Pat O Connor is a former Programme Commissioner for Scouts, a former member of the National Management Committee and is currently Camp Chief at Mount Mellary Scout Centre in Waterford. He has been an active scouter in St Paul’s in Waterford and in the South Eastern Province for many years. He is a candidate for the position of Chief Scout in September’s election for the post, to be held at an extraordinary meeting of the association’s National Council.
Theirishscouter spoke with him recently….
IS: What makes you think you have what it takes to be Chief Scout?
POC: I believe I am a very open, fair, pragmatic and straight talking person. I would hope to bring fresh thinking to the role of Chief Scout. I consider myself open to change and I will take responsibility for decisions made, which might not always get approval from everyone. The role is a huge undertaking for any one person to take on, but I would be part of a team of 20 people elected by National council to lead the association.
IS: Are you an insider or an outsider?
POC: Outsider, I have not been involved at national level since 2011. I would always try to see issues from different angles, research and discuss ideas with many people before forming an opinion. However, experience/knowledge and independent thought hopefully allows you to make the correct decision most of the time
IS: Scouting Ireland has become a deeply divided association in recent years. What are you planning to do in order to unite the association?
POC: With the help of the NMC I will create an environment of openness, trust and two-way communication. I think there is too much power in the hands of too few people. I will remind people that the Group is the key area in the association that we need to support it. People will have different views but we need to compromise to find best way forward.
IS: Are groups overrun with bureaucracy from National Office – is this necessary?
POC: Yes, swamped in fact. There is for example, too much expected of group leaders, therefore, we need to make the Group Secretary role more prominent. Group leaders need to delegate more to other Officers within the Group. In order to assist with this, Officers need more training. Corporate governance is here to stay, so we do need to be on top of paperwork.
IS: Who should call the shots in Scouting – staff or volunteers?
POC: Volunteers supported by professional staff. However certain duties that require interaction with regularity bodies need to be handled by professional staff
IS: What programme section is the most important?
POC: All are important, however in my own experience we need to retain more of the youth members in Scouts and Venture Scouts. We need to grow our own leaders so that the association evolves sustainably. It can be very hard for parents forced into taking scouter roles to understand where we want to take the association when their main focus can often be ensuring their child has a place. You will find must successful groups do not operate a policy like this.
IS: Is the Provincial structure working in your view?
POC: There are some areas where we may have an issue and we probably need to cluster regional areas so that we are creating more mass which will allow us utilise resources better. Though the current structure probably needs to be reviewed in all areas. Some like South Eastern Province are huge and probably becoming unmanageable.
IS: When did you last run a programme section?
POC: Current Leader in Scouts and Assistant Leader with Ventures. Previous to that I was Group Leader in St Paul’s in Waterford
IS: Are we too hung up on competitions in Scouting Ireland?
POC: They have their place. Ask scouts at any stage they will say they like them. People get hung up on the Phoenix but there are many more events that have a competitive element to them. We would need to look at what they all bring to the table. I think adults are the main problem with competitions and how they push that onto youth members. They can be healthy; we compete for most things in life. Competition can inspire and raise standards. However, there is a need for balance in the programme. Competition should not be the only focus!
IS: Do you think young people should have a vote on a new uniform?
POC: Absolutely. The only concern I would have is that we would be following fashion trends. We need to redesign, to ensure it is fit for purpose. Dress uniform and activity uniform.
IS: If giving young people a vote on uniform would run the risk of Scouting following fashion trends, (a) is this really so bad (b) does this mean adults do not have any sense of fashion?
POC: No – it is not a bad thing to give youth a vote, they have it by right already, they are well represented on youth forums, group councils, national council and will have a big say in how they vote will go. As for scouters not having a fashion sense, everyone will have an opinion but most people are rational so if a good argument is made for any change people will go with it.
IS: Are you advocating two official uniforms – an activity uniform and a dress uniform? Will everyone need both or can groups choose which one suits their needs best?
POC: Yes, we should be able to mix and match uniform as and when the activity dictates, obviously when we have formal type of events we should have a dress type uniform. Groups should be able to decide one way or another what they wear. The 2 uniform choice will only effect from scouts upwards. Whatever uniform is worn it should still be presentable at all times Only issue will be cost and I would say that is where most scouters will have a problem.
IS: Can Scouting Ireland really afford all the campsites it operates?
POC: Yes -We need more and we need to support them. All campsites are self-financing. Well the 5 National ones are. You can only spend what you have. We need to invest in program and we need to look at what we offer at centres. All campsites should have the basics.
IS: Whose job is it to run Scouting Ireland?
POC: Everyone’s – all people in a leadership role have a responsibility to run scouting from Sixers, PL’s Venture Exec, Rover Crews to Scouters. Everything we do we must try to do to the best of our ability. The membership has to take collective responsibility for running Scouting Ireland
IS: Is the NMC fit for purpose?
POC: It would be easy for me to say no, however we need to look at the structure. We have a lot of legal and regularity obligations to deliver on. There should there be a board to deal with these issues separate from the Scouting side of things, like programme, training, and events. If the NMC were likened to Government Cabinet or a corporate management team everyone would have a portfolio to deal with. We have had the same model for past 11 years; maybe a change needs to happen.
IS: Scouting has become very centralized in terms of decision-making. Do you approve of this?
POC: No, I do not approve of this. The detail in many decisions can be worked on long before it comes to NMC. There should be a level of decision making at Group, County and Provincial that they must take responsibility for.
IS: Does Dublin have different needs from the rest of the country when it comes to Scouting?
POC: It depends on the context. Rural and Urban areas will always have different needs however the constants in all groups are programme, adequate leaders, and finance. In fact Urban areas probably have greater advantage due to critical mass.
IS: In terms of membership, Rover Scouts has failed – is there any point in continuing?
POC: I don’t know if are we approaching Rover Scouts in the wrong way. We are looking to have a model similar to many European Countries. I’m not sure this works. Ireland can be peculiar, in terms of what works versus other EU countries.
We do need to be more visible in 3rd level institutions. That would be a move in right direction.
IS: Why is Scouting haemorrhaging teenagers in your view?
POC: We are not alone with this problem; any club will tell you they are loosing teens all the time. For example, many sports clubs have multiple teams’ underage but struggle to field adult teams. Reasons can be many, programme, social interaction, moving away from home. Teenagers grow up, enter relationships all of a sudden scouting is not the priority. Is not one of our aims is to develop young people to take an active role in society it just may not be scouting in every instance
IS: Does Scouting have a coolness deficit?
POC: Yes, for people looking in from the outside they just do not get it. We are very good at internal marketing be it at local or national level, less so at external communication
Ireland is a funny place in how we see involvement in groups. Sports are seen as cool to be involved in but most other activities, including Scouting do suffer image issues. Only when we have proper facilities and centres will we be able to compete.
IS: What will you do in your first three months in the job?
POC: Assess where the NMC are in relation to all initiatives being worked on.
Prioritise critical issues for Scouting Ireland
Meet as many people as possible at various events, conferences and other gatherings
IS: Name a person you greatly admire in Scouting.
POC: The people I admire most are the hundreds and thousands of scouters who run sections, help on committees and give their time so generously. I know many who give their time unselfishly and to acknowledge them for their work – well we should be doing more of it. Not everyone can be in higher roles – local scouters should receive more recognition too. I suppose if pushed to acknowledge one person, I have great time for Damien O’ Sullivan, Scouting Ireland’s Campsites Manager. Damien has been a great source of wisdom, help in my current role
IS: What do you do when you are not involved in Scouting?
POC: I like gardening, map-making and sport. I cannot say going to hurling matches relaxes me, as following Waterford is a rollercoaster of emotion. Believe it or not I like to do nothing now and again, totally switch off