A life less Ordinary

Scouting Ireland will replace over half of its National Management Committee at its National Council meeting in early 2015. Theirishscouter, as part of an occasional series in the coming months, seeks to explore the various roles up for election, question their purpose and ask about the attributes needed in candidates seeking success.

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ORDINARY MEMBERS

On Scouting Ireland’s National Management Committee, which is also the Board of Scouting Ireland Limited, it could be argued that all twenty of the directors are non-executive, since all twenty are volunteers.

However, another viewpoint could be that any NMC members with a portfolio of specific responsibilities that by virtue of being undertaken, entitles the holder to a seat and a vote on the NMC, could in fact be regarded as having ‘executive’ responsibilities

In the case of this latter view, thirteen (and possibly fourteen) of the roles are ‘executive’ positions; the Provincial Commissioners, the Chief Commissioners, the National Secretary and Treasurer, the Communications and International Commissioners, the Head of NSRAP.

Given the unique and senior role occupied by the Chief Scout and the importance of this role and its incumbent being seen at all times to be impartial and above politics, it could be argued that the Chief Scout role is in fact a ‘non-executive’ role (many Chairpersons are non-executive), however this point will be revisited in a later post.

AN EXTRA ORDINARY OPPORTUNITY

This leaves the six Ordinary member positions as being ‘without portfolio’. So what do these members do? Should Ordinary Members of the NMC act as non-executive directors for the association?

Much discussion and debate about the importance of non-executive directors has taken place in Ireland in recent years, given some well-documented scandals in major charities. It has been suggested on several occasions and by many eminent academics, politicians, legal experts and others that strong non-executive directors could have played a role in prevented some of the misbehavior that has not only damaged the credibility (and earning power) of the affected charities, it has had a damaging effect on the charity industry generally in Ireland, with donations down significantly, according to several media reports (see ‘further reading’, below).

Scouting Ireland has missed the opportunity to lead on this issue among charities (see Steven Cull’s recent piece on theirishscouter), but can still signal a commitment to the concept of better transparency. Having non-executive directors and defining them as such would be a good start.

So what does a Non-executive director do? Accountancy Ireland suggests, “The key role for every nonexecutive director is to bring an independent, objective and external perspective to the board. They should challenge constructively and help develop proposals on strategy. They should scrutinise the performance of management in meeting agreed goals and objectives.”

DEEPER AND DOWN

Challenging the status quo on the National Management Committee is rarely welcomed by the regime that in effect currently take most of the decisions around how Scouting Ireland is run. A culture of ‘divide and conquer’ exists, with any member (NMC or otherwise) seeking to challenge the prevailing view immediately subject to attempts to undermine, discredit or invalidate their arguments – and usually in an underhanded fashion, as opposed to through open honest debate.

In this type of environment, being a non-executive director can be intensely difficult.

When facing relentless pressure to drop opposition, curb critiques or overlook potential conflicts of interest, it can be challenging, even for those with unquestionable integrity to face down the cultural norm that has developed in Scouting Ireland that seems to resist transparency.

Yet, the role of a non-executive director has never been more important in the context of Scouting Ireland being an Irish charity and one that is in receipt of significant funding from the exchequer.

Members of the NMC who hold specific briefs will naturally be preoccupied with this work for much of the time and whilst they take an active part in making decisions that directly affect the association, having a group of non-executive directors in place to scrutinize, critique, challenge policy proposals and hold decision makers to account is of critical importance.

CLIQUITY-CLIQUE

The decline in trust that members of Scouting Ireland have in its elected management committee was strikingly in evidence at National Council in 2014 when the ‘Vision 2020’ proposal was thrown out by a skeptical electorate who simply did not believe the assurances being given by the leadership.

Many key decisions in Scouting Ireland are not even made by the NMC any longer. Decisions are taken behind the scenes, often by unelected ‘chums’ of the leadership, employees or both, only to be rubber-stamped later by the NMC (if at all). Controversial issues tend to be left to the end of the NMC agenda (and a long, busy day), to minimize debate or dissent.

The NMC is considered by many members to have yielded day-to-day control of the association to an unelected clique. A robust, visibly independent group of Ordinary members fulfilling a non-executive role on the NMC would go a long way towards reversing this perception and restoring the reputation of the National Management Committee, the members of which are mostly committed, hard-working volunteers with passion and integrity.

WHO OVERSEE’S THE OVERSEERS?

One of the (many) positive suggestions in the defunct ‘Vision 2020’ document advocated the establishment of an ‘audit committee’.

This committee should be established.

Ordinary members of the NMC should form the nucleus of this committee or should be regular contributors to it. The other members of the committee should comprise of members of SI with proven expertise and not simply more seat warmers from the clique that surround the leadership.

Scouting, like all charities, is in danger of being strangled with external red tape and over-regulation, formulated to apply to the lowest common denominator. The role of an audit committee and Ordinary members of the NMC should be to act as watchdogs, not attack dogs. Most scouters are decent and have integrity. Most would not object to greater transparency around decision-making and dissemination of information in our National organization.

There is already a growing disconnect between what the national association says to local groups and what it does itself. The submission of scout group accounts is an example of this. National Office want details of all financial details of local volunteer-led scout groups, yet there is a tendency to resist sharing information around expenditure in National Office. What happened to ‘lead by example’?

Strong and credible watchdogs with proven integrity and proven independence would, merely by being present, go a long way towards improving visibility around how Scouting does its business, spends funds and appoints candidates to volunteer and paid positions. Members of Scouting Ireland have not just a right to this information, they arguably have a responsibility to demand it.

The first step is to elect strong Ordinary members to the NMC in 2015. Members of Scouting Ireland should ask candidates in advance of the election about their reason for running, their plans for the role and their views on transparency.

FURTHER READING

http://www.independent.ie/opinion/analysis/wallets-put-away-as-charities-reputations-in-tatters-30221270.html

http://www.irishexaminer.com/ireland/politics/shedding-light-on-the-pay-of-charity-chiefs-168676.html

http://www.irishtimes.com/news/social-affairs/majority-of-charities-report-drop-in-donations-following-scandals-1.1796918

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