A Tussle with Tusla

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Scouting Ireland is not in a strong enough position to be picking a fight with a powerful government agency. 

A letter from Tusla the Child and Family Agency, setting out concerns around the management of recent and current safeguarding cases involving children in Scouting Ireland and expressing concerns that an individual or individuals involved in safeguarding in our association* may have been ‘compromised’ has been read into the Dail records and published by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs.

To describe this intervention by the Minister for Children Ms Katherine Zappone and Tusla, the Child and Family Agency as remarkable is to err on the side of understatement.

A government minister with whom Scouting Ireland has been engaged with for over a year and a government agency responsible for the safety of children (AND with whom Scouting Ireland have also been engaged with for some time) have taken the extraordinary step to highlight their concerns publicly. Some of these concerns are very serious.

The reason for this diplomatic incident is the apparent decision by Scouting Ireland to go behind the back of Tusla and direct to the Minister, when Tusla began asking some questions that whoever in Scouting Ireland is managing these issues presumably didn’t like the sound of.

This appears to signal a heretofore unseen degree of detachment from reality on the part of Scouting Ireland management. The apparent assumption that a government minister would side with an incompetently run (at national level) entity at war with itself in preference to one of her own agencies looks naive, to put it mildly. We seem to be over supplied with hubris yet curiously vacuous when it comes to proficiency.

At the very least, this debacle signals a severe breakdown in communication between those in Scouting Ireland who are charged with managing safeguarding and a powerful and influential government agency, not to mention the minister who dispenses funds to the association.

The intervention via the public airwaves of Mr Ian Elliot, a safeguarding specialist hired by Scouting Ireland at the direction of senior volunteers in 2017, might help set out the associations position in the short term, but at what cost to longer term relationships with critical stakeholders?

Public spats of this magnitude are rarely about the issues being cited. More usually they point to relationship problems between the people involved and confidence levels around an entities capacity to deliver on a commitment whilst a given person or persons are the key interface.

Some of the specific points made in the Tusla letter are of course utterly unworkable and in any event unnecessary. The proposal to consider the cessation of overnight activities is for instance an example of the lack of understanding the agency has of Scouting and how it works. That lack of understanding however is OUR fault, not theirs.

Nonetheless, it seems clear from the Tulsa letter that it is not just historic abuse cases, but rather current cases that are not being managed correctly by Scouting Ireland. Management of and responsibility for safeguarding in Scouting Ireland has sat with the Chief Executive Officer since at least 24th September 2016, when minutes of the board/NMC state “It was agreed that the CEO has overall responsibility for safeguarding”. This presumably includes the appointment of all staff and management to handle this brief on a day to day basis since that date.

Throughout this entire debacle, the common thread has been the utter lack of a clear direction, the absence of firm, open and unbiased leadership and a clumsy communications approach that makes Scouting look incompetent. We are not MANAGING these relationships. We are not MANAGING the core issue. 

An external consultant with safeguarding expertise should not be the last line of defence when it comes to articulating Scouting Ireland’s position to the media. Notwitstanding knowledge of the core subject under discussion, communications is an entirely separate skill that requires nuance, diplomacy and alignment with all relevant stakeholders, preferably BEFORE anything is said in the public domain. But above all communications requires consistency, if it is to be effective. 

Two Board Chairpersons; Ms Aisling Kelly and Mr Adrian Tennant have both stepped up and sought to articulate the associations position too. But both did so/are doing so as an add-on to a vast array of other responsibilities. Both are doing so in an environment where they are not the sole voice speaking officially for the association. The board seems unable to control communication flow from employees and consultants and yet pronouncements are made regularly to chastise ordinary members who comment on private chat groups out of frustration at the mess we are presently in.

In the midst of all this, the Chief Executive Officer of the association appears more interested in keeping tally of disloyal comments made about him via social media than he is in tackling the real issues at hand.

Scouting Ireland needs a full time resource equipped with the gravitas, competence and willingness to give the focus to stabilising our relationships with key stakeholders and working for our members.

The replacement of the NMC was a significant step towards attempting to rebuild trust in members, the public and government in our activities, processes and overall ability to manage our own affairs. The Van Turnhout report clearly conjoins the activities of the board and those of the CEO. We have replaced one arm of this managerial structure, yet we have left the other in place. The fact that the association remains at war with itself and is now taking the fight to government agencies who are trying to help us get our house in order, should tell the board something.

Mr Lawlor should be thanked for his contribution and generous terms should be agreed for a managed exit. Meanwhile the process should commence immediately for the recruitment of a new CEO, with a proven management background. We don’t need a scouting expert. We need a management expert with strong communication skills and someone heretofore uninvolved in Scouting other than as a youth member.

The association should take its time in this recruitment process. The process should be transparent. The membership should know who is on the interview panel and what qualifies them to be there. There is a lot at stake. This must be undertaken to the highest standards as it will be done in the full glare of the national media.

This change cannot happen overnight and despite Mr Lawlor’s struggle to handle matters at hand (as many of us might), he does have familiarity with the situation and many of the cases under review. Retention in a consultancy capacity for a fixed period, but away from decision making and away from managing relationships with stakeholders, could be a very workable option for all parties.

Volunteers cannot run the association on a day to day basis, no matter how good they are. We cannot go on in the present manner because if we do Scouting Ireland will simply cease to exist in its present form within months if not weeks.

We all owe it to those who went before us down this road, but even more so to our current youth members to get our act together – and fast.

* (company that provide services to our members)

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