Fencing Wish List: Governance

This is the second of four posts in which I’m expanding on the four areas I listed on my candidate info sheet, which I think are crucial for USA Fencing  to address:

These are not so much separate items, though, as different aspects of one gigantic puzzle. With the exception of the fourth item, which may well happen on its own as the other three are addressed (though I think there is much we can do deliberately in that direction as well), you make any major changes in one area and the others will be drastically affected.

So while I’m tackling each of these areas in separate posts, there will inevitably be some redundancy among them, because so much is so interrelated and interdependent.

Create and manage an appropriate and effective governance structure.

I hardly know where to start about USFA governance. The most frustrating aspect for me is the committee structure. As the current chair of the Tournament & Tournament Services (formerly just Tournament) Committee, an “additional principal committee” of the board, I’ve had a difficult time determining what my job is. There is no current written description of the Tournament Committee and its responsibilities. My predecessors in the position had served on the TC before they were appointed as chair, so they at least had some experience with the way the committee worked. I came in cold, knowing nothing except what I’d heard in random BC discussions at national tournaments while waiting for pools to come in. After I was appointed, I asked—clearly something I should have done before I accepted the appointment—what the TC’s top priorities should be. I was told that I would figure it out, just as my predecessors had.

So the past two-and-a-half years have been something of an adventure. I’d already known that the TC had far less to do with tournament site evaluation and selection than it used to, to the point that I know as little about which cities we’ll be going to next season as any other USFA member. (And believe me, I’ve asked—the TC still believes it can offer useful site selection advice, at the very least.) I’d known also that the TC worked with the High Performance Committee to create the event combinations for national tournaments based on the HPC’s determination of competitive development needs. But by the time I became TC chair, the HPC was long gone, and its eventual replacement, the National Team Oversight Committee (NTOC), was not functioning at the same level. It’s now gone entirely, and a Sports Performance and Development Task Force is at work on recommendations for replacing it.

Committee chairs have recently been asked to write charters for their committees for the board to review, but the committee problem is not simply the lack of written descriptions of committee functions. We are also missing guidance for the interaction among committees and between committees and the national office. To take just one example, there is no established process for creating the national tournament calendar for next season—nothing that says whose responsibility it is, who should be consulted, when it should be done, who needs to approve it, etc. The TC was asked to propose event combinations (the dates and cities are currently considered the responsibility of national events staff in the national office), but deadlocked after nearly six months of discussion. What’s so hard? Partly, it’s a matter of numbers—some events are too large to be combined with the same events we used to be able to combine them with, so we simply can’t fit all the events we used to fit into the 28 days of (non-SN) competition we have to work with. Partly, it’s the lack of guidance as to whose needs should take priority. Do the scheduling issues for international fencers in Division I trump the developmental needs of those who will become our international fencers in the next couple of quads or those vying for Veteran teams? How much should the needs of NCAA and other collegiate fencers be considered? What about combinations that are difficult to hire appropriate referees for, like Division I/Youth—how much weight should that be given? In the end, after seemingly endless but always civil discussion—none of us failed to see the legitimacy of any of the others’ views, we simply split on how all these various needs (among others) should be prioritized. (The 2013-2014 event combination puzzle has now been taken up by a board task force.)

I’ve thought for several years now that our current committee structure, created for what was essentially still an amateur organization, is outmoded. To stick with the tournament issues with which I am most familiar, tournament governance is fragmented among several committees: the TC for BC hiring/development and national tournaments (plus for handling eligibility and format issues with local and regional events); the ROC Committee for its regional events; the Youth Development Committee for SYCS, RYCs, and general youth policy; the Veterans Committee for the interests of 40-and-up fencers; the FOC for referee hiring and development, and rules; and the Tournament Oversight Committee, created originally to coordinate the ROC and Youth regional calendars, as well as other duties which are unclear (at least to me).

In recent years, this fragmentation has only become worse—when a problem arises, it’s much easier to create a short-lived task force to address that specific problem than to figure out where it should fit into the governance structure and whose ultimate responsibility it should be. What tends to happen is that the task force studies its assigned problem and issues a report back to the board, which may or may not act on its findings. When such action is taken, the odds are good that within a few months it will cause some other problem that will need to be solved—with yet another task force, perhaps.

Many of our problems cannot be solved by any one committee—half a dozen or more committees and several departments within the national office would need to coordinate data, needs, goals, and finances to develop a viable new tournament structure based on the competitive membership we have now instead of our demographics of 15 years ago. Since I’ve been its chair, the TC has introduced what are admittedly imperfect and incomplete proposals for restructuring our tournaments at all levels in hopes of sparking the serious discussion needed to develop that necessary new structure, but have barely drawn attention to the problems that need consideration within our whole association in order to solve.

But I forget—there’s now a Tournament Structure Task Force at work on the problem.

At least it’s a start.

Coming up: Rethinking our tournament structure.

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