Words that soft-pedal wrongdoing are just another form of corruption

I’m getting really sick of the euphemisms. ‘Governance issues’. ‘Best practice’. ‘Not up to the standard we expect’. These phrases all mean something in their own right. But they are routinely used for activities that would be much better described by other words: Words like ‘cheating’, ‘dishonesty’, ‘greed’, or ‘an overwhelming sense of entitlement’.

We use the euphemisms because we are wary of making accusations against people unless a court has first decided guilt or innocence. But using a euphemism like ‘governance issues’ to describe something much worse is itself a cover-up. It numbs us to the enormity of what is going on, and to the betrayal of trust.

And it allows people who have betrayed trust to adopt self-righteous poses, pretending to be martyrs to over-zealous scrutiny. As a result, people who in all reasonableness ought to be out on their ears end up in months of negotiations about severance packages.

I spent most of my working life, one way or another, in the community-and-voluntary sector. I came to know an immense number of people who were there because they wanted to do something good.

They spent entire careers doing honourable things. It’s why the euphemisms about other people’s behaviour make me sick.

There are people in Ireland who believe that if you work for a voluntary organisation, you should be a volunteer — in other words, you shouldn’t have a salary at all.

To them, the idea of anyone being paid a professional salary in return for a professional job is unacceptable. In their heads, the whole idea of salaries implies something wrong.

Most reasonable people know that that’s nonsense. When I ran a voluntary organisation, I always believed that one of the standards we had to apply — and be judged by — was that we tried hard to be a fair and decent employer.

But it wasn’t the only standard. Voluntary organisations, almost without exception, survive by using other people’s money. It might be taxpayers’ money, or it might be money contributed by individuals or organisation, or it might be a mix of both. Everyone who works in the voluntary-and-community sector owes a debt to someone else.

And the debt we owe is good governance. Good governance means that you have the structures and processes to ensure that your organisation achieves its objectives with integrity and is managed in an effective, efficient, accountable, and transparent way. That’s all.

It’s not best practice; it’s basic practice. It’s the least that anyone who contributes money to your organisation is entitled to expect. And the key word in that definition is integrity.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a charity, a trade union, an advocacy group, or a major sporting body. In all of them, good governance depends on integrity. In fact, it’s defined by integrity.

But that doesn’t mean that we can settle for a phrase like ‘governance issues’ to describe the absence of integrity. When integrity goes walkabout, the door is opened, and the welcome mat put out, for corruption.

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A few years ago, the organisation I led, Barnardos, was subjected to a searching internal audit, commissioned by Tusla and carried out by the HSE internal audit unit. I hated the process. It was an emotional roller coaster.

The audit team were critical about aspects of my salary. I wasn’t happy about it, but it goes with the territory. And the important thing, from my point of view, was that they suggested no wrongdoing whatsoever, at a time when the same team was uncovering all sorts of secret arrangements — top-ups and covert pension arrangements — in some other parts of our sector.

But more to the point, the internal audit declared its primary purpose satisfied and that all public funding of Barnardos during the period had been “correctly and fully accounted for”.

They went on to say: “In internal audit’s opinion, the board (of Barnardos) has established an appropriate system of internal control to ensure it meets its stewardship responsibilities. For example, the existence of over 45 policies demonstrated that Barnardos was focused on internal controls and it was evident that a lot of work had been undertaken in preparing these policies.”

We published that internal audit report at the time, warts and all, because we believed that people have a right to know. Voluntary organisations, because they depend on other people’s money, must work hard every day to earn the trust of the people who give them that money.

And that’s reasonably complicated. Some people want to be reassured that every penny donated will be spent on the cause. Other people, at the same time, need to know that the money is properly accounted for and wisely managed. You simply can’t achieve both of those objectives without having a management and administrative structure in place. It’s part of good governance. Actually, it’s part of basic governance.

I always felt lucky in Barnardos, because the team that ensured proper accountability and transparency was brilliant — honest to a fault, thoroughly efficient, and hard-headed enough to stand up to anyone.

And I think that is the case for the great majority of organisations in the voluntary and community sector. They believe in good governance, and they believe in the obligation to earn trust.

They work hard at accounting for what they get and in being transparent about their spending. They apply decent standards, and don’t hide behind gobbledegook.

That’s why it makes you sick when you read about organisations that live and die by the trust of their members and supporters, and yet go to extraordinary lengths to hide the truth from them.

If, for the sake of argument, I was claiming thousands of euro in unvouched expenses to have a better lifestyle than my salary could support, I would know in my heart that I was cheating.

If I was paying friends or relatives, who had never been hired by my organisation, to do non-existent jobs, I’d know I was defrauding my organisation.

If I was using my organisation’s credit cards to draw cash from their bank accounts, and no one knew or approved what I was spending it on, I’d know I was involved in embezzlement. If I was doing all those things and more, I wouldn’t be waiting for someone else to resign over ‘issues of governance’. I’d be hiding from the cops. Or I should be.

And yet issues of governance are all we hear about. Poor governance arises when the accounts aren’t properly kept, or are riddled with mistakes. It arises when organisations claim one thing and do another, or oversell their achievements.

But if there’s actual dishonesty in an organisation, or if they are run primarily to serve the vested interests of a few people, that’s not poor governance. They’re the hallmarks of corruption, and they deserve to be called out for what they are.

Using a euphemism like ‘governance issues’ to describe something worse is itself a cover-up

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