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
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
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
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
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
- 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
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
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
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
This is perhaps the most important 60 minutes in a Scout district
These tasks must occur in each breakout session:
- 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?
- They identify specific ways to help each unit upgrade its program
or improve its operation.
- 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
- 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
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
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:
- The Unit Commissioner must visit each assigned unit regularly
- The Unit Commissioner reports at the monthly District Commissioner
- The District Commissioner insures that help is provided where
- 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.