A 4-Point Plan of Commissioner Accountability for Unit Visits

Wayne R. Bishop, Council Commissioner, San Francisco Bay Area Council

In September of 1862, the battle of Antietam was fought during the American Civil War. In no other battle of that war were so many killed and wounded in a single day. The fighting began early in the morning and was so intense that troops of General George B. McClellan's army had no opportunity to fall back to the rear for food. As the day wore on the soldiers became faint with hunger.

The commissary sergeant of one of the regiments, a young man of nineteen, felt so strongly his responsibility to feed his men, regardless of the danger to his own life, that he decided to take the food to the front lines himself.

He took two mule teams, loaded the wagons with food and drinks, and started for the firing line. Over the treacherous ground he drove in spite of numerous warnings to turn back. When his mules were shot from the wagon, he picked up others and continued his perilous journey to the front. There he fed every man in the regiment a warm meal, "a thing", said his commanding officer, "that had never occurred under similar circumstances in any army in the world."

The strict sense of responsibility which this young sergeant had developed prepared him to perform many other significant services for his fellow men in the years that followed. In 1882, he was elected president of the United States. His name was William McKinley.

William McKinley was not a Boy Scout or a commissioner, but his responsibility in many respects was not unlike that of a commissioner who is called upon to nourish and nurture the troops he serves in spite of sometimes extreme hurdles to overcome. It is his kind of dedication and commitment in the heat of battle that we desire in every commissioner in our movement.

I'm happy to be here with you today to share some ideas about commissioner service.

What a great opportunity we have as council commissioners. We give leadership to teams of people who ensure that kids get a great program in healthy and stable Scout units.

You all know that the ultimate responsibility of unit commissioners is to see that every unit assigned to them succeeds. Commissioners, by their very nature, usually get asked to do many things in the District but everything else a commissioner might spend time doing in Scouting should be strictly secondary. The units must come first.

There are several good measures of unit success; you know what they are things like rank advancement, percent of Scouts in summer camp, training status of leaders, uniforms, etc. However, the most important measures of unit success are probably Quality unit attainment and a high youth retention rate.

So how does a commissioner help a unit to succeed?

Commissioners do a variety of things to help units succeed, but the most basic task is the unit visit. Today I would like to share a 4-point plan of commissioner accountability for unit visits.

Point 1, first and foremost, is that commissioners visit each unit at least monthly.

Why is that? Why are unit visits so important?

Without unit visits, we can't know how to help a unit improve its program and operation. Without visits we can't know when a unit starts to struggle so we can help avoid a disaster. Without visits, we only find out about major problems after the unit fails or becomes weak. Our past National Commissioner, Rick Cronk has said that when we have a weak program the kids vote with their feet. If they aren't being challenged, learning new things and having fun they will find other things to do. And we all know that there are plenty of other things for them to do out there. Regular unit visits by caring commissioners are critical to the on-going success of the unit, and ultimately of our movement. We can't instill in our youth the values we espouse of character, citizenship, and fitness if we don't have active, healthy and vibrant units in which they can be involved.

Not every unit requires the same amount of attention. A monthly visit should be the minimum standard, but some units will need more frequent visits new or troubled units for example. The visit may be to a unit meeting or a unit committee meeting. It may be a campout, a court of honor or a personal visit with the unit leader. The unit commissioner should get to know the unit and its leaders well enough that he or she will know the most critical and the most effective times to visit.

We feel this is so critical that regular unit visits have been added to the requirements for the Arrowhead Honor Award found in the revised Commissioner Fieldbook released this month.

Now, let's face it. A good active unit is much more fun to visit, and most likely the easiest to get a unit commissioner to visit. But they probably don't need it as much as a struggling unit. It is important, however, that every unit gets regular visits so that a good unit doesn't become a problem unit while no one was looking.

If you are truly concerned about a unit's health, you must know its condition at all times:

  • Is the unit program fun and challenging for boys?
  • Do the leaders find it rewarding?
  • Is there a membership growth plan, and is it working effectively?
  • Will the unit reregister on time?
  • Are they camping regularly?
  • and so on.

The purpose of commissioner-friendly visits is far more than looking for problems to report. In fact, if the unit leaders get the impression that that's the main purpose of the visits, they will most likely resent the commissioner's involvement and shut him or her out. Visits should strengthen the capability of your unit leaders, not glorify the commissioner. The commissioner is, in effect, a coach and counselor for the adults in the unit. The best commissioners get their honor vicariously when the assigned units succeed.

There are many resources available to help the commissioner succeed. Teach your people to use the Unit Commissioner Program Notebook to make notes on unit visits, unit needs, and other information on the units they serve.

Teach your people to use the commissioner work sheets frequently. But don't use them while they are visiting the units. Use them as a reminder of what to look for before they visit and to note their observations after they leave.

Teach your people to use the commissioner helps book with its dozens of action ideas to help units with specific parts of the program.

Now on to Point Number 2: District commissioners must provide a monthly opportunity for unit commissioners to report on visits and decide on specific actions to improve the unit. This is done in the ADC breakout sessions as the key activity of district commissioner staff meetings.

This is perhaps the most important 60 minutes in a Scout district each month!

These tasks must occur in each breakout session:

  1. Each unit commissioner shares important observations from recent visits and conversations with unit people. What are the needs? How might each unit improve its program for kids?
  2. They identify specific ways to help each unit upgrade its program or improve its operation.
  3. They determine who will provide specific help during the coming month. Usually, this is the assigned unit commissioner, but more challenging situations may require assistance from the ADC, a district committee member specialist, or even the district commissioner.
  4. They also check the progress on last month's assignments.

Now, very frankly, one of the biggest challenges we face in my council, other than just recruiting enough unit commissioners in the first place, is getting them to attend the District Commissioner meetings each month and report on their activities. We have found that this meeting needs to be rewarding and fun, so don't forget to encourage that as well. Whatever method you use, the ADC breakout sessions during the District Commissioner's meeting are the key to successful follow-up to the unit visits.

Again this is the most important 60 minutes in the district every month.

ADC breakout sessions were discussed in the recent winter issue of your commissioner newsletter as well as in Commissioner Administration. In the great interactive DVD called Meetings of the District, 3 of the teaching scenarios have to do with ADC breakout sessions.

Point Number 3 is District Commissioner Accountability. District Commissioners, with their district executive advisors must then hold every unit commissioner and ADC responsible to see that units promptly get the help they need. Remember, delegation without inspection is abdication. Your district commissioners must know what's important. They must know and encourage their people. And they must get results. They should also build fun and recognition into the process.

And finally, Your role—my role.

Point Number 4: As council commissioners we must be accountable to see that effective unit visits happen in all our districts. We see that this happens, working through our district commissioners. Our professional partner the director of field service or field director and/or Scout executive also sees that this happens by working through all the council's district executives.

We can help ensure good accountability with charts and spreadsheets and Web sites, but frankly, the best skills we have are our ability to inspire good people relationships, from the council commissioner and Scout executive all the way down to the newest unit commissioner.

So again, the 4 points are:

  1. The Unit Commissioner must visit each assigned unit regularly
  2. The Unit Commissioner reports at the monthly District Commissioner meeting
  3. The District Commissioner insures that help is provided where needed
  4. The Council Commissioner is accountable to insure that effective unit visits happen.

So, like William McKinley during the Civil War, let's all hitch our mules to the wagon as it were, and use our skill with commissioner visits to guarantee successful units for every Scout in the council.