to many other changes – many of them positive at face value.
The first suggestion would appear to be that the membership of Scouting Ireland are getting a little weary of the ‘corporatization’ of what is still, despite the best efforts of a small group of bureaucracy enthusiasts, a volunteer movement. Glossy brochures, well-designed graphics and catchy sound-bytes have done little to effectively disguise what has been in essence a consolidation towards increasingly centralized decision-making within the association, a trend that has greatly accelerated over the past five years.
This ‘corporatization’ seeks to relegate the role of local volunteers to that of ‘doers’ (delivering youth programme) and ‘collectors’ (of the association registration fee), with ‘management’ at the highest levels, free to make decisions seemingly unencumbered by tiresome concepts such as accountability, transparency and governance. Its telling too that ‘management’ in this instance does not refer to the National Management Committee as a whole, given this entity rarely generates policy these days – it merely rubber-stamps it.
Many members of the NMC are increasingly frustrated at the amount of decision-making that seems to go on behind closed doors, with outcomes presented as a ‘fait accompli’ to an entity that has not only an electoral mandate, but also has legally binding corporate responsibilities under the Combined Companies Acts.
Whilst the National Management Committee of the association nominally ‘signed off’ on the Vision 2020 proposals, nobody with any knowledge of how this entity works is under any illusion that the proposals originated with this committee, nor were they debated adequately, nor were the concerns or suggestions of members of the committee taken on board to any tangible extent.
This was evident long in advance of National Council, to anyone who spoke to NMC members. It appears to have been all the more obvious at the gathering in Cork itself. Many of the members of this committee are reluctant to speak out and in doing so ‘rock the boat’, but the irony is that in not doing so, the team looks rudderless as well as disjointed. Perhaps the time for some straight-talking has arrived.
This leads to the second suggestion implicit in the weekend’s result: Volunteer Scouters (no doubt including many of those on the National Management Committee) dislike being told what to do.
The reality was that there were many aspects of the ‘Vision 2020’ proposal that made sense. Some of the ideas within were actually quite good. The proponents of the vision made a fundamental mistake however, when they took the deliberate decision quite early in the process to exclude vast tracts of the membership from having any say as to what the vision might be and how it would be articulated.
Whilst the stock excuses for poor membership engagement in discussions around structural changes to the national association and its regional supports were depressingly familiar (“we held a meeting and nobody turned up” or “anyone who asked for a consultation got one”, etc, etc), in reality little effort was made by a well-resourced National entity to engage in any meaningful consultation.
Where consultation did take place, it seemed to do so mainly in environments familiar to the proponents and with their favoured constituency of members. Even then it was just that – merely a ‘consultation’. There was virtually no debate, no changes arising out of counter-suggestions and no deviation from the brainchild of two (albeit very smart, experienced and articulate) proponents.
The idea that others might actually have a right to input into proposed changes across such a large and diverse entity as Scouting Ireland did not seem to register with the drivers of the project, a symptom no doubt of the corporate mindset that seems to drive much of association decision-making, to the detriment of a more traditional ‘Scouting’ way of doing things.
In some ways, it’s understandable that this somewhat dictatorial approach was taken. The trouble with volunteer-led entities is that they are very difficult to lead and very difficult to manage. Members are passionate, they want to share their views, they have counter-suggestions, fresh ideas, better ways to do things.
In that sort of environment, it is difficult to open debate on an idea and still expect to have the same idea in-situ months later when the voting cards come out. It’s a flaw of democracy and yet also a strength because whilst the process is messier, it generally leads to more robust (and certainly more actionable) strategies.
The corporate animals who have hijacked the political and policy agenda in (and thus are effectively running) Scouting Ireland currently do not see members, they seem instead to see merely a revenue stream that (annoyingly) has a bunch of local community workers at the end of it who need to be ‘managed’, rather like employees of a large corporation or charity.
Indeed, most progressive corporations have not sought to behave like this since the 1950’s and would be unlikely to get away with it today if they tried….
The skill of seeking to ‘lead’ rather than ‘manage’ appears to be lost in the upper echelons of Scouting Ireland at present. Its time for the National Management Committee to flex its collective muscle and pull these people, who look very much to have exceeded their brief, firmly back into line.
The current leadership vacuum and the low levels of trust and confidence that members have in the ‘national’ entity, played a key role in defeating the Vision 2020 proposals.
Out of 9,000+ adult members (setting youth members aside for the purposes of this illustration), it’s likely that possibly 400 or so would be what might be called the Scouting Ireland ‘political class’ (those scouters who take an active interest in and have strong views on aspects of how the associations national structure and policies are devised and implemented).
This group of members was arguably much more interested in the ‘Vision 2020’ process than the average Scouter (who would in all likelihood prefer to be out on the hills or on the water with youth members than sitting in a meeting discussing structures). Yet, the proponents of the Vision 2020 process went out of their way to specifically exclude large numbers of these people from the process completely, whilst swearing others to secrecy (yes, secrecy) about the details shared at ‘implementation’ meetings (yet more ‘consultations’, where the price of involvement for those who were deemed less offensive or who had to be invited to participate, by virtue of office held, was silence).
Arguably, this approach in particular exacerbated the suspicion around the proposals and likely motivated a fair number of these excluded political types to share their concerns around the content with colleagues in their groups and more widely. Many of these concerns might otherwise have been neutralized, had some genuine debate, genuine openness (and genuine leadership) been present.
The net result is a comprehensive set of proposals, containing a lot of good ideas and plenty of sound thinking now arguably defunct and unlikely to see the light of day, simply due to what can only be considered at worst breathtaking incompetence or perhaps at best hubris, on the part of those who one would think, are supposed to know better.
The lesson has not come cheaply either, with a significant amount of association funds having been expended in the process to create what in the end appeared to be more of a legacy project than a strategy project.
Between various meetings, venue-hires, refreshments, travel expenses, accommodation, staff and management time, print and design costs, PR consultancy fee’s, the entire project has likely resulted in a six-figure investment over the near two-year gestation period.
Presumably the question on some members lips will be: Are there better ways for Scouting Ireland to be allocating its precious resources and if so, does the NMC now need to swiftly ensure that the association puts the right people in place to lead Scouting Ireland out of this policy morass?