Blog | A life’s work
As UK Chief Commissioner Wayne Bulpitt steps down from his role at the 90th Gilwell Reunion, we joined him to get an insight into life in the role and the legacy he’s leaving behind.
A little boy is crying. He can only barely be six, and is inconsolable. So distressed he can barely get the words out, the boy points to his yellow Scout scarf; its two ends are hanging loose. ‘I’ve lost my woggle,’ he whispers. Tears drip down his cheeks. Wayne Bulpitt, UK Chief Commissioner for the Scout Association, instantly stops and kneels so he is at the boy’s eye level. ‘How would it be if we tied a special knot in it? Like I have on mine,’ he says gently. The boy stares at him, speechless. Deftly, Bulpitt ties the scarf ends together in a neat knot. The boy’s friend puts his arm round him and gives him a squeeze. And after seeing that the Group leader now has the situation in hand, the most senior volunteer in the UK’s Scouting Movement gets to his feet, waves to the boy and moves off at his characteristic gallop.
Although Bulpitt’s history with Scouting runs deep – he joined Cubs aged eight, and there has been just one break of four years when his children were young – as a lad who grew up in a council house and left school before A-levels for a traineeship in banking, he is keenly aware that simply by getting this job he has broken the mould of how Scouting is perceived both internally and externally.
A volunteer position itself, the UK Chief Commissioner role exists to lead and manage all Scouting volunteers, and in particular the Chief Commissioners, UK Commissioners and the International Commissioner. After six years spent as finance committee chair, and then as chair of trustees, it’s a role he acknowledges that he wanted, and planned strategically to secure. It has given him the power to influence changes he felt were vital to Scouting’s future. Some have been seen, in certain quarters, as highly controversial. So what is he proudest of? ‘Introducing the alternative Promise, so we could welcome people with and without faith is probably the most radical thing we’ve ever done,’ he says immediately. ‘It was thought it could tear the movement apart, like in the 1960s when we did away with wide brimmed hats and the traditional insignia was changed, and 2,000 people broke away. But I had become increasingly uncomfortable speaking from a podium saying that we were inclusive. In the 21st century, excluding those with no faith seemed entirely wrong to me.’
The then Chief Executive, he recalls ruefully, ‘was dead against it.’ So Bulpitt had to play the long game – he describes it as ‘a game of chess’ – and build support in different quarters, including from outside agencies such as the Church of England. It’s as he describes the debate he encouraged throughout Scouting that it becomes clear it’s in the planning, negotiation and execution of organisational change that Bulpitt excels. A Scout in Scotland made a video clip for the Scottish Youth Manifesto, Bulpitt explains, suggesting that: ‘By 2018, atheists will be welcome in the Scouting Movement’. Bulpitt decided to include the boy’s message in the introduction to road shows being held around the UK, knowing it would prompt heated discussion in every question and answer session. ‘Somehow, that clip was dropped three times from the running order,’ he grins, ‘but I sneaked it back in again.’ Two years ago, to Bulpitt’s delight, the alternative promise became a reality. ‘I absolutely believe that Scouting changes the lives of young people,’ he says, ‘so why should some be banned?’
The creation of the volunteer role of UK Youth Commissioner, to underpin Scouting’s commitment to being shaped by young people, is another of his most cherished achievements. ‘We got 120 applications for that role, didn’t feel able to appoint from the first shortlisting, had to do another trawl to uncover talent we’d missed first time round and now, in Hannah Kentish, we have found an outstanding leader,’ he says. Bulpitt believes, however, that overall, the senior leadership in Scouting is too male dominated. ‘I’ve been on a mission; one of our strategic objectives has been to change the make-up of our national team.’ How’s that going? ‘Slowly,’ he says, with some frustration. ‘In my team of 10, four are women, including a role-share.
In terms of gender, we are quite diverse. Our adult leaders are 50:50 men and women. I’m as close to being positively discriminating as I can, while always appointing the best person. I don’t entirely know the reason why it’s been so hard [to get parity]. Time demands on volunteers do become more intense as you take on more responsibility. My wife Julie has run our family while I’ve been away [on Scouting business] at weekends, and it may be that not many men are prepared to do that.’ On inclusivity, which it’s clear is one of his passions, Bulpitt also believes that Scouting is still ‘struggling to truly represent local society.’ ‘It’s complex,’ he says. ‘Leaders will say “anyone can join our Cub pack,” and they really mean it. But they’ll hold it in the church hall, or they’ll hold meetings in the pub.’ Anyone in a senior role needs an element of toughness: in an organisation dependent on motivating and inspiring 110,000 committed volunteers, certain decisions must be particularly sensitively handled. ‘I have dismissed volunteers. And encouraged people to do different roles. Even some quite key national volunteers,’ Bulpitt says. ‘And that runs counter to the orthodoxy of being nice to people.’ But it is also why he believes the role of UK Chief Commissioner has to be a voluntary one. ‘There are things I can say to volunteers, because I am one, that would be difficult or impossible to say if I was staff,’ he explains.
Getting to grips with governance isn’t exactly a thrill a minute for most people, but grappling with the intricacies of how organisations function – and fixing the bits that don’t – is a pursuit Bulpitt clearly relishes. If you can identify the mechanisms by which an organisation is run and grasp the detail of its rules, you begin to understand its levers and pressure points, he points out. And then, you can start to develop an effective strategy for change. What Bulpitt doesn’t explicitly say is that it also gives you power. And power is what he has undoubtedly sought over the years, in the service of reform he believes is crucial if Scouting is to continue to flourish. But he doesn’t hug power tightly, as becomes obvious over the next three hours. In a roomful of his peers including chair of trustees, Scouts new female Chair Dr Ann Limb, UK Youth Commissioner Hannah Kentish and CEO Matt Hyde, Bulpitt’s bouncingly Tiggerish enthusiasm gives way to a more analytical and reflective style. Mostly, he listens. Only occasionally does he interject with his own view. There’s a relaxed, collegiate feel in the room, despite some areas of mild disagreement. ‘I don’t operate a veto system,’ he told me earlier. ‘But I can be quite persuasive!’
In this more formal context, as in his work with volunteers, it seems that Bulpitt’s instincts are to reach out. ‘Personally, I always engage with people, in online chat rooms, forums, Facebook and Twitter,’ he told me earlier. ‘Everyone assumes you’re this anonymous person at HQ, but I have always waded in, contributed and responded to questions. I learned early that if you ring people up to talk to them it helps. And that, I think is the way we have brought about change in Scouting – by engaging with people personally. I’m at my most comfortable listening to different views, and then doing the negotiation and the haggling all the way through to a solution.’
His successor and current deputy, Tim Kidd, has been appointed to take over the UK Chief Commissioner role when Bulpitt leaves. The Scout Association’s aims for its future – for growth, inclusivity, community impact and to be Youth Shaped – all encompassed in its 2014-2018 strategy, Scouting for All, will thrive and succeed under Kidd, believes Bulpitt, ‘because we developed them bottom up, with plenty of local consultation and engagement.’ Scouting for All ‘reflects how we started,’ he continues, ‘with young people from vastly different backgrounds coming together to take responsibility for helping other people. It’s great that by holding onto our core values and adapting them to the 21st century, we’re continuing to increase the number of young people benefitting from what we offer them.’ What will life be like when Bulpitt finally relinquishes his role, the culmination of 15 years at senior level and almost a lifetime’s involvement in Scouting? Will he miss it? ‘No,’ he says definitively. ‘I get 250 emails a day, including at weekends. And on 3 September, it will all, just, stop.’ It won’t, of course. Bulpitt is off to chair the Diana Award trustee board, and will doubtless take on additional voluntary roles, as well as overseeing his business on Guernsey. But maybe he’ll break the habit of a lifetime and give himself a lie-in. Though he probably shouldn’t allow more than half an hour. There’s far too much to do to be lazing in any later than 5.30am.
Wayne will hand over to his successor, Tim Kidd, at the 90th Gilwell Reunion this weekend. Take a look at his final blog here.