Scouting Ireland has recently seen the occupant of the National Secretary role relinquish his position, citing an unsustainable workload. The candidate, one of the most able and energetic to occupy the role either in Scouting Ireland or either legacy association, did not take the decision lightly.
Scouting Ireland need to echo that sentiment when seeking a replacement candidate.
The National Secretary of Scouting Ireland is one of the most pivotal roles in the association. The holder of the office is responsible for the myriad of support services that drive our sizeable association on a day-to-day basis.
Everything from IT through to Insurance, Legal issues through to legislation that might affect the association or it’s members. The appointment and performance of professional staff to a large extent sits within the secretary’s purview, as does the final arbitration of disputes between members. Should a legal action be taken against the association, it is usually the National Secretary who is the named defendant. In the case of Scouting taking an action against another party, the National Secretary will be the plaintiff.
The interpretation of the associations Constitution & Rules usually falls to the National Secretary, as does the upholding of these crucial documents in spirit as well as in letter.
The National Secretary records meetings of the National Management Committee and National Council, the association’s supreme governing body. Key interactions with external bodies like the Department of Education and the National Youth Council of Ireland fall to the National Secretary to manage.
In short, the National Secretary undertakes vast swathes of difficult, laborious and often invisible work that is critically important to ensure the association operates legally and does so in an environment where it’s members are protected.
In the context of so honest an admission as that received from the outgoing office holder, to the effect that the role is simply too big for one volunteer to undertake, Scouting Ireland needs to think about how best to manage this issue for the future.
Along with significant responsibility, the role has extensive powers and widespread influence. Treating it as one that simply needs to be filled by a seat-warmer or a competent administrator is to fundamentally misunderstand the importance of the job and in doing so take a grave risk with the future of the association.
The easy and (to some less strategic thinkers) obvious solution would be to pass some or all of these responsibilities to professional staff. This would be a serious mistake. This approach as recent years have shown, can risk an abuse of position by people who have a permanent unelected role, with the resultant insufferable power tripping and the simmering resentment from volunteers this can generate. But far more importantly, it ultimately undermines the ‘volunteer-led’ tenet of Scouting in Ireland.
Another option would be to offer a stipend to the elected volunteer candidate that would negate the need for said candidate to work for the duration of their time in office. This approach could attract good candidates with real experience, but would also gear up the last vestiges of the old boys network, anxious to get ‘their man’ into yet another plum Scouting position offering not just power, but payment too.
It would risk making an employee out of a volunteer and as some recent experiences have shown, the transition from one level of involvement in scouting to the other can be a difficult one for some individuals to make. The critical line between volunteer leadership and professional management needs to be very clear and those on both sides of the line need to know where one type of role stops and the other type begins. A hybrid role could be infinitely problematic.
THE ANTITHESIS OF AMBITION
In any event many serious career people, both corporate and entrepreneurial, of the sort of calibre necessary to undertake such a mammoth task, would likely be reluctant to give up significant time away from the business and their careers (up to six years), in exchange for what might be a comparatively modest salary.
The thankless nature of the task and the fact that Scouting has yet to be taken seriously in the corporate, political and academic spheres of Irish society, would also be off-putting for ambitious problem solvers with an eye on their future prospects.
In any event, as is the case frequently in Scouting, the people capable of doing the job would most likely avoid it, whilst those eminently unsuitable would be queuing up to secure the keys to National Office….
An individual with wide experience of running a large business, a well-rounded CV, a solid track record in local Scouting roles who is independently wealthy, prepared to devote 40-50 hours a week to the role, is an accomplished administrator, savvy in the dark art of Scouting politics AND is an inspirational leader, would be the ideal candidate. But (a) there is rarely one of these around when you need one and (b) do we want some positions in Scouting to become the sole preserve of a privileged minority of members? Probably not.
TIME TO SPLIT
Perhaps the most elegant potential option would be to look at how the current Chief Commissioner roles are structured and seek to emanate this to some extent.
Retain the role of National Secretary as an elected position, but add (for example) two new positions of Deputy National Secretary. These positions would also be elected (they would need to be, in order to combine transparency with the scope to assign real responsibilities to the candidates concerned). The terms of office could be co-terminus with the National Secretary, thus encouraging some element of pre-election alignment between the candidates, to ensure that all three could work together post election.
Duties could be defined for each candidate, perhaps grouped around specific areas (for example; governance, harmony (disputes), resourcing (staff and budgets), operations, etc.).
The National Secretary would continue to be a member of the NMC, whilst the two Deputy National Secretaries would not, but could visit (without votes) as required – a bit like the CEO currently does.
This system might also begin to engender some continuity in the role of National Secretary, with two candidates already gaining experience and knowledge about the brief for potential elevation to the top role later, subject to election.
The presence of Deputy National Secretaries would by no means rule out any other candidate from seeking election to the role of National Secretary, no more than it is a prerequisite for a Chief Commissioner to have worked as a programme commissioner, but it would at least widen the experience base for what is a role that has had more than it’s fair share of unwilling occupants over the years, press-ganged into running for office because a candidate is desperately needed and they sort of fit the bill…
If a National Secretary needed to absent him or herself from a key meeting, or from the role for a period of time, a deputy could take responsibility.
Quite how the association Constitution and Rules changes to facilitate this sort of approach would be managed would be up to the NMC, with inputs from the Chief Scout and outgoing National Secretary to perhaps set out the vision and present it to National Council for approval, but the end result could deliver a far better outcome for the membership AND the incumbent(s).
DELEGATE AND INTEGRATE
The National Secretary would (like the Chief Commissioners already have) gain an officially recognized team, would have real scope to delegate (even if such delegation was to an extent pre-determined by National Council in the form of job specifications for the Deputy Secretaries) and would be better able to focus and deliver in a sustainable fashion, without having to sacrifice career, family, friends and a life outside Scouting.
In addition, this approach might enable occupants of the Secretary role(s) to get out into the Scout Groups and Campsites a bit too – a frequent gripe about senior figures is that they have lost touch with ‘real’ Scouting on the ground. With the workload involved, who can blame them, but it is just as valid to note that these elected officers make decisions that can affect us all in local groups – surely it would be far better if they had a little more time to see how those groups work and get closer to the issues on the ground, whilst in office.
Whatever outcome arises from the unexpected loss to the role of one of it’s most energetic, capable and scouting focused custodians, something needs to be done to ensure the association gets the best possible levels of service, but that this happens without an individual scouter having to make an immense personal sacrifice.
This is perhaps the first real test of the new NMC. An opportunity to step up, be honest and make a clear and workable decision (or more likely, motion to National Council) that delivers for the membership and future incumbents in the role.
The balance of probabilities suggests that the new NMC has both the collective wit and unity to make the right call on this.
It will be needed.