An unpublished report by an external, independent consultant, seen by theirishscouter unveils details that raise questions about an apparently deeply dysfunctional relationship between some professional staff in Scouting Ireland and the volunteers they are employed to support. The Irish Scouter has received a copy of this draft report and other documentation from a confidential source.
DISPUTES RESOLUTION IN SCOUTING IRELAND
These documents are casting the ‘Disputes Procedure’ of Scouting Ireland in a rather poor light. Not for the first time, theirishscouter has been contacted by or made aware of instances of volunteers in effect being treated as ‘second class citizens’ in their own association. Intimidation tactics, conflicts of interest and an apparent lack of and disregard for due process all appear to be manifesting themselves across several separate dispute cases. There is plenty of written evidence to support this conclusion.
WHY IS THIS HAPPENING?
The Irish Scouter like many members has been concerned for some time at the increasingly blurred lines between the roles of senior elected volunteers and the employees hired to support them in their roles, in the day to day operation of Scouting Ireland.
The time honoured pattern of volunteers making policy and staff implementing it (at national level) or supporting it’s implementation (in the Provinces), with senior volunteers being held accountable as the decision makers and staff working in a strictly non-political, non policy-making support role, shifted gradually at first, but has accelerated very significantly in recent years.
Key staff roles have become politicized, with some former volunteers now employed by the association, increasingly unable to see the line between their role and that of the elected volunteers they are employed to support. Some key staff members appear to be making decisions beyond their brief. In at least one specific instance, disclosed to theirishscouter by a National Officer of the association, they appear to be doing so without the knowledge of or alignment with elected volunteers.
This ‘politicisation’ of some key professional roles, tolerated by weak volunteer leadership for several years has inevitably led to increasing levels of conflict at senior level between elected volunteers, who have a short (and fixed) term in which to set policy and senior staff who are de-facto permanent fixtures, staying in situ for years. These senior professionals also appear to enjoy a largely oversight-free environment with little accountability*
* Key performance indicators (KPI’s) and detailed job descriptions for most professional roles in Scouting Ireland are largely non-existent in the case of the former and remarkably vague in the case of the latter (this is in the early stages of being tackled, albeit in the association’s thirteenth year).
Interestingly, volunteers seem to have little or no input, even at board level, into setting any sort of performance standards for senior employees at present, begging the inevitable question: who does?
The convention that staff salaries, performance reviews and expenses are all off-limits for discussion at Board Meetings, suggests these topics are formally covered elsewhere by a sub-committee of the board of Scouting Ireland Limited. Private conversations between theirishscouter and senior volunteers in recent weeks strongly suggests this is not the case – a remarkable situation and surely quite unprecedented in the context of the Charities Acts and the Combined Companies Acts. So who is overseeing this massive cost centre (we spend €1.4m per year on staff) and precisely what oversight mechanisms are in place?
For more on the accounts submitted by Scouting Ireland Limited to the CRO (Companies Registration Office), see theirishscouter article ‘Account Ability’.
BEYOND THE PALE
Out in the Provinces, the apparent lack of management of or direction for our professional team means that they can occasionally, but increasingly run into conflict with the volunteers they are paid to serve. Some volunteers for their part encounter staff ‘telling’ them what to do or taking unilateral decisions with increasing regularity – an extraordinary (and deeply resented) turn of events, driven to a large extent by activities (or inactivity) further up the structure chart.
This resentment has bubbled to the surface at conferences and indeed even at National Council, with a motion on the topic withdrawn only at the last minute at the 2015 meeting of this body. The increasingly successful strategy to sanitise all debate out of gatherings of Scouters nationally however has largely succeeded in neutering any widespread discussion to tackle the issue, in turn fuelling even more resentment.
CULTURE OF INTIMIDATION
One of the reasons senior volunteers go along with all this is quite simply because to raise a concern is to expose oneself to a concerted campaign of bullying and vitriol – theirishscouter is only too aware of this, having received the ‘full treatment’ as it were, for merely expressing viewpoints. Theirishscouter has also received verbal and written evidence from three other senior members about their own er, engagement with senior staff, when they have had the temerity to question any aspect of the status quo. Quite where the time can be found to pursue this culture of bullying and intimidation, can perhaps find an answer in some of the apparent gaping management holes prevalent in how the National Office ‘machine’ is run.
LETS BE CLEAR…
…OF COURSE there are professional staff who are just that – professional in everything they do. They also represent the majority in Scouting Ireland’s team of employees.
They recognize that without volunteers, there would be no scouting (and no staff), they understand their own role, see the lines of demarcation and contribute positively, frequently above and beyond the call of duty – however what is clear is that this approach, where it manifests itself is entirely down to individual style and character. There is no evidence of a concerted management effort to set a standard or lay out guidelines around how professionals might engage with volunteers in a positive manner. That is in itself, cause for concern, given the number of “managers” Scouting Ireland has employed in recent years at significant expense.
FUN TIME TO FULL TIME
A key reason for this blurring of the lines between the role of the paid professional and the elected volunteer is the fact that so many professional staff employed in recent years are themselves former senior volunteers.
At first glance, this offers some obvious advantages to the association. An understanding of and affinity with Scouting is ‘built in’ to every new contract. Passion is usually included too. The downside in a few cases however can be the ‘baggage’ a former volunteer may bring to a professional role – strongly held views articulated passionately over a long period (every volunteers prerogative) and a propensity to think that you alone know how to solve problems (another er, prerogative of the volunteer in Scouting, particularly those who grow up in the organization). Belonging to a particular ‘camp’ be it ideological or otherwise immediately makes it difficult for a former volunteer in employment to be seen to be impartial to all members too.
The virtues in a passionate volunteer can thus become the Achilles heel of the professional, expected to be impartial to all and capable without being too opinionated.
It can thus be difficult for people to make the switch from being ‘in-charge’ to being ‘in support’. A generous salary, flexible hours and other perks (time off for summer camp with your troop, for example), all help to make full time employment in Scouting Ireland an attractive proposition for the dedicated scouter. Who wouldn’t wish to engage in their hobby all week and get paid for the privilege after all? Nonetheless, there is a difference between volunteering and working as an employee for Scouting Ireland. One can rarely have one’s cake AND eat it after all.
The fact that some who have swapped the mallet for the laptop cannot see this and thus continue to behave as if they are still senior volunteers, with all the politicking, empire-building and strong opinions that go with it, is now a serious issue for the association.
The lackluster management at the root of this has also now passed far beyond being merely a concern – it needs to be tackled by the Board of Directors of Scouting Ireland Limited because it now affects how the association is being run.
There are strict rules and onerous responsibilities associated with being a company director in the Republic of Ireland. Board Directors should familiarize themselves with these responsibilities. It is the DIRECTORS (not the staff) who will be held ultimately accountable. (It’s sometimes not entirely clear that all NMC members have completely grasped this fact).
All this conflict, the flashpoint between passionate volunteers and pointy-elbowed employees inevitably leads to disputes. Scouting Ireland has a theoretically balanced disputes procedure on paper, however the reality on the ground is somewhat different for those who have engaged with or have been sucked into this process.
Disputes between volunteers can be complex and difficult. It can be frustrating at best and heart breaking at worst to see two or more scouters, equally passionate about our association, at loggerheads. It takes up time and energy. It is stressful for all concerned. It often leads to fractured friendships and other collateral damage, not least the impact on the youth members we are all here to support and supposedly lead by example.
Whilst volunteer squabbles in Scouting are nonetheless as old as the movement itself, there was a time when disputes between volunteers and staff were virtually unheard of. There was a mutual respect that existed. Boundaries were not so much clear as just understood.
It is a fact of life in any organization that there are those who suffer delusions of grandeur, see power where the rest of us see responsibility, crave an empire where most seek to contribute.
When it is a fellow volunteer, one can work around these issues, after all they are just like you. If they are in an elected position, it is for a fixed term and you can hold them to account when they seek re-election. Other volunteers quickly see bad behavior, bully tactics and abrasive attitudes. Before long a bully gets a reputation, sometimes a hand on their shoulder and some quiet words. There is an inbuilt set of checks and balances in the system (and competent local volunteer support and leadership) that regulate all but the most serious disputes.
Unfortunately, in Scouting Ireland, when a volunteer falls out with or is in dispute with an employee, it seems to provoke a knee-jerk reaction from people who frankly should know better. The volunteer then quickly finds the full force of the associations resources up against them.
It would appear that there is no hesitation about devoting inordinate levels of time and resources to the relentless and what sometimes (based on documents received) appears almost vexatious pursuit of any volunteer who dares to step out of line or challenge professional staff by questioning methods, reiterating lines of demarcation or demanding transparency in decision-making.
Why these resources are not focused more clearly on the pursuit of core association objectives or far more pressing strategic issues is a question that nobody seems willing to ask.
Senior, elected volunteers simply seem to be looking the other way, victim to this culture of intimidation and with limited time or support from others to be able to do anything even if they had the courage.
Red herrings like ‘employment rights’ are used to excuse some frankly extraordinary behavior and to short-circuit sensible conciliatory steps. This has the handy effect too of eliminating transparency, rendering the volunteer unable to mount any sort of defense or counter complaint. Volunteers are left without representation or advocacy and at the mercy of unelected decision makers who display behavior that is more consistent with militant shop stewards than with that of senior managers.
Let’s be clear. Not every volunteer who falls into a dispute with an employee is blameless. Equally, not every employee in dispute with a volunteer is to blame.
However it is clear from the content of confidential documents theirishscouter has received, that the default position in Scouting Ireland tends towards the opening position ‘staff are right, volunteers are wrong’, certainly in the instances documented in this and other material.
How did we get here? What are our elected officers going to do about it?
Volunteers are afraid to speak out. Even directors of the association appear cowed into silence – what has happened to Scouting in Ireland that we find ourselves in this position?
TAKE ACTION NOW
The NMC needs to immediately overhaul the disputes system in Scouting Ireland. This needs to be substantial, meaningful and widely consultative.
As an important first step, professional staff should be expressly debarred from having any involvement – even to the point of reading notes or correspondence to do with ANY dispute (This is all the more important where there is a complaint about an employee).
This by no means suggests, nor is it intended to suggest that all (or any) employees would willfully seek to influence the outcome of a disputes resolution process. But let’s be grown up about this – procedures should not only be fair and above board, they should be SEEN to be fair and above board. They should also be fit for purpose and should be strictly adhered to in dealing with a complaint. Otherwise the entire premise of a ‘Disputes Resolution’ process is fatally undermined from the start.
Interference in such a process directly or indirectly or any form of intimidation of a complainant should have serious consequences, as it would in the case of a legal dispute.
ALL open cases need to be reviewed by a fully independent external advisor who has no links to Scouting and no links to any employee or elected officer, regardless of how tenuous the connection. This advisor should report to the Chief Scout and Chief Commissioner (Adult Resources) and/or the National Secretary. The findings should then be shared with the elected members of the NMC.
OVERHAUL INTERNAL SYSTEMS
As a wider solution to tackling the management issue that has created this problem, an external consulting firm should be hired to independently audit, in a root and branch review, the way our professional resources are managed and how professionals and volunteers interact. This consulting firm should have no connections to Scouting, however tenuous and no employee of the association should be involved in the appointment process.
We are long overdue a truly external and truly professional, unemotional and factual perspective on how our support services are run.
This consulting firm should be granted complete access to all areas of the national office machinery and all documentation. Views on how our professional team is managed and how services are delivered to members currently should be sought from volunteers at NMC, Provincial, County and Group level and of course from professional staff themselves.
The consulting firm should report directly to the Chief Scout and National Secretary, after which a copy of the report should be made available to all ELECTED members of the National Management Committee. It should then be published for any member of the association to see, together with an action plan (with timeline) on how to address any deficiencies identified.
IMPLEMENT DUE PROCESS
With immediate effect, any dispute involving an employee and a volunteer should be managed openly and fairly with each party free to appoint ONE advocate/observer, who can be present at all discussions and mediation and will be party to all documentation pertaining to the complaint.
Any complaint involving an employee and a volunteer should be managed, in the first instance, by the National Secretary (or an Assistant National Secretary, mandated by the NMC) and, failing resolution, by an external party, fully independent and with no connections to Scouting or any employees or senior (elected) volunteers. This independent party should be hired by and report to the Chief Scout and National Secretary and should share their final report with the CC(AR), and the CEO.
Disputes between employees should use the current systems in place and should be handled by the CEO, with the Chief Scout and National Secretary kept fully up to date.
Disputes between volunteers should use an overhauled, fairer and more transparent disputes system, handled by the CC(AR) and National Secretary as appropriate, with the Chief Scout kept fully up to date, but using local structures too, in a bid to minimize the number of disputes that are escalated.
Part of this means reviewing the training offered to Group Leaders, County Commissioners and Provincial teams around disputes resolution. It also means Provincial Commissioners getting a feel for the competencies of County Commissioners in their team when it comes to emotional intelligence and mediation skills. Where someone lacks these abilities, find a way to bridge the gap through delegation. CC’s should seek to do similar with their GL colleagues in similarly tactful fashion.
Many disputes escalate in Scouting, not because of the original dispute but rather due to how it gets handled/mishandled by the first person seeking to resolve it.
UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES should employees be involved in volunteer disputes, other than in a strictly administrative and completely neutral, non-participative manner. Any employee involved in disputes in such a capacity should not know either party personally and should not preside, comment on or appear to express any views upon the matter at hand. No employee should correspond with any party to a dispute on behalf of an elected or appointed volunteer.
No dispute that is being pursued through an internal disputes procedure should take more than six months to resolve. Most should be resolved within three months of the initial complaint. Presently, some disputes drag on for years!
The association should build a credible and completely impartial team, working with the relevant Assistant National Secretary, to carefully, sensitively and fairly work through disputes that arise at pace, to minimize the impact on the people involved.
Disputes that for whatever reason enter the courts system or legal arbitration would of course be excluded from such time limits. Similarly, if an employee in dispute is a member of a trade union and wishes to pursue a complaint via this channel, different procedures will likely apply.
The current shambolic approach to disputes, in particular those between employees and volunteers is patently unfair to volunteers and is being needlessly mismanaged, sometimes to an astonishing level which is failing against any measure of natural justice, transparency or accountability.
Despite this, disputes between volunteers and staff can cost five figure sums to address and frequently do, before the cost of volunteer expenses, staff mileage, subsistence and time away from other duties is even taken into account. It would be interesting to understand how is this financial outlay from membership monies being justified and where it shows up in the financial statements.
Surely Scouting Ireland could find better use for this money? It might also reduce the need to constantly rack up the membership fee on already hard-pressed groups.
Disputes will happen. Let’s remember why we are all here however.
We need senior figures both paid and unpaid who have the maturity and leadership ability to take the heat out of disputes and refocus warring parties on the bigger picture. We do not need already highly charged situations exacerbated by needlessly adversarial escalation and the consequent misalignment of resources.
We have a fundamental problem in Scouting Ireland right now. Volunteers are second-class citizens. Yet, we are a volunteer association. We are also supposedly volunteer-led.
A seismic shift is needed to rebalance how Scouting Ireland’s support structures work and whom they work for.
Professional staff are assured (and should be assured) of protection and due process in the event of a complaint being made against them. Equally staff should be taken seriously and supported where they feel compelled to make a complaint themselves, be it against a volunteer(s) or other professional colleagues.
However something is fundamentally wrong when volunteers are not afforded the same protections and the same due process in an entity that is in effect owned, operated and promulgated by volunteers. Scouting Ireland has close to 9,000 volunteers and just over 30 staff.
SENSE OF PERSPECTIVE
It should also be remembered in all this that most employees and most volunteers just want to get on with their job and to have a positive working relationship with those around them. Most do precisely that. Often, disputes arise because of a lack of clarity on demarcation – this is something that is overdue for attention, is surprisingly easy to correct and could eliminate most of these silly disputes before they ever happen.
The members of the National Management Committee are generally competent and decent people. They need to take the heat out of this entirely avoidable head of steam by putting in place and overseeing a fundamental rebalance of our approach to solving disputes.
CONTACT THE IRISH SCOUTER
If you have been involved in a dispute within Scouting Ireland and are willing to share your experiences (in confidence or otherwise), please email email@example.com
Theirishscouter acknowledges the contribution of others in the preparation of this article.