Random Further Thoughts

I’m still astounded and gratified by the response to my “Burning Bridges” post on Sunday. (With all the calls and emails I’ve been getting, it seems a lot longer ago that I posted it.) I’d thought there were only a few dozen of us who felt the way I did about USFA’s current situation. I can’t decide, though, whether it’s a good sign or a bad one that there are so many of us. If we are hundreds instead of dozens, you’d think it would be easier to make things better.

A few random thoughts prompted by responses I’ve received to my recent posts:

• When I first got involved with USFA, I didn’t much question the general culture—at least, within the fencing circles (BC, TC, the board) I frequented—of confidentiality and discretion. The longer I’ve been at it, though, the more I’ve come to wonder how much sense it really makes. The USFA is, after all, a tax-exempt nonprofit corporation subject to fairly substantial public disclosure requirements. I’m not sure how much this “discretion” is deliberately cultivated, partly due to fear of people misinterpreting works-in-progress or to discomfort with messy democracy, and how much is due to procrastination or preoccupation leading to late or non-existent announcements of meetings or discussions. This aversion to fully open discussion often leads to members or specific member subgroups feeling blindsided by policies that seem to appear suddenly out of nowhere. We would be better served in the long run by developing more habits of openness.

• If a tune stuck endlessly in your head is an earworm, what is an idea that keeps haunting your brain—a mindworm? That quest for the source of the “premature distribution” of the USOC audit report draft keeps nagging at me. A commenter who works in the Department of Defense says it makes her think of something she learned from working there:

In no case shall information be classified in order to:

  1. conceal violations of law, inefficiency, or administrative error;
  2. prevent embarrassment to a person, organization, or agency;
  3. restrain competition; or
  4. prevent or delay the release of information that does not require protection in the interest of the national security.

I’m pretty sure that our draft audit report has neither competitive nor national security implications, but both #1 and #2 seem potentially relevant. Perhaps I’m just dense, but I haven’t yet managed to think of legitimate reasons for its confidentiality, even in draft form.

• During my brief tenure as chair of what was then the ROC Advisory Group, I decided it would be good to know more about our target market for the ROC tournaments and asked the national office staff how many USFA competitive members had never fenced in a national tournament. That was pre-Railstation, when the database on the old AS/400 was, shall we say, limited. Other than comparing NAC and SN entry lists by hand with the membership list, there was no way to extract those numbers.

Now with Railstation, we’ve got a database we can actually query and use to help determine what we do: How many members fence only locally? Regionally? Nationally? How much crossover do we still have across which weapons? Which age-levels tend to fence up? Up how many levels? We’ve got the ability now to look at our demographics and tailor our competitive offerings to who our fencers are now instead of who they were 15 or more years ago. We could eventually even figure out how to build adapting to our demographics into our structure, how to make it the continuous process it should be.

• Other than this week’s posts and those about Summer Nationals, my most popular blog posts were the “Officials’ Cuisine” series from November 2010, when I posted photos of the lunches provided to tournament officials early in the season during which payment of honoraria, per diems, and out-of-pocket expenses were delayed until the following August. I am not often an angry person, but that weekend I was livid. Here was a group of individuals who, despite knowing that they would not be paid or even have their expenses covered for nearly a full year, still arranged vacation days from their real-world jobs and finagled their finances to carry the expenses they would incur (essentially granting the USFA several dozen small interest-free personal loans) for as much as a year, in order to travel to work long hours on concrete floors being yelled at by fencers and coaches and parents, because they were unwilling to let the fencers down. The lunches provided to officials that weekend spoke not just of a fundamental disrespect, but of an outright contempt for the volunteers who make USFA tournaments happen.

There was a big stink, of course, and eventually a promise of no more than one day of cold lunches during each future NAC. This season has been somewhat better: (Most) officials are paid their honoraria and per diems on the last day of each national tournament, though out-of-pocket expenses such as bag fees and ground transportation are paid later as funds become available. My last expense check, for example, came in late February and covered my out-of-pocket expenses for October through December.

(For those who are unfamiliar with USFA’s pay scales for officials, everybody gets a $20 per diem for each travel and work day, and an honorarium for each work day. The honoraria vary according to the category of the official: Referee honoraria range from $20 to $100 according to rating, BC staff uniformly get $75, armorers have their own pay scale, and I believe the trainers get an amount in the same general range, though it’s only a fraction of their normal professional compensation for such work. Nobody’s into officiating at national tournaments for the big bucks.)

For years I, along with other BC and FOC folk, have warned that we’re not developing and retaining enough officials to keep up with the growth in our entry numbers. (Even though we develop 4 or 5 new BC trainees each season, that’s only enough to keep up with the normal losses due to family and work obligations.) As soon as we start paying reliably again, we’re told, that problem will disappear, as though the money is the only motivator. Sure, the delayed payments are an issue, as are the often-brutal working conditions, but I’m convinced that morale is a huge factor in our volunteer attrition. There is a limit to the number of times most are willing to search for the cheapest available fare only to see it rise by $100, $200, or more, before it is approved by the national office for booking (I’m told this is also a problem for international referees), or to wonder why national office staff routinely get single rooms while volunteers must share, or to see the expenditures for meetings such as that Tournament Summit completely wasted. Even if the flights and rooms are value-in-kind or comped, those are still resources that could have been used to better effect. Eventually, some officials simply can’t stand to watch the continuing losses attributable to carelessness, inattention, or sloppy controls any longer, while others conclude—however erroneously—that the financial situation must not really be so bad after all.

My favorite stupid expense is a relatively small one from a couple of years ago, when the national office sent a carton of copier paper from Colorado Springs to wherever the tournament was that weekend; as I recall, the shipping charge was something like $246.

That’s demoralizing.

• Finally, I’d like to commend to you for your listening pleasure the monthly conference calls of the USFA board of directors. Those of us on the west coast have a major advantage because for us the calls begin at 6:00 pm and we’ve still got part of our evening left by the time they end, usually somewhere 9:00ish. But if you’ve got the stamina, these calls offer drama rather like that of an old episodic radio soap opera: long stretches of recapitulation of previous episodes leavened occasionally with melodramatic new developments. Consider a portion of last month’s call, when during the financial report, the Mssrs. Clements, Glon, Schiller, and I think Becker inquired into some of the expense line items. Somehow the questions moved into a discussion of the number of national office staff assigned to attend the Olympic Games in London—5, when we’ve rarely if ever sent any office staff at all to the Games—and why so many are to be sent when our financial situation is so dire. (The following is only a paraphrase; I did not record the call nor take stenographic notes.)

Mr. Glon: I would like, please, to know the names of the staff members who will be going to London and what function or job each one will perform.

Mr. Dilworth: Are you trying to micromanage me, Wes?

[Eruption of multiple voices, indecipherable.]

Mr. Dilworth: Hmm. I appear not to have that list on this computer.

[More voices.]

[Eventually] Ms. Weeks: All right, Mr. Dilworth will email a list of the staff members and their functions at the Games to the board by 9:00 am tomorrow morning.

[Discussion moves on.]

Usually sometime during the later stages of such calls, I start fantasizing about the coming attractions for the next month’s call. Imagine the radio announcer, a mellifluous baritone, or maybe William Conrad in his best Rocky and Bullwinkle voice:

“Don’t miss our next exciting episode! Will the inquisitors get the answers to their questions? Will the board receive copies of that mysterious list by 9:oo am? Will there be enough Olympic credentials for everyone who expects one? Who will do the regular jobs of the staff members going to London? Will the hidden boundary between micromanagement and due diligence ever be revealed? Tune in next month to find out!”

(Listening in on board calls can have weird effects.)

But now I’ve got a ton of TC work to catch up on, and SN’s creeping up on us sooner than I’m ready to think.

If you’re an eligible USFA voter, please perform your own due diligence and be sure to vote next week.

See you in Anaheim.

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7 comments on “Random Further Thoughts

  1. Mary, thanks. I once had this identical conversation about stove-piping information with Delia Turner, and neither one of us came up with a good answer. Often, the NO or the BoD would make some decision that I thought was ludicrous, only to find out (in side bar conversations with others) that it was the best of a series of bad choices as people tried to forge compromises among various groups. If I’d known the background before hand, I might have jumped to fewer conclusions.

    But now, I’m not sure what the reasons are for this lack of information and confusion. Everyone seems quick to point blame at someone, so perhaps information is being hidden simply to prevent premature finger pointing. But why? The facts are the facts, and in the case of something like the audit report, the numbers don’t change the longer you sit on them.

    Somewhere, the USFA has lost it’s way, despite the work of a number of capable and (I think) well meaning people. It’s easy to blame the current administration, but we’ve been having (and listening) to conversations like this for years. The difference now is that there are more mistakes, with more money involved, and even — yes — more good opportunities lost.

    It’s disturbing, but perhaps we’re finally seeing enough awareness and irritation to effect a change.

    Allen Evans

  2. I have three points to comment on:

    First, your change of mind about secrecy and confidentiality is both welcome and wonderful. Its not too often that you see someone in our organization willing to reconsider even the most trivial of matters, much less a fundamental guiding principle. People in this organization have to move beyond our individual silos and in order for that to happen, access to critical information is key.

    Second, and this is perhaps even more important, and a caveat to anyone else who might be reading this: don’t assume that because someone in the current election is an incumbent that they have been part of the problems, and don’t assume that someone who is a non-incumbent is automatically the answer. A number of the folks who are running against incumbents have long histories with our association, and, especially with regard to the secrecy and information-hoarding.

    Third, and this is a very minor point, but I’d be REALLY surprised if Railstation allowed the kind of queries you ask. All of the real data about who is competing at a non-NAC leve is in askFRED, unless our friends at Railstation have figured out how to write JSON queries recently and are importing FRED data – and given the kludgieness of their UI, I’d not be willing to put too much money on it. Of course, open access and sharing of data between National Office databases and FRED was the subject of 2? 3? different BOD resolutions 4? 5? years ago, and has yet to happen…

    • David, Tanya’s been able to pull up answers for all the questions I’ve asked so far–fairly simple stuff compared to what we ought to be asking, probably, but there’s quite a bit available right now just for the asking.
      And I know for a fact that both Peet and the RS developers are ready to make FRED and RS communicate directly, so I’m as much mystified by that holdup as you are.

  3. Mary – I could not agree more with the entire post.
    Personally I gave up on reconciliation of personal expenses, as return emails do not match, paperwork gets lost, etc, etc, etc. I keep promising myself that from the next event on – I will become more vigilant, and guess self discipline is not my forte. IMHO – the National Office is simply understaffed to deal with such deluge of paperwork,
    Definitely – it is the beauty of the sport that keeps the officials going, I fail to see any other reason. Thanks so much for your ability to crystallize the opinions of many.
    See you in Anaheim.

  4. Pingback: Staff members going to London?

  5. One major frustration I’ve had is that I’d really like to push and develop the ROC system. Sure, I’ve got some ideas about directions it could go and ways it could be developed, but what I really want to do is to start some discussions, get input, and develop the process in a cohesive, organized fashion. But, unless you’re a committee CHAIR these days, you don’t have a lot of room to work. And what I keep getting back is, “Well, unless you can present a cohesive idea, there’s really not any reason for it to be pushed.” No single person, however good minded, and however inclusive is going to be able to pull together something as broad and encompassing as the ROC. It needs input – REAL input, with true back and forth, compromise and hammering out – from a broad array of people. Identifying the people to do it is not the hard part. But getting them to commit to develop a product without some assurance that its not going to be circle-filed? A lot more difficult.

  6. Pingback: Volunteer Frustration with USA Fencing Mounts | Fencing Gear 365

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