Are senior volunteers really entirely to blame for every ill affecting Scouting Ireland?
Scouting Ireland’s woes continue apace, whilst Irish society looks on in as much disbelief as the members on the ground.
In the midst of all the drama, a rather large and fundamental question has not yet been posed. Namely, what role have senior professional staff played in getting Scouting Ireland into the mess we are presently in?
This is an important question. The association is on the verge of making a raft of significant and irreversible changes that are going to fundamentally shift the entire structure of the association. Senior professionals will have not just a central role, but a pivotal one in this new structure.
During this entire debacle, the implicit, if not always explicit narrative emulating from the media (briefed by ‘senior sources’ inside Scouting Ireland), government sources and others has been that volunteers are somehow incapable of doing the job and thus we need to be told what to do by professionals. One can see how this line of thinking suits some stakeholders, but it also fundamentally undermines a key tenet of Scouting, not to mention a whole host of other volunteer-led activities taking place in Irish society.
The Jillian Van Turnhout report, commissioned by Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Katherine Zappone and designed to get to the bottom of governance issues in Scouting Ireland, used the term ‘management’ to conflate the roles of both the board of directors (presently the National Management Committee) and the Chief Executive Officer, as the most senior employee in the association and the person charged with managing day to day operations across a wide spectrum of activities and functions.
The entire Board of Directors will resign in light of the chronic dysfunction and poor governance prevalent nationally in Scouting for some time and highlighted in the Van Turnhout report.
The Chief Executive Officer attends Board Meetings and is also present at meetings of the ‘National Team for Policy Implementation & Coordination’ (NTPIC), which currently comprises the National Treasurer, National Secretary and CEO.
It’s not clear if NTPIC meetings happen presently and if they do, whether minutes are taken. Certainly, if one reads the resignation statement of Mark Blake, the Dublin Commissioner, it appears clear at any rate that lots of decisions are being made behind closed doors and not by the board. This feeds into the worrying narrative around poor governance, as set out in the Van Turnhout report.
The media focus and that of several commentators to date has been centred on ‘safeguarding’. This is important and it is right that board members implicated in potential breaches of protocols have stepped aside voluntarily whilst the matter is investigated.
However, governance has featured little in association narrative, despite the Minister referencing it in her statements. Yet, it is equally as important. It goes to the very heart of how Scouting Ireland has been managed. Indeed, Ms Van Turnhout opines in her report that it is the ‘deeply rooted dysfunction’ around management in Scouting Ireland at National level that has arguably created the space for breaches in procedures around safeguarding.
The very comprehensive and well assembled Management Bulletin circulated yesterday by the Interim Chair of the NMC Annette Byrne, references the Van Turnhout report and highlights actions arising from it, but does not broach the subject of accountability of professional staff.
The Van Turnhout report also highlights the ‘deeply rooted culture of mistrust between the board and staff’. Given the way the report is structured, it is evident which ‘staff’ this refers to (hint: its not the tea lady).
The Van Turnhout report refers to how different voices are treated differently around the board room table. Anyone with insights into how the NMC has operated for at least the past half decade will understand this reference. In reality, the NMC has become little more than a rubber-stamping body. Chums of those who control the resources get a hearing. Those who challenge or disagree get intimidated or sidelined, as appears clear from the parting statement of Derek Long, Provincial Commissioner for the Southern Province (and multiple other testimony received by theirishscouter over a lengthy period by several board members, former and current).
A sub-set of board members, together with senior staff in reality make most decisions and have done for some time. There is nothing inherently wrong with that in principle, but it would assume some sort of acquiescence on the part of the associations governing body (National Council) and the board. Members perceive the NMC to be in charge. The constitution supports the members assumption. There is no evidence of National Council determining otherwise at any stage.
Minister Zappone also seems to be under the impression that the Scouting Ireland board of directors truly calls the shots. In fact this is simply not the case.
Let’s be clear. Any board that allows itself to be circumvented in such a manner deserves to be dissolved, notwithstanding the individual contributions of its members. Most directors in Scouting Ireland in any event have little idea of what a director is supposed to do. That’s not an excuse, but it does explain in part the dysfunction.
It also raises the question – is it accurate to lay the blame solely at the door of volunteers, when the association has a presumably suitably qualified, very well-paid and pretty well-resourced professional manager employed with the title ‘Chief Executive Officer’?
How conceivable is it that senior paid professionals in Scouting Ireland have somehow managed to sail through the past five years, without noticing or playing any part whatsoever as this culture of mistrust has developed?
If this was possible, it surely suggests a degree of complacency or even incompetence. If it is not possible, it logically suggests some element of culpability. Which one is it?
Either way, the Chief Executive Officer should surely set out his position on this and explain why as Ms Van Turnhout puts it there is a ‘deep mistrust’ between the staff he is paid to manage and the volunteers he is paid to support.
Other questions raised by Ms Turnhout could also use an answer: Why do board members feel that ‘staff are not adequately managed’. Why, six and a half years into the present CEO’s term is there still ‘no formal staff appraisal system in place’. What has the CEO done to try and heal this huge rift between staff and volunteers? It simply did not exist during the term of the previous CEO, so wherever it came from it happened on the present CEO’s watch.
A very significant number of volunteers want to hear answers to the above questions.
Conflicts of interest (personal friendships going back many years – or ‘blind loyalty’ as Ms Van Turnhout describes the concept) between senior staff and some senior board members make it very hard to trust any statement emulating from the board – all the more so in the context of Mark Blakes revelations that the board doesn’t even see said statements. Have these conflicts of interest been declared at a board meeting? Have they been minuted? Is the Minister for Children aware of these?
Do decisions made and statements issued in the boards name have any legal standing whatsoever when said actions are apparently not even being taken by the board?
There is frankly little chance of next weekends proposal being passed, when only part of the management equation as detailed in Ms Van Turnhouts report, is being held to account. The professional arm surely must shoulder at least some responsibility for the utter mess Scouting Ireland is now in.
To say members in fairly significant quantities are furious at how volunteers are being painted as somehow unfit to run their own association, is to tend towards understatement. Quite how this undercurrent has not been picked up by the sub set of the board that is making decisions/ taking orders at present is remarkable.
The ‘blind loyalty’ the Van Turnout report refers to is also on full display via social media with the usual suspects either harrumphing smugly or spewing venom and shrieking at anyone who doesn’t conform fully to the desired ‘professionals good, volunteers bad’ narrative.
But moderates of all types – the overwhelming majority of scouters – are looking on in horror. They are utterly confused, deeply hurt and very, very annoyed. They are likely to take this anger to the EGM, where it could well derail the proposals.
With the Minister turning funding on and off like a tap, depending on the content of tweets and newspaper articles and talk of state appointees to the board, some members are openly asking if the cost of state money is simply too high, if it means being permanently beholden to a legislator who honestly does not seem to have the full picture yet seems willing to make decisions without it.
The vast bulk of professional staff, like the members of the association are helpless as they are flung around emotionally, whilst efforts to steady the ship continue to flounder. Employees worry about their jobs and mortgages. Members are concerned about the impact on young members, reputational damage and no doubt wondering about the high membership fees we pay and the poor value we are getting for them.
Theirishscouter believes adopting the new structure is the right way forward. Had we lobbied government in advance of the Charities Acts coming into law as effectively as we have briefed the Irish Times in recent months, then the picture would have been very different. The ‘Plan B’ option as set out in Ms Byrnes report is far from palatable. We are where we are.
Yes, it is far from perfect. Yes, it could in worst case shift the balance in the relationship between volunteers and elected leaders from equals to a sort of parent/child relationship; theoretically benign, but from one perspective rather patronising and in practice open to severe abuse – all without much remedy.
On the upside, the candidates for the new board all seem to be pretty solid people. Even the one or two with potential conflicts of interest or (as seen of late on social media) what could charitably be considered a severe lack of situational awareness, are far from being complete idiots. Most of the candidates are new faces at this level and all seem to bring something in terms of non-scouting experience. Perhaps one with real leadership capability will find themselves in the Chairperson’s role. One can but hope.
But the board won’t be running Scouting Ireland on a day to day basis. Whoever IS doing so, needs to be far more accountable than present arrangements have yielded. The on-going nightmare that the association is presently in will likely be viewed via rose-tinted glasses in the coming months and years, if the new structures and lines of accountability are not clear and unambiguous from the very start.
A new externally recruited CEO on a fixed term contract, with clearly defined job spec, clear KPI’s and proven track record needs to be hired, before the present incumbents term ends in a couple of months time.
The membership simply don’t trust the associations management – volunteer or professional. Bold, honest, courageous and sustainable moves will need to be made over a long period to restore that trust and undo the damage of the past half decade or so.
Professional management accountability needs to be addressed before next weekend. The stakes are too high and the role of senior staff in the new structure is too big for these proposals to get waved through on a promise.
Nobody believes in promises any more.
Robert Baden Powell and Fathers Tom and Ernest Farrell might all concur that from a Scouting perspective, that’s probably the most poignant revelation of all in recent months.