Chair Challenge

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The Scouting Ireland Chat Forum, not known for its freedom of debate or indeed meaningful conversations these days, nonetheless recently hosted a spirited exchange. This followed the furore at the associations National Council, surrounding the Meeting Chairman’s alleged assertion to the meeting, that a female youth member was being inaccurate in some comments she alleged the Chief Scout had made relating to the controversial ‘Vision 2020’ proposal a number of weeks beforehand.

In essence, the youth member concerned alleged that the Chief Scout had conceded that there ‘were other ways’ (or words to that effect) to achieve what Vision 2020 was setting out to achieve.

The Meeting Chairman (also the Chief Scout, as it happens) later apologised privately to the youth member, for having publicly rebuked her for making this assertion in the midst of some intense debate on the proposals. Debate that ultimately led to their rejection by the meeting.

A QUESTION OF HATS

There has been much criticism of the Chief Scout for his handling of this issue and it has once again opened the debate about the need not just for an impartial leader, who does not actively engage in policy making, but someone who is also seen to be impartial. Can a person who is promoting a controversial and divisive policy also facilitate the debate on it? It would appear not.

The Chief Scout role in Scouting in Ireland has traditionally been one occupied by a statesmanlike figure, respected by many, widely trusted and considered above politics. Having this sort of person in what is (in titular terms at least) the most senior position in Scouting, has paid off handsomely in the past – allowing all those on different sides of what can be sometimes bitter debates around the direction the association takes, to rest assured that one person at least, can be relied upon to facilitate, support everyone equally and help heal divisions.

Recent changes have seen a couple of senior figures in the association occupying roles previously assumed to be politically impartial, taking an active role in policy making. The ramifications of this are now coming into sharp focus.

LEADERSHIP VERSUS MANAGEMENT

Scouting Ireland has no shortage of managers (volunteers and employees). These skillsets are essential to take the association forward. Unfortunately, those in key leadership positions exhibit more managerial flair and less leadership ability than the roles they occupy arguably require.

In a volunteer led association like Scouting, its up to leaders to lead (set the direction, create the policy, set the tone) and managers to manage (clarify the direction, implement the policy, match the tone).

Like every Scouter needs to from time to time, the Chief Scout at National Council took a judgment call. Some commentary on the Chat Forum suggested an ill-advised public rebuke surely deserved a public apology too. Some have even suggested that the Chief Scout should resign.

ORDERLY TRANSITION

Whatever personal views member’s hold and however urgent it is for Scouting Ireland to gain a new Leadership perspective after what has appeared to many to be a near half-decade of stagnation, the next few steps in this process are going to be very important.

Scouting Ireland’s National policy has in recent years, increasingly focused on rooting scouting in the past, rather than equipping it for the future. Those with their hands on the levers of power nationally (and their hangers on) have displayed very socially conservative views. These views seem to inform much of the policy they seek to implement. This has not only put the association increasingly out of step with society, it has made National Scouting Policy increasingly irrelevant to the association’s local groups and youth members.

Apparently strong and uncompromising religious viewpoints that appear indifferent to other faiths and intolerant to alternative spiritual views have blended with what some have seen as homophobic and misogynistic undertones that make many members, especially teens and young adults, feel less like there is a place for them and their values in Scouting Ireland.

This is reflected in the stubbornly low (and shrinking) number of members over the age of eleven in the association, no doubt masking a far more significant drop in members aged fourteen plus. This despite growth in Adult volunteers and youth members aged six to ten, (the former in part explained by changes in classification of members including (for example) short-sighted stinginess on Rover Scout membership fees)

DIRECTIONAL SHIFT

A change of strategic direction is necessary to correct this scenario and to bring Scouting Ireland back to its core values and back towards being a leader in society and a movement, rather than just an organisation.

These changes are needed because the current preoccupation with concepts like ‘faith-based scouting’ are not reflective of local Scouting, where volunteers are working with real youth members who are growing up in a very different Ireland to the one our current policy makers grew up in.

Vision 2020 contained many positive aspects that could still be used. However the association needs a wider, more credible and far more inclusive strategy that everyone can get behind and support.

Before this happens, the current leadership needs to change. This change will happen in due course. Due course is important – we have not yet had a truly democratically elected Chief Scout in Scouting Ireland.

The first Chief Scout was in essence appointed and then ratified by the associations first National Council in 2004. His resignation prior to serving a full second term resulted in the appointment of the second Chief Scout by the National Management Committee, with a nine votes to eleven votes result in a two-candidate race. The election that followed did of course deliver a democratic win for the candidate, but under a highly imperfect system this was arguably also ratification because the occupant was already in office several months thus gaining a huge electoral advantage, proven by precedent, over other candidates.

An open election, free from pre-election ‘appointments’ is going to be important this time. This means the current Chief Scout (and indeed all office holders not eligible for re-election) need to serve their full term. In doing so, they can ensure that one legacy from what has been a rather stagnant and unremarkable period in the history of Scouting Ireland, will be a fresh start and a clear mandate for the next generation of leadership.

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