The safeguarding controversy that has snowballed into a wider debate around quality of leadership and calibre of management in Scouting Ireland continues and shows little immediate sign of abating.
Meanwhile, a very significant EGM of the association’s National Council looms and with it, the opportunity to shape the structure of Scouting Ireland for some time to come.
In broad terms, the restructuring proposals are a positive step forward for the association and it’s membership. They will professionalise the management of the national support structures and streamline the way support services are delivered. They will combine professionally led and volunteer-led departments under a single lead (a CEO) which will streamline workflows and should go a long way to removing friction. The CEO will report into a newly created board, made up mostly, if not near exclusively of Scouting volunteers.
There are concerns – legitimate concerns – about the impact that the proposed new structure will have (for instance) on youth participation, on democracy and on the ability for stakeholders to articulate viewpoints and engage in debate about the association’s trajectory in the coming years. To many, it would be a fair comment to opine that the National Management Committee have not done a great job in (1) communicating (as opposed to informing) (2) selling the vision (3) listening to concerns, when it comes to the proposals. This entirely avoidable situation could make the passing of the motions associated with the restructure more difficult.
Part of the reason the NMC have perhaps overlooked a coherent attempt to win hearts and minds on the restructure proposals is of course that this entity has been distracted of late with what is most likely the single biggest issue that Scouting on this island has ever had to deal with.
Isn’t it Ironic?
Somewhat ironically, it is the perceived mismanagement of or at least the somewhat cumbersome manner in which the NMC has reacted to successive revelations on the ‘safeguarding story’ that has appeared in the national media, that may play a part in driving decisions about how members are likely to vote on June 30th.
Many members are linking the current figures in charge (NMC and otherwise) with the restructuring proposals and perhaps imagining a scenario where the same individuals continue in key roles, post a restructure agreement.
In the minds of many members, exasperated in recent weeks and months as the hard won reputation of Scouting has taken an unprecedented battering in the national press and government circles, this scenario is unpalatable and would merely amount to window dressing, when in fact a significant change of culture is required in the national structures of the association.
The challenge for proponents of the restructuring proposals is to find a way to definitively decouple these two components.
The government, having probably over-reacted slightly to Scouting Ireland’s woes in the context of media reports, will nonetheless need some firm evidence of change being underway, to allow a reversal of the decision to cut funding. Nonetheless, the Minister has not made the passing of the restructuring proposals a precondition for the restoration of funding. Rumours and scare mongering to the contrary by some figures in positions of authority are incorrect. In any event blackmail, one could argue, is not a solid basis upon which to build a consensus for the way forward.
The lengthy correspondence to members this week from Martin Burbridge, a former Chief Scout, sets out some facts around the impact a withdrawal of government funding may have. It is probably the most honest piece of communication to emulate from national office in recent weeks.
What our former Chief Scout does not mention, is that an end to government funding would not mean the end of Scouting Ireland – far from it. Invariably a plan would manifest itself quickly, to redeploy funds from other sources to continue the basic business of Scouting (and truly essential services provided centrally, such as safeguarding and insurance), to ensure local groups could continue in the event that government funding ceased permanently. Perhaps somewhat understandably, he has most likely avoided exploration of this option.
There is no doubt such a scenario, although feasible, would nonetheless result in a fairly severe and permanent curtailment of some services, together with significant disruption to others in the short term. The potential laying off of entirely blameless professional staff is yet another deeply unpalatable but likely outcome of a cessation of government support.
Martin Burbridge makes it clear that as a proponent of the restructuring proposals he has an interest in seeing them pass, yet he also makes it clear that they are not a precondition for the restoration of funding (although their inclusion in a package of measures to reassure government that the association is getting it’s house in order may indeed help). No government minister would be so prescriptive to an external entity in any event – it would constitute political interference and this minister is not trying to run Scouting Ireland.
Quite why other branches of the association’s management are setting out a contrary and inaccurate position is mystifying and hardly does much to bolster the confidence of members.
Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow
There is a lot of good in the proposals for a restructure. Some aspects are necessary because quite frankly, incompetence in Scouting Ireland’s national entity meant we did not lobby effectively (or at all) to gain some exemptions from key parts of the Charities Acts. Some are necessary because they will help to weed out said incompetence over time. But most will help the association to become better structured for the 21stCentury and the significant societal and cultural shifts happening in Ireland.
Burning down the house
The proposals for the EGM later in June might best be compared to the structure of a house. It is clearly defined, the broad design is in place, but the details – precise layout of rooms, location of plumbing and electrics and – much later – the décor, have all yet to be determined.
As a committed believer in youth participation and someone who has not just championed it since being a teenager, but acted decisively over many years to deliver it too, theirishscouter is not trying to compare this tenet of Scouting to mere copper pipes under the floor, but the point is that many of the areas where members (theirishscouter included) have legitimate concerns around the proposed restructure, can arguably be built into the working model, once the key fundamentals are in place.
It is arguable with some validity that, if every single aspect of the entire restructure was to be voted upon in detail, the chances of agreeing upon an aligned way forward would become slim to impossible – those who recall the votes around programme in Scouting Ireland would understand that point. The question is, do the members trust the leadership enough to take some detail on faith for now?
The NMC can go a long way towards addressing these concerns by (1) engaging with members between now and the vote (2) easing off on the ‘communication by statement’ approach, in favour of picking up the phone or going out to meet people in person (3) resisting the urge to stage-manage National Council – members are concerned about these proposals. Let them speak. Members are angry with the mess we are in. Let them vent. The NMC have not exercised leadership to anything like the required standard in recent weeks – it is time to be open and honest about these failings and take responsibility. Getting defensive merely exacerbates the problem.
The worst thing that the NMC can do is try to stifle debate at national council – it will backfire and with it, the restructuring proposals could well fall to a protest vote.
There is a fundamental lack of confidence in the current management and a good chunk of the national leadership of the association. This is largely because nobody presently in key offices has been willing to stand up and try to earn the confidence of the membership.
Everyone makes mistakes, sometimes big mistakes. The frustration, exasperation and anger displayed by a large cohort of Scouting Irelands membership has been as much about the management reactionto recent events, not solely to the events themselves. Indeed, it is argued in today’s ‘Irish Times’ * that the ministerial response to the entire debacle was also influenced by management reaction in SI to the unfolding events.
*see link at bottom of article
I can see clearly now
The core of Scouting Ireland is the local group, working and thriving in the community – young people and adult volunteers together. It is important we all try and remember this in the coming weeks.
The trauma is probably not quite over. But it will be over at some point.
Leadership is required. That leadership must be completely impartial, flawlessly transparent, and faultlessly honest. It must also BE SEEN to be all of these things. No other type of leadership will do.
The current leadership has struggled to handle recent events. Many of us would struggle – it has been a completely unprecedented set of circumstances. By displaying humility, accepting responsibility and being honest with the membership, they can exit the stage with their heads held high, when the NMC ceases to exist in its present form, assuming the restructuring proposals are supported.
Scouting at national level has issues to resolve. They will be sorted out. Most people who volunteer at national level do so for the right reasons. Most professional staff, indeed the overwhelming majority are precisely that; consummate professionals, dedicated to delivering the very best in support to volunteer members.
Most procedures in place in Scouting Ireland are robust, covering everything from safeguarding to decisions around who represents the association at events abroad. Breaches of these procedures are about quality of leadership or calibre of management; they are not generally about the process.
And yet structures also need to evolve as society evolves and the regulatory landscape within which Scouting operates changes. Scouting has always tended to be ahead of its time. Ahead of its time in terms of appreciation of the natural world. Ahead of its time on the question of environmental protection. Scouting had shown the way on democracy, on co-education and on child protection.
Dressed for Success
The very foundation of Scouting Ireland, a 32 county multi-denominational (and later non-denominational) entity, set an early example across the two jurisdictions on the island around the way forward in the light of the Good Friday agreement. Discussion of the eventual outcome that we saw in 2004 had commenced many years before political leaders had put pen to paper.
In some ways, the proposed restructure of the association, which sees in effect a clear demarcation between local groups and the national entity, merely reflects what has become a growing reality on the ground. How it is implemented will be key. The attention to detail will mean the difference between winning hearts and minds or imposing something on an unwilling membership. The latter will be doomed in the longer term.
The national association has lost its way in recent years. Sincerely held differences of opinion about the future direction of Scouting have been weaponised in increasingly vociferous debates that have pitted traditionalists against modernists. This perhaps necessary ‘storming’ has arguably taken some focus away from day to day management of Scouting.
When all is said and done
In much the same way that a Neanderthal and a Homo Sapiens are 99% genetically identical, when an ardent traditionalist and a devoted modernist sit together and discuss points of difference on Scouting, there is surprisingly little disparity.
Theirishscouter had a long conversation not too long ago with an eminent and tradition-loving association grandee. Both parties reflected that, were greater unity to prevail within Scouting, an immense amount of energy would be harnessed and ultimately unleashed for the betterment of all members.
In the context of the present travails the association finds itself in, it seems logical that those occupying senior and influential positions within Scouting Ireland, could use this opportunity to bury the hatchet and work together in a genuine spirit of inclusivity and cooperation, to ensure all brains and all energy is focused on resolutions to the predicament we find ourselves in.
A restructure will come at some point. Funding will eventually be restored. Reputation too, will be rehabilitated in full. Indeed, over time it will be enhanced.
But as any seasoned Scouter knows, the relationships behind the headlines, the capacity to work together and unite to tackle a real threat to the entity and set of ideas that every scouter at least claims to believe in, will be the real and longer term test of the sustainability of the association.
The question is, do we have leadership capable of creating the conditions for this and are we all prepared to be open enough and honest enough (and generous enough) to put some things to one side in the interests of preserving others, if the appropriate olive branch is extended.
It’s something we all need to reflect on in the coming days and weeks. We all need principles. We should stand up for what we believe in. But we also need to consider what happens next and the positive part we can play in this.