The National Management Committee of Scouting Ireland have set out a roadmap for how the association can best adjust to a new regulatory environment for charities in both jurisdictions. This is a solid roadmap and it deserves support. It is the best way forward for Scouting and in particular, for local Scout Groups.
Dail Eireann and the Northern Ireland legislative assembly have, separately, through the introduction of legislation to govern the operation of charitable entities and in particular, through the formation of charities regulators over the past 18 months, thrown down some challenges for Scouting Ireland. Responding to these challenges will fundamentally affect how Scouting is structured in both jurisdictions on the island.
The National Management Committee took the association through a status report at the associations EGM in September, at Dublin’s RDS – a report that read a little like the NMC had only been briefed themselves a few weeks prior to this, given what came across as a slightly breathless tone.
Nonetheless, the presentation set out clearly the options for Scouting, the implications for each option and a clear recommendation on the way forward. The ‘how’ will take some additional explaining and groups will need reassurance and support in this area, but to be fair, the NMC have shown commendable leadership and it seems clear that the focus (rightly) of the recommendation is the scout group and it’s autonomy.
In essence, there is a choice for Scouting in the context of looming deadlines to engage with newly formed Charity Regulators in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
The options, as laid out in the presentation delivered in the RDS do look fairly stark at first glance.
On the one hand, members can opt to become part of a fully-fledged ‘top down’ corporate style structure (controlled from National Office, with groups becoming something akin to ‘branches’, and group scouters taking on the role of in effect being local functionaries, with little apparent autonomy).
Scouting has been edging along this trajectory for some time now, with a centralization of decision-making and a growing role for professional staff and other unelected managers, causing an increasing amount of friction with local volunteers (some of this spilling over into motions at April’s National Council).
Recent elections in Scouting Ireland have arguably been used by the membership (successfully) to clearly signal their irritation with this approach and a desire for a restoration of the ‘support’ role for national office in tandem with the scout group once again becoming the central focus of association policies.
This makes the other option in the quandary of how to react to the new charities regulations look more attractive. This scenario would see the association establish a structure where each scout group becomes an independent entity in its own right – a registered charity – and thus fully autonomous of National Office in terms of some areas of legally required governance.
Neither option is ideal and both represent some fundamental changes versus how Scouting currently operates. However of the two, theirishscouter believes the latter course, which the National Management Committee has recommended, is the better route to take.
The NMC is correct when it says (in the presentation shared at National Council’s EGM in the RDS in September) that this latter option will better protect the autonomy of the local Scout Group, this being the very CORE of what we in Scouting are about.
Of course, there are going to be changes. However with proper planning and (crucially) good and clear communication to the membership, to explain what is happening, these changes will be manageable for all but a tiny number of groups.
With each Scout Group acting independently, the requirement for support from National Office will of course continue, even if the nature of some of that support needs to shift or change over time. Indeed, this change in structure will go a long way towards restoration of the equilibrium that for so long saw the balance of power held by local volunteers and not by national office.
If anything, the structural realignment and shift in authority back to groups will see the essential services provided by National Office come into increasingly sharp focus (and there are several of these services, even if traditionally Scouting Ireland has been bad at explaining what those services are, to local members). Insurance cover, a central database of key information, national programmes on child protection, adult training, youth programme, communication, advocacy and engagement with governmental, non-governmental, corporate and other stakeholders (even if this latter function has been, at best discreet, in recent times) and of course the running of major national events will all continue to be of pivotal importance to local scout groups.
In essence, once some fundamental shifts in governance and accountability are made (shifting to local trustee’s), things will – largely – continue as normal for the vast majority of scout groups.
Some members are of course worried about how these changes will affect them. In part, this concern is a result of patchy or hard to locate information about the changes and what is involved. Clarity around communication of critical topics remains an Achilles heel for Scouting and one that deserves some focus.
The added responsibilities of becoming a trustee of a local charity or a director of a limited company will be intimidating to many volunteers. It is wrong of experienced scouters in strong scout groups or those with corporate experience to rubbish these worries – far better to reassure and support those volunteers for whom governance is outside their comfort zone or beyond their expectations of what would be expected of them when they agreed to volunteer as a scouter.
It is also important that, unlike the failed Vision 2020 initiative, members who are critical of the NMC’s proposal or who disagree with it (or how SI has handled it) are not shouted down, undermined or dismissed as ‘negative’. EVERY member has a right to a viewpoint.
The trend (on the Scouting Ireland Chat Forum in particular) towards self appointed association spin-doctors shrilly shouting down any dissent or critique of association policy is not only unhelpful – it is completely counter-productive. Vision 2020 failed because debate did not happen. Critics were censored (on the forum) and branded as ‘bullies’ (and all sorts of other hysterical nonsense), when in fact some rational debate would have almost certainly led to a better outcome.
The changes this time are externally driven, but how they are implemented and the tone and language used around that implementation process will likely make all the difference.
MIND THE GAP
The association needs to set out a road map for how weaker and/or new scout groups will be helped to manage this transition process. Larger and stronger groups will make the change with little effort. Most other groups will be able to find the requisite number of trustees and the wherewithal to put the reporting systems in place.
However it is important that groups that really need help are not left to fall through the cracks as this new structure comes into use.
In reality, scout groups will continue to subscribe to the concept of a National Scout Association, made up of local scout groups. Membership of that entity will be conditional (as is the case when joining most clubs) on payment of a membership fee, together with acceptance of some key fundamentals and the upholding of some core standards.
Where a local group is unable to meet these standards, is unable to pay the fee or lacks the infrastructure to deliver on one or more of these fundamentals, a support structure should be in place to ensure the adult volunteers get the help they need in order to deliver the best scouting possible for the youth members affected.
The Provincial structures may be able to contribute here through the creation of a ‘compliance support’ mechanism that can help facilitate a path to full compliance where a group is in need of this help. No doubt local networks between groups and at County level will also provide some much-needed additional support, even to groups that are working through the changes competently.
NO LONGER ‘US’ AND ‘THEM”
Of course in a structure where each Scout Group is a de-facto independent entity, delivering support is likely to have an added layer of complexity versus under the present structure, but the fundamental shift from national office being an ‘enforcer’ of compliance to being a ‘supporter’ of it, will hopefully see a change in language used AND will make the entire Scouting entity much more cohesive as national office returns to being a ‘support’ office, rather than a ‘head’ office.
PAY AS YOU ENTER
The structure employed in London for the operation of eight thousand buses (the tube system operates on a different structure) across several hundred routes and a huge surface area, could deliver some inspiration for a suitable model for Scouting Ireland in seeking to manage a slightly more nuanced structure.
Since the early 1990’s Transport for London (formerly London Transport) has in effect relinquished the operation of buses in the UK capital to a multitude of private companies. These businesses operate in different geographical parts of the network, but must meet key standards in order to operate under the TfL banner.
In some (very limited) circumstances, TfL owns or operates it’s own fleet of buses, but it generally only does so in cases where a local company has failed, is brand new or in an area where no stand alone business can or will operate.
Thus, high levels of intervention in local management are possible, but are generally a last resort and always a short-term solution.
In effect, this is a two-tier system. Most services are delivered by independent entities that ‘subscribe’ to the TfL standards of operation, however scope is also there for the ‘parent’ entity (TfL) to take on a direct operational role when needed, for limited periods and usually at the request of a local operator who is struggling to cope.
Of course, most passengers on the London Bus Network are oblivious to the structure. To them, buses in London run just as they always have, for over 100 years. They simply see a ‘uniform’ fleet of red buses and a consistent ‘programme’ of services, sharing common infrastructure and ethos, accessed using a card linked into a common ‘database’, no matter what the route.
PLUS CA CHANGE, PLUS C’EST LA MEME CHOSE
Whatever happens, one thing we can be fairly sure of is that Scouting will continue to go from strength to strength, in scout dens and campsites, on mountains and on the water, largely thanks to the often unseen and un-thanked work of local volunteers. These people do what they do, partly because they believe in Scouting and what it can do for young people, but mostly because they want to support youth in their community and contribute to the growth and success of their scout group.
The other groups who deserve recognition are the members of the National Management Committee and other volunteers working nationally behind the scenes. Yes, they get criticized a lot (and sometimes deservedly so) but on this occasion they have made a strong recommendation with the right intention and they deserve support to make the plan a reality.
It is up to them, a broadly capable and enthusiastic group of people, to find the right solution to ensure that EVERY group can make the transition to a new governance and accountability model in a seamless manner, allowing local volunteers to get back to doing what they do best – delivering great scouting.
Theirishscouter would advocate that members SUPPORT the National Management Committee’s proposal, but would equally urge the NMC to ensure that members are not left hanging for want of information, nor should scorn be poured on those who are genuinely concerned or unsure of how to implement the changes that the structural revisions will demand.