The Campaign Trail

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Its over nine months to go to the next meeting of Scouting Ireland’s National Council, yet attention is already turning to who will be seeking election at that meeting, scheduled to take place in Dublin’s RDS.

A full 50% of the associations National Management Committee are due to retire. Focus is now shifting to who might take their place.

This set of elections presents Scouting Ireland’s policy makers with a real opportunity for some positive change. Engagement in National Policy by ‘rank & file’ scouters from around the country has always been lower that desired, but after some big increases from 2004 to 2009, engagement has been slipping in recent years.

THE REAL BUSINESS OF SCOUTING

On one level, there is nothing particularly sinister in this trend. Most volunteers in Scouting do so in order to work with young people directly. They focus their attention on activities for youth members and have little spare time to be sitting in an auditorium or meeting room for a full weekend, listening to debates on obscure points, often associated with administrative amends to little-used rules and regulations.

However, the associations leaders should be concerned that a perceived culture of cronyism, drives a growing assumption that engaging in National Policy making is often a waste of time, given the decisions are usually made in advance anyway.

The process used in conjunction with the recent ‘Vision 2020’ initiative, is a case in point. Consultation on what was a very significant policy was largely absent, save for a few handpicked audiences. Debate was studiously avoided. Secrecy and arguably underhanded tactics prevailed in a display of breathtakingly bad judgments.

‘Vision 2020’ was however defeated by a significant margin, following some lengthy, lively debate and thrown out by National Council. This goes some way towards highlighting that engagement by scouters in the forum where decisions get made (that can affect them, their youth members and their group), not only makes sense, it often works.

There are plenty of high-calibre thinkers and strategists on the National Management Committee. They need to give thought to how more scouters at local level can be motivated to engage. This thinking needs to go beyond the usual seminars/consultations at Province or County level – they rarely work.

DISENGAGED DUBLIN

Vast tracts of Dublin (for example) have all but disengaged from contributing to National policy, fed up with the prevailing culture that has tainted the original vision the association started out with in 2004. Other parts of the country are similarly under-represented at National Council.

There is an opportunity now to begin changing this dynamic. Members need evidence that Scouting Ireland policy is intended for all, and that their opinion is important to that process. The grubby focus on ‘parish pump’ policy-making and ‘divide and conquer’ strategies by second-rate managers merely pushes disinterested and disenchanted members further away from engagement.

This suits some. Less debate, less scrutiny. In the long term however, it has hollowed out the moral authority of the NMC and arguably begun to have the same effect on National Council, as the two trusted decision-making bodies in Scouting Ireland.

The lazy argument churned out by the ‘rent a drone’ types (usually wheeled out to justify poor engagement by members) is the “well we set up a seminar/meeting and nobody turned up”. Not good enough. National Policy makers need to think outside the box on this.

MOVING TO MANIFESTOS

A good place to start is to insist that candidates for all elected positions present a manifesto to the membership – in essence, a summary of that they stand for, what their vision is and what they intend to do, if elected.

The traditional approach to elections in Scouting Ireland of ‘gentlemen of a certain age’ being wheeled out for ‘coronation’ because ‘its their turn’ to occupy a particular hot seat, needs to be consigned to the dustbin of history.

Scouting Ireland is a modern 21st century association, full of intelligent, passionate members. Surely they deserve to know not only whom they are voting for, but why? If a candidate has no vision, no reason to seek office beyond status, surely there are better candidates?

The association is facing big opportunities and major challenges. Surely when we seek to elect ten new members to the National Management Committee in 2015, we should be doing so based on a candidate’s capacity to lead, motivate, inspire and manage. Does it really matter how many badges they have, how many committee’s they have sat upon, how many awards they have pinned to their shirt?

SPEAKING UP

A brave and innovative young scouter pushed hard several years ago to bring candidate Q&A sessions with members to National Council. It was a brilliant move. The practice continues today, albeit ignored by some candidates who consider themselves too important for such trifles. This Q&A should be compulsory for anyone who wishes to seek elected office. However, each candidate’s manifesto should be in the public domain and circulated to members two months before National Council, to give meaning to the Q&A when it happens.

What will this achieve? Better transparency. Better screening of candidates. It will be a huge help to good candidates too – crafting a manifesto requires thought. Publicising it means making a commitment to members.

No reasonable person will expect every candidate to deliver on every promise, but it will keep him or her on the ‘straight and narrow’ and ensure they stay focused on the job they committed themselves to.

It will reduce the tendency towards ‘group think’ in committees – if a candidate has made commitments that are at variance with the prevailing view, they will be honour bound to speak up.

MORAL AUTHORITY

Most important of all, publicizing a manifesto and then being elected on the basis of it provides an electoral mandate to successful candidates. This will lend a level of moral authority to senior scouters. This commodity is sorely needed in the context of some rather large leadership gaps in recent years.

Better engagement will ultimately be a gradual process. It will require nurturing and support. National Council 2015 is a great opportunity to start.

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