How can Scouting Ireland get better value and stronger results from it’s employment of professional staff into the future, yet do so on a shrinking budget? AND in doing so, can the association turn a challenge into a significant opportunity by enhancing it’s influence and visibility at the same time?
By any measure, Scouting in Ireland has tended to do okay out of the process of employing professionals to help the volunteer membership to run the association on a day-to-day basis. Barring what will be to observers, the one or two obvious duds and the occasional serious error in hiring in paid help, professional staff working in Scouting in Ireland over the years have been (and continue to be) highly motivated, passionate and pretty good at their jobs as a rule.
Staff turnover in Scouting is virtually zero too, so despite the occasional gripe about working conditions, pay etc., it’s clear that the benefits outweigh the negatives sufficiently to keep most employees in the job for periods of time that far exceed the national average outside the civil service.
Pay rates that escaped the savage cuts inflicted on the private and public sectors during Ireland’s prolonged economic slowdown have probably helped to minimize turnover too, with the average cost per employee rising steadily over the period 2007-2013 https://theirishscouter.com/2015/03/30/account-ability/
The civil service is a useful entity against which to compare Scouting’s professional team. Like running the country, the business of running Scouting Ireland needs to continue, even when an election for (volunteer) management positions is taking place. Professional staff provide some of that continuity.
ENERGY IS VOLUNTARY
Volunteer leaders at every level in Scouting have a fixed-term of office (a fixed-term contract in effect), beyond which they cannot remain in their role. This usually means between three and six years. This is handy because most volunteers do not want to stay in the same role indefinitely. Fixed terms of office allow for new blood and fresh ideas. Equally, if the association elects a dud, it’s usually only a three-year wait at most till the next election. Each new candidate, along with new ideas and a fresh approach generally brings an energy boost to the job too – all good for Scouting.
The downside is arguably continuity. Scouting consciously develops confident, headstrong young people who are trained to lead. The side effect is a lot of big ego’s jostling for positions within the association, all with firm ideas of how to do things. Once in office, many volunteers begin their term by dismantling whatever work their predecessor undertook. When they leave office, their successor does likewise, ensuring that many parts of the association’s ‘machine’ never really get up to full efficiency.
In this context, professional staff also provide some much-needed continuity, bridging the gaps between the various short-term stays of elected volunteers. The trouble with this strategy, to quote the most famous bureaucrat of them all, Sir Humphrey Appleby is that; “with permanence comes power”. If professionals, especially at senior level take this permanence as a license to stray into policy-making (as some try to do), as opposed to policy implementation, then inevitably tensions ensue.
Senior volunteers in Scouting Ireland have privately complained that their work is routinely obstructed by some senior staff, who appear to know full well that if they can obstruct for long enough, the volunteer’s time runs out and the status quo is retained.
FUNDAMENTAL AND FRESH
The ideal scenario would be rotation in all roles, volunteer AND professional, but calibrated so that (for example) a key volunteer role and it’s professional support equivalent would not terminate simultaneously.
Is it time to take a fundamentally fresh look at how Scouting Ireland delivers professional support to its members?
At its core, Scouting Ireland is a YOUTH movement. Whilst thankfully unemployment levels in Ireland are in decline, YOUTH unemployment is above the national average and whilst not as chronic as it is in France, Spain or Italy, there are nonetheless large numbers of young people out of work.
Ireland’s education system is one of the best in Europe so we have on our doorstep, thousands of energetic, highly educated, intelligent young people who need a career opening to get them on the ladder. Many of these people are scouts or former scouts.
HOW AND WHEN
Scouting Ireland should, over a defined period, gradually phase in a new approach to employing professional staff in our association. Like the accountancy firms who seek out only the best and brightest, Scouting should do likewise. Young people should be prioritized for all but a handful of professional roles (the roles of CPO, Financial Controller and CEO spring to mind for example, as roles that might need a more experienced occupant, albeit a candidate also on a fixed-term contract). Each new contract should be of three-year’s duration and non-renewable.
In the first six months, each new candidate settles in, learns the role and perhaps moves around for a month of induction in different areas, to help broaden their grasp of how the association works. For example, a week shadowing a PSO, a week in finance, a week on a campsite as staff, etc.
For the final six months of their contract, the association would support them in getting a new job, either in the wider youth or volunteering sector, in business or another chosen field. At the very least, each candidate would be allotted some time in their final six months, to explore new opportunities, whilst they would also spend some of that time ‘handing over’ to their replacement.
The intervening two years would be a combination of on-going training, on the job learning and high performance in the respective brief assigned.
SIZE OF THE PRIZE
A gradual but sustained shift to this style of hiring professional support would deliver a number of positive outcomes for Scouting. In the first instance, it would unlock access to a vast bank of highly talented young people with passion, energy and a desire to make a difference.
It would put Scouting Ireland in the driving seat as a leading provider of high-quality employment to young people, with a clear career path built in. Monetarily, fixed-term non-renewable contracts would cost the association far less, yet the remuneration to the employees concerned would likely be even more competitive (long-term employees earn far more than newer/younger entrants, get more holidays, take more sick leave and also require pension provision, for example).
Productivity would improve driven by all that passion and energy. Innovation would flourish (less people around to enforce the ‘we’ve always done it this way’ argument) and that recent growing tension between democratically elected volunteers and a small minority of uppity, politically minded employees, would dissipate, putting volunteer leadership firmly back in control of the association.
In a volunteer-led association, this last point cannot be underemphasized. Recent years have seen an alarming shift in the lines of demarcation between the role of the volunteer and that of the paid employee – this has caused considerable, unnecessary tension.
INFLUENCE AND CREDIBILITY
Perhaps the greatest strategic payback for Scouting Ireland however would be the similar payback that major accountancy and law firms enjoy – a constant flow of well-trained, highly motivated, upwardly mobile achievers, in this instance with a passion for scouting, filtering out into the workforce at a rate of between five and ten per year.
These people, having had three years solid experience in a well-defined, challenging role with one of Ireland’s largest youth organisations, will enter business, the charity/volunteering sector, education, the civil service, public sector entities, politics or another field with a solid start to their career. No matter where they go, as they climb the ranks in their chosen career, they will retain an interest in an understanding of, a belief in (and a fondness for) Scouting.
It is no coincidence that the four major accountancy firms in Ireland undertake the lion’s share of the available work – many of the top finance people in business in Ireland are former employees, having cut their teeth inside these firms.
In effect, Scouting Ireland will become the incubator for future generations of leaders in different walks of Irish life, in particular in the wider youth sector, in associated advocacy groups and in the likes of politics and the civil service, bringing enhanced influence and credibility to our work in sectors of society where currently we are at best underrepresented and lack much influence and at worst, are simply not taken very seriously.
Over a period of a decade or two, the association will establish an unrivalled network of influence in Irish society, with key leaders in all sorts of fields graduates of Scouting’s professional staff.
ROME WASN’T BUILT IN A DAY
Scouting Ireland moves slowly on most things. In part, this is active inertia on the part of unwieldy committees, in part it is political interest groups frantically trying to slow down change or stop it altogether. In any event, a proposal to shift the way the association recruits and utilizes headcount would take time to implement.
Current staff happily employed and meeting KPI’s (key performance indicators) are in the main, likely to be interested in remaining in Scouting Ireland for some time to come (and would be valuable to retain).
So this process of reinvigorating how the association employs, retains, trains and – critically – in the case of younger employees in particular, gives wings to it’s staff to, make a contribution and then move on to other challenges elsewhere, will take several years to implement. But it does need to happen.
“CHANGE BEFORE YOU HAVE TO” (Jack Welch)
The alternative is the risk of stagnation and lack of innovation as a ‘civil service’ mindset institutionalizes skilled professionals, entrenched bureaucracy and empire-building slows them down and saps their passion and the culture provides a handy place for the occasional shirker to coast and pompous political types to posture – and blame volunteers when things go wrong.
With staff costs currently the single biggest expense line in the Scouting Ireland accounts (and increasing year on year), the opportunity to utilise scarce resources in a more efficient manner also needs to come into sharper focus.
Most importantly, a fresh approach to hiring will challenge the current status quo of permanence for professionals and volatility for volunteers in management roles, where permanence means POWER and volatility merely results in vanquished attempts to make a real and positive difference to how our association works.